What was considered the dark age

Light on a dark century

The 12th century BC was considered by experts to be the beginning of the "dark centuries" of Greece. After a period of sustained high civilization, it came around 1200 BC. For reasons that have not yet been adequately clarified, it led to a deep historical turning point: palaces were destroyed, cities were abandoned by their inhabitants, trade contacts broke up, political structures fell apart. The latest excavations by the Institute for Prehistory and Protohistory at Heidelberg University in Tiryns, Greece, a former center of power, show a surprisingly different picture. The archaeological findings suggest that the 12th century BC At least temporarily to a stabilization of the political situation under the rule of Tiryns. Joseph Maran describes and interprets the new discoveries that shed light on a dark century.

Among the outstanding monuments of the Bronze Age in Greece are the cantilevered vaulted galleries of the fortification of Tyrins. The picture shows the corridor of the east gallery.

The story of the discovery of the Mycenaean high culture of the 2nd millennium BC BC is at the same time a story of the beginnings of archeology in Greece. The name of Heinrich Schliemann is inextricably linked with the beginning of research into this age. In the seventies and eighties of the 19th century, the search for the locations of the Homeric epics led him not only to Troy, but also to Mycenae and Tiryns in the Argolis and to Orchomenos in Boeotia, where he found palaces and monumental tombs of a hitherto unknown and since then found a culture designated as Mycenaean.

Around 125 years have passed since Schliemann's pioneering research, and a look at the knowledge gained during this period makes it clear that the entire system of reference for the scientific discussion of the Mycenaean epoch has fundamentally changed since then. Schliemann and with him the first generations of researchers working in places like Mycenae, Orchomenos and Tiryns used the Iliad and Odyssey as a guide for their investigations and assessed the legacies that came to light from the perspective of the tradition of these epics.

The plan of the Acropolis of Tiryns shows the most important structures of the late palace period and the excavations to date.

Today, however, thanks to the results of archaeological research and especially thanks to the deciphering of the script called Linear B, which was used to write an early form of Greek, we are able to understand this culture from contemporary sources. The Linear B sources show us that Mycenaean Greece was in the 13th century BC. Was divided into empires, which were ruled by palaces. At the head of the social hierarchy of these empires was a powerful ruler who held the title wanax and who combined political and religious powers. The palaces exercised strong control over certain industries such as metallurgy, textile and oil production, and the localities in the empire were subject to taxes on the palace.

Tiryns Castle stands on a low rock. The city stretched around him. In 1999 the place was added to the list of world cultural heritage by UNESCO.

The interpretative power of the Homeric epics for the Mycenaean period was finally broken by the evaluation of the Linear B sources at the latest. Already the comparison of the strong ruler personality of the Mycenaean wanax with the basileus, the king of the Homeric epics, whose political position was based on the consensus of the elites of the community, shows that Homer primarily relied on his own when describing the political situation Related time.

Numerous frescoes adorned the palace of Tiryns (13th century BC)

The Acropolis of Tiryns, not far from the Bay of Nafplion, rises on a narrow and low rocky ridge from the Argive Plain. During the 14th and 13th centuries v. The rock was fortified with a mighty wall, which, because of its huge stone format, was referred to as the work of supernatural beings, the Cyclopes, in later ancient tradition. Parts of the fortification remained visible over the millennia and ensured that, in contrast to Troy, for example, there was never any doubt as to the identification of Tiryn, which Homer described as "well-fortified". The plateau of the castle rock slopes from south to north, and this topographical feature was used in the Mycenaean period to create an upper castle, middle castle and lower castle.

Numerous frescoes adorned the palace of Tiryns (13th century BC)

The comparison with other contemporaneous centers shows that this symbolized the social hierarchy, because the center of power was always on a topographically particularly exposed point; in Tiryns in the palace on the upper castle.

An outlying settlement called the City of Tiryns stretched around the rock on all sides. It is not yet known whether there were additional port facilities such as quay walls or breakwaters, but it can be assumed that part of the importance of the place was based on its function as a gateway of sea trade for the Argolida landscape.

The Tiryns Palace, uncovered by Schliemann and Wilhelm Dörpfeld in 1884 and 1885, embodies what is probably the best example of a Mycenaean royal seat to this day. It was magnificently decorated with frescoes and, like most of the other palaces of the same period, was dominated by a large, central building, which was preceded by an extensive courtyard with a portico. Dörpfeld identified this central building with the structure referred to in the Odyssey as "Megaron", an expression that we still use today for buildings with such a floor plan, although it is very unlikely that Homer's description referred to it.

In the 12th century BC A narrow structure with a similar floor plan was erected in the ruins of the Great Megaron. By integrating the former throne into the new building, a new representative building was created.
The interior of one of the around 1150 BC. The houses destroyed by fire were formerly divided by rows of wooden pillars with a stone base. The entrance opened onto the courtyard, which was bordered by another building. A narrow alley connected the property with other parts of the settlement.

