Project at Geraki
STA DONDAKIA: THE
ANCIENT ACROPOLIS OF GERAKI
In the summer, you may see several of your fellow Gerakites wearing a white T-shirt with on the front the three circular motifs of the kind also depicted here (see photo 1). Perhaps you wonder what these are! The T-shirts were made by the Dutch archaeologists who began investigating the ancient acropolis at Ta Dondakia (photo 11) in 1995 and handed out to those who have participated in the excavations. Let us take the opportunity to explain here what these circular motifs are and tell you something more about the results of our investigations at Ta Dondakia during the past years.
The design on the T-shirt consists of three circular motifs that were stamped onto numerous pieces of clay that were found during the excavations at Ta Dondakia in 1997 and 1999-2001 (photo 2). The pieces of clay were found in two ancient storerooms and had fallen in and around several large clay storage jars or ‘laines’. Most of these laines were broken and empty, but one of them still contained lots of fava beans (of a kind, ‘lathouri’, not eaten anymore today), as well as some lentils. The reason that the peas and the pieces of clay have been preserved is that the storerooms were destroyed in antiquity by a fierce fire. Had they not been accidentally burnt and hardened this way, the fragile pulses and clay fragments would surely have decomposed and we would have found little trace of them.
Study of the clay fragments showed that before breaking and being fired in the destruction, many of them had been wrapped around the mouths of the storage vessels. It seems that the inhabitants of the ancient settlement at the acropolis tried to preserve the pulses in the storage vessels by hermetically sealing them. The sealing was done by covering the mouth of the laina with a piece of bamboo matting or cloth and then putting a layer of clay around it. On the interior of the clay fragments one can still see the impressions of the rim of the laines, the reeds of the matting and, in one instance, of a piece of fine linen (photos 3 and 4)! As several people in the village have told us, the practice of closing off storage vessels with clay or dung was quite common in Geraki, until, of course, it was made unnecessary by the introduction of refrigerators and plastic containers.
What is special about the clay sealing fragments from Ta Dondakia is their great age. The storage rooms in which the clay sealings were found are more than 4000 years old and date to ca. 2300 B.C. This tells us that there was a permanent, well-established farming community at Geraki at an early period of Greece’s history. Also, it is of great interest that the vessels were not just sealed but also marked by stamping the wet clay with seals of different designs. Why was this? Seal impressions akin to those from Geraki have also been found at several other sites of the 3rd millennium B.C. on the Greek mainland (Lerna), the Aegean islands and on Crete. Various scholars have written about this question and their conclusion is that the contents of storage vessels were sealed and marked in this way so nobody could secretly open them, remove part of the contents, and re-seal them. (Unless somebody was clever enough to forge the seals and re-stamp the vessels, but, as one can see from the illustration, the designs were quite complex and not easy to duplicate.) In other words, the decorative seal designs marked possession and prevented uncontrolled and unauthorised opening of the vessels. There seems little reason to take such precautions in one’s own house and it is therefore believed that storerooms of this kind did not belong to common households, but were part of the residences of local chiefs or ‘basileis’. These would levy part of the agricultural produce of the rest of the villagers as ‘tax’, store the goods in their storerooms and seal the containers ‘officially’ with stamps with special designs, making sure that nobody would open them without their permission. Thus, long before there was money and writing some kind of administrative system was developed by which the local chief could keep track.
To us this makes it clear that already in the 3rd millennium B.C. Geraki constituted an important and thriving community with ‘tax paying’ inhabitants and a well-established local leadership. Since the sealing system that was used is so similar to that in other centres of Greece, there must have been regular contact and exchange with the rest of Aegean , showing that Geraki was truly part of the wider Aegean world. It has also become clear, however, that this contact was not always friendly. During our excavations we have uncovered a stretch of fortification wall, built of large stones that surrounded the summit of the acropolis. Apparently, the inhabitants of Ta Dondakia felt threatened and tried to protect their wealth and possessions by erecting this large wall. In the end, however, they do not seem to have been able to keep the enemy out. As we said before, their settlement was burnt by a fierce fire after which the storerooms were left in ruins, perhaps because the inhabitants were (temporarily) chased away.