The large megaron had a vestibule, an anteroom and a main room in which there was a throne and a central, circular ceremonial hearth surrounded by four columns. Exactly as an extension of the central axis of the megaron was a round altar in the courtyard, on which ritual acts must have been carried out as well as on the hearth in the throne room.

The palace discovered by Schliemann and Dörpfeld was part of an extensive building program that began around 1250 BC. Was put into practice. During this time, other of the architectural highlights that still characterize Tiryns were built, for example the so-called galleries with their pointed vaults, the heavily fortified west staircase and the two fountain passages in the lower castle. Very similar construction projects were carried out almost at the same time in Mycenae, only 15 kilometers away as the crow flies; However, since the political relationship between the two places is unknown at this time, it is difficult to interpret the building processes taking place in parallel.

Either it was a question of the competitive behavior of two places under the rule of different kings, or one and the same strong ruler was responsible for the measures and, similar to the palaces of the European Middle Ages, designed palace centers in two different areas of the Argolis according to their ideas.

Already 50 years after the ambitious building project, namely around 1200 BC. BC, Tiryns and the other Mycenaean palaces fell victim to fires, which today are mostly considered to be triggered by earthquakes. However, the simultaneous fall of the Hittite Empire of Asia Minor and the destruction of cities in Cyprus and the Levant show that the events in Greece were part of a much larger political turmoil.

In the rubble of the buildings of a settlement that dates back to 1150 BC. When it was destroyed in the 3rd century BC, vessels were found that indicate contacts between the inhabitants and Crete and Cyprus.

But what happened in centers like Tiryns after their extensive destruction? It is undisputed that with the strong kingship and its administrative apparatus, the knowledge of writing and the monumental architecture disappeared and the handicrafts suffered a severe setback. However, there is still uncertainty about the depth of the historical turning point. Did the former palace centers sink into "Dark Ages" that lasted into the Geometric Period (8th century BC) and brought about a break in trade contacts and perhaps even a return to egalitarian social structures? Or are there any indications of political reorganization and attempts to restore central power?

In fact, until long after the Second World War, it was believed that in the post-palace period, that is, in the period between 1200 and 1050 BC. BC, a dark age fell over Tiryns, in which the Acropolis was abandoned and the city was partly abandoned by its inhabitants. For the palace area on the upper castle, the research opinion was based on a long settlement interruption between the fire of the palace and the Iron Age until recently. A narrow megaron erected in the eastern part of the ruins of the large megaron, which Schliemann and Dörpfeld had uncovered, was considered a temple of the 8th or 7th century. v. The lower castle was seen as a kind of refuge to protect the population in times of war.

In the decades since the resumption of excavations in Tiryns in the 1960s, however, the assessment of the Acropolis has changed radically in the period after the palace was destroyed. In the case of the lower castle, it could be shown that it was by no means used as a refuge, but on the contrary had dense buildings both before and after the palace was destroyed and was integrated into higher-level architectural concepts.

The extensive uncovering of settlement remains from the post-palace period by Klaus Kilian was particularly revealing. The well-ordered character of the settlement prompted Kilian to plead for a reassessment of the social and political conditions in the last two centuries of Mycenaean culture.

In this context, Kilian considered that the narrow megaron in the Great Megaron could have been a post-palatial representative building that had been integrated into the ruins of the Great Megaron in order to reuse the throne in the new building. More than 100 years after the building was found, however, it seemed that this opinion could neither be proven nor refuted.

In recent years, excavations carried out by the Institute for Prehistory and Protohistory at the University of Heidelberg on behalf of the German Archaeological Institute in Tiryns have led to the new image of the 12th century. v. Contributed. In 1998 follow-up examinations in the Great Megaron surprisingly found pits of wooden posts that must have belonged to the enigmatic narrow Megaron. Charcoal from these pits resulted in a C14 dating by Bernd Kromer from the Archaeometry Research Center of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences, which supports Kilian's assumption that it was a Mycenaean building.

The excavations in Tiryns-Stadt produced walls from five successive settlement phases of the 12th century. v. BC to the surface.

Obviously there was a line of continuity connecting the time before and after the catastrophe in the center of Mycenaean power on the upper castle. The reclamation of the Great Megaron's property and the reference to this building suggest that a segment of society was trying to restore parts of the old social order.

However, these restorative efforts only affected very specific parts of the upper castle with particularly high political symbolism. It is significant that, apart from the megaron, the altar in the Great Court was also reused. The main part of the former palace area, however, was not rebuilt, and the narrow megaron must have risen relatively isolated in the middle of the partially removed and leveled ruins of the palace.

We know today that in the 12th century BC BC found a well-ordered settlement in the lower castle and that there was a building on the upper castle that testifies to the continued existence of the remains of a central power. Even the little knowledge about the city of Tiryns, which extends at the foot of the castle rock, makes it necessary to revise earlier notions of a blatant setback after the palace was destroyed.

The excavations so far have shown that the outlying settlement in the 12th century BC. BC had a particularly large extent. Kilian led this to a population growth as a result of an influx of refugees following the turmoil around 1200 BC. BC, and he even assumed that the settlement was rebuilt according to plan and with a fixed network of roads after the palace was destroyed.

In the northwest of the urban area, he placed three overlapping building horizons from the period between approx. 1200 and 1150 BC. Chr., Whose buildings were grouped around a courtyard. The oldest of these building horizons was in the early 12th century BC. BC was founded on river deposits from 1.20 to 1.50 meters in thickness. Kilian could only investigate what follows below in a deep excavation.

It turned out that under the river sediments there was a settlement layer with ceramics from the early 13th century. v. BC, that is, the palace period. This finding was decisive for the thesis put forward by Eberhard Zangger, according to which a river was around 1200 BC. Suddenly large parts of Tiryns were flooded and settlement remains of the 13th century. buried under mighty deposits. After this disaster, the Kofini dam was raised in the upper reaches of the river and the river was diverted far past Tiryns, which spared Tiryns from such disasters in the period that followed.

About 130 meters east of the excavation area of ​​Kilian, which for the first time provided indications of the existence of this alleged catastrophe, excavations carried out in 1999 and 2000 in cooperation with the Greek Antiquities Service provided new insights into the character of the city of the post-palace period.

A few kilometers east of Tiryns is the Kofini dam. The bed of a river flowing to Tiryns was closed with an earth dam where several source streams converged and the river was diverted by a new bed.

The findings we encountered are similar to those in Kilian's excavation in the north-western part of the city. Not only did the structure and orientation of the groups of buildings preserved in their foundations correspond to those of the houses in the north-west of the city, but at the end of the excavation we reached the upper edge of the river deposits, and again there were houses from the early 12th century. v. BC, that is, the time after the destruction of the palace, was built directly on them.

The first settlement phase followed until around 1100 BC. At least four more, with which a quick succession of settlements can be established. At the latest from the second settlement phase, around 1150 BC. BC is closed by an extensive fire, the architectural arrangement already known from other excavation areas appears in the area with the buildings arranged around a courtyard.

To the west of such a courtyard was bordered by a house that is one of the largest known from the post-palace period and stands out from the circle of contemporary buildings through the use of several rows of columns. The extensive range of finds from the destruction layer of the house and its surroundings includes objects that suggest relationships with Crete and Cyprus and that prove that international trade in the port of Tiryns did not come to a standstill with the fall of the palace, but was continued by certain social groups has been.

Our excavation results confirm that in the early 12th century BC In the north of the castle, an area that had previously been flooded by a river was built over. It seems to me to be doubtful whether this river flood was really, in the sense of Zangger, a sudden, catastrophic event. According to the excavation findings in Tiryns City northwest and northeast, it is just as possible that a river has existed since about the middle of the 13th century. v. BC flowed by north of Tiryns for several decades and deposited the sediments on both sides of its course.

Such periodic floods may well, and here I agree with Zangger, have given rise to the construction of the Kofini dam. In addition to protection against flooding, the desire to gain new building land in the urban area as a trigger for the drastic step should be considered.

The construction of the dam may have been another of those impressive architectural and engineering achievements made in Tiryns between circa 1250 and 1200 BC. Were accomplished.If this point of view applies, the plans for the redesign of the urban area were only implemented after the fall of the palace.

Due to the evidence of a simultaneous start of construction activity in the areas excavated to the north of the Acropolis of Tiryns and in view of the very similar orientation of the buildings in the areas of this zone explored so far, Kilian's opinion that the settlement of the 12th century v. Was built according to plan, in probability. The reasons for the expansion of the outlying settlements are, however, not only to be found in population growth, but rather in a profound change in the structure of the settlement.

When the driving force behind the development of the urban area in the early 12th century BC A new upper class is to be assumed, for whom the Acropolis was ruled out as a settlement area and which, freed from the constraints of strict palace control, claimed new areas in the vicinity of the castle.

The archaeological findings uncovered in Tiryns in the last decades question the term "dark centuries" at least for the period after the destruction of the palaces and suggest that the 12th century BC was in question. At least in the Argolida temporarily led to a stabilization of the political situation at a lower level.

The particular size of the city of Tiryns in the post-palace period should not only reflect local structural changes, but also shifts in the power structure of the Argolis. The fact is that nowhere in Greece is there after the disaster horizon around 1200 BC. There are comparable indications for efforts to restore central power as on the upper castle of Tiryns, or, in other words, neither in Mycenae nor in any other former palace happened, which we can observe in Tiryns: the rebuilding of the central megaron including the throne room . This period in the history of the Argolida could have been under the dominance of Tiryns.

Prof. Dr. Joseph Maran,
Institute for Prehistory and Protohistory,
Marstallhof 4, 69 117 Heidelberg,
Telephone (06221) 542540, Fax (06221) 542526,
e-mail: [email protected]