So far, we have only uncovered small part of the early storerooms and know little about the rest of the 3rd millennium buildings that surely must have been there. Our work is made difficult because the early buildings are partially buried beneath houses of later periods, so we have to excavate very carefully (as we know now, occupation at Ta Dondakia continued into the 1st century B.C.). Next year, we hope to excavate again and to enjoy once more the hospitality and company of all our friends in Geraki. We hope to continue to unravel the long and interesting history of the village and invite you all to visit us and see with your own eyes the fortification wall and storerooms of early Geraki!
Van Reigersbergenstraat 25-3, 1052 SM Amsterdam
Room of Hellenistic period (2nd/1st century BC) with part of storage vessel (laina) and round stone
Some coins from the Hellenistic settlement on the acropolis
Removal of clay vessel from behind acropolis wall
Overview of the West part of the excavation, Hellenistic houses (2nd/1st century BC)
Clay vessel from Early Helladic II storage room (ca. 2300 BC)
Two small clay bowls from Early Helladic II storage room (ca. 2300 BC)
Aerial view of the excavations on the summit of the acropolis
Dutch Archaeological Fieldwork
Project at Geraki
As early as the second century AD the beautiful village
of Geraki was very popular among travellers. At that time the famous Greek
traveller and writer Pausanias visited Geronthrae, as Geraki was called in
antiquity, and witnessed its fine architecture. Although the buildings Pausanias
described are now gone, Geraki has not lost its appeal, for the summer of 1998
will be the members of the Dutch
archaeological fieldwork project will be working there. Most of Geraki's
inhabitants probably have already become acquainted with our team during the
past three years. Nevertheless, we would like to seize this opportunity to
officially introduce ourselves and explain what kind of research we are doing at
Geraki and for what reason.
The aim of classical archaeology is to reconstruct society in antiquity in all its aspects. The principal method for doing this is excavation. The finds resulting from excavation tell us a lot about what happened at a site, for what purpose it was used, in what period it was occupied, etc. And we are not only interested in monumental architecture or gold treasures; objects like roof tiles or plain pottery also provide us with a lot of information. The director of our project is Professor Johan Crouwel, who makes all the arrangements for our work. The three other professional archaeologists, who return to Geraki every year, are Mieke Prent, Stewart MacVeagh Thorne and Els Hom. They all come from the University of Amsterdam, except for Stewart, who lives partly in Athens and partly in Boston in the United States. Each year a group of students is selected to come along. Some of them have worked in Geraki for two seasons already and will return this summer. Other students came along once and then made way for new students to work with us in the following season.
Besides archaeologists, our team consists of specialists from other universities and disciplines. For example, during the past two seasons we were joined by an archaeologist from Nijmegen, who studied the spolia in the Byzantine churches of Geraki. Last year Els' sister Ans, a professional teacher of art, joined us to draw the finds for publication. She will he working with us again this summer.
Before giving a more detailed account of our work at Geraki, something should be said about the motives for starting the project. There are a number of sources which suggested that Geraki was occupied in antiquity. The first source is the acropolis itself, because it dominates the large plain around the village. In antiquity people used to live on hills, mainly because settlements on hills were easier to defend than those in plains. The wall around the top of the acropolis is supports this suggestion.
The Byzantine churches in and around Geraki also provide a lot of information about classical antiquity. These churches were built partly of ancient architectural blocks. Some of these fragments originally belonged to ancient monumental buildings. Perhaps even to an ancient Greek temple.
A striking example of this reuse of ancient building material is the south wall of the Agios Ioannis Chrysostome. The three marble blocks forming the doorway contain an important Roman inscription from the fourth century AD. The same inscription - a Prize Edict of emperor Diocletian - was found all over the Roman Empire in the more important towns. The fact that this inscription has been discovered in Geraki indicates that it must have been a place of importance during the later Roman period. In addition to material sources, there are also written ones, which refer to occupation in Geraki in antiquity. Pausanias was the first to describe ancient Geronthrae in chapter 22 of book 111 of his book. According to Pausanias there were two temples in Geronthrae. One belonged to Ares, the god of war; it has been located at a spot called "Metropolis", a few hundred metres southwest of the village. The second temple Pausanias described belonged to Apollo and was situated on the acropolis. He also mentioned the ivory head of a statue of the god.
By the beginning of this century the British archaeologist Alan Wace took a special interest in Pausanias' testimony of Geraki and started digging a few test-trenches on the acropolis in 1905. Wace found many interesting objects, but the one thing he wanted to discover most of all, the sanctuary of Apollo, was not found and he left Geraki after a few weeks.
The finds recorded by Wace date from the Early Bronze Age (3000-2000 BC) to the middle Ages. Among these were graves, fragments of sculptures, inscriptions, but also the capital of a column, which probably belonged to a temple. A curious detail is that nowadays it is impossible to locate the exact spots where he excavated. He indicated his trenches quite precisely on a map in his diary, but used trees as fixed points, logically assuming trees would not disappear in a short period of time. Unfortunately these trees have been cut down some time between 1905 and now, which leaves the map impossible to understand.
These material and written sources led to the start of the Dutch project in 1995. With its work it aims to reveil more of Geraki's secrets. The results will be of interest not only for our knowledge of Geraki's history, but for that of entire Laconia as well. During the first two campaigns of the Geraki project, in 1995 and 1996, the fields on and around the acropolis have been surveyed. This was done by intensive exploration of the surface of the fields. It was surprising how many ancient objects were found. Every day a large number of finds were brought to the apothiki, which was based in the house of the Pandazi family in 1995 and in Giorgos Fratis' house the two following seasons, to be washed, inventoried and examined. Finally, they were stored in the Archaeological Museum of Sparta. The results of the two surveys confirmed the theory that Geraki had been occupied during a long period in antiquity; from the Early Bronze Age to the middle Ages. Among the objects found were some marble fragments of sculptures, a small Roman statue, made of bronze, miniature pots, which the Greeks used to offer to the gods and large numbers of potsherds and roof tiles. Many artefacts, made of stone and obsidian (a volcanic glass from the Cycladic island of Melos) dating from the Early and Middle Bronze Age, were found in the entire surveyed area as well.
On the basis of the results of the two survey seasons, a number of fields were selected for test excavation. The excavation of the selected fields took place during the summer of 1997 and lasted five weeks. The work was carried out with the indispensable help of workmen from Geraki and Aphyssou. The test excavation concentrated on a number of spots both on top of the acropolis and on its slopes, with the aim to find out what part would be most interesting to excavate on a larger scale in the future. The results were very promising, especially on the top of the acropolis. As said before the acropolis was occupied as early as the third millennium BC. Around 2500 BC the entire acropolis seems to have been destroyed by fire and abandoned. This is visible by a layer of burned earth, which was recorded in all the excavated trenches on the top of the acropolis. Especially interesting was a building in the northeast part of the acropolis, dating from this period. It probably had an administrative function, because of the finding of a number of seal impressions, and burnt down completely during the fire.
After the destruction the acropolis was inhabited again. Objects of nearly all intermediary periods were found. Among these were a number of tile-graves, probably dating from the Hellenistic period and spread over the entire acropolis. The most spectacular finds were the coins, which all of the workmen and us will remember. The 54 coins were buried in a small bowl and were made of bronze and.silver, showing the images of Alexander the Great and some of his successors. Some coins also carry the image of the goddess Athena and were minted in Athens. The coins date from the early Hellenistic period, probably from the third century BC. The finds resulting from the excavation were stored in the museum in Sparta as well. This summer we will be in Geraki again. This time, however, we will not be working on the acropolis, but in the apothiki only. There, the finds from the past three campaigns will be studied in greater detail and preparations for publication will be made. The past three campaigns have been very successful in all respects. The information gathered so far is of great value for our knowledge of Geraki and Laconia as a whole. Hopefully, excavation can be continued in the future. The project has been successful in other ways as well. It has been a pleasure to work in Geraki for all the members of the project and we are all looking forward to going there again in June. The weather is beautiful, the environment is breath-taking and the population is friendly, hospitable and helpful. What more could a Dutch archaeologist possibly wish for?