Pellana Administrative Centre of Prehistoric Laconia

Theodoros G. Spyropoulos

Today Pellana is a small, humble village in northern Laconia, some 30 km from Sparta half way along the ancient road from Sparta to Megalopolis.  To the S and W the site is dominated by the spectacular barrier of Mr. Taygetos, to the E it is open to a fertile and hollow plain, well watered and irrigated by a chain of copious springs, the most famous of which, named Pellanis, is located at the site of Pellana, just to the S of the ancient acropolis, which lies to the E of the hill occupied by the modern village.

The strategic position of the site, controlling the passage from Laconia to the Megalopolitis and Messenia, was recognised by the Spartans, who built there a tower, called Charakoma, the ruins of which are located to the S of the village.  Pausanias, who made only one excursion towards Northern Laconia, after mentioning the tomb of Ladas, a renowned Olympic victor, notes ‘ΠροιόντιδέωςέπίτηνΜελλάνανχαράκομαέστινόωομαζόμενονκαιμετάτούτοΠελλάνα, πόλιςτοάρχαίον’ (iii 21 2)

The passage through Pellana was safely guarded by the Spartans during the critical events which preceded the famous battle at Mantinea in 362 BC, and the site was used as the base of operations by King Agesilaos against Epameinondas.  Xenophon calls the town Πελλήνη(Hell. Vii 5 9), though the geographer Strabo speaks of a small Laconian village named, τάΠέλλαναπροςτηνΜεγαλοπολίτιννέυον, i.e. lying towards Megalopolitis (viii 7.5).

Finally Plutarch calls the town Πελλήνη (Agis 8).  The identification of the hill called Palaiokastro with the ancient site and the acropolis of Pellana, is strengthened by the remains of a circuit wall, which surrounds the hill; parts of this wall are now visible on the SE side of the hill, and they are datable to fourth or early third century BC.  The fields on and around Palaiokastro are covered today with innumerable shreds, dating from EH to Mediaeval times.  The same hill was also inhabited in the Mycenaean period, as we shall see below.

The gradual decline of the site has been well portrayed by the references of the ancient writers mentioned above.  The last to consider it worthwhile visiting the place was Pausanias, after the middle of the second century AD, who devoted some paragraphs to it recallings its earlier fame rather than stressing its contemporary importance.  I refer to two passages in his text.  The first refers to the sanctuary of Asklepios and the spring Pellanis.

The site of the spring is well – known, although it was encased some forty years ago in concrete, the beautiful plane trees were cut down, and many ancient finds were removed or destroyed during the construction of irrigation channels for the fields.  The site of the sanctuary is still unknown, but we may assume that it lies somewhere on the hill of Palaiokastro.  This assumption is based of the following reason.  The Asklepieion was the main, if not the only sanctuary at Pellana, and it seems reasonable to look for it in the area of the Mycenaean palace, which is supposed to lie on the acropolis.

H. Waterhouse and R. Hope Simpson, in their important study of Prehistoric Laconia (1961: 125ff.), note three places with Mycenaean finds in the area of Pellana.  The first is the cemetery of tholos tombs, the second the plateau of Tryporrachi, 400 m to the E, where some Mycenaean chamber tombs are still visible, and the third place is the hill of Palaiokastro itself.  The first excavation at Pellana were conducted by the Ephor Konstantinos Rhomaios and immediately after him by Ephor Theodoros Karachalios in 1926.  At the site called Spelies (Caves) or Pelekete they cleared two chamber tombs, lying on the N bed of a torrent, which flows in front of the entrances to the tombs.

The first was almost empty (FIG. 2.4), except for some shreds of Mycenaean vases, the second was filled with rubble and contained four cist graves cut in the floor of the chamber.  The graves had been plundered long before their excavation and contained only disordered skeletal remains, though some of the offerings were found dispersed around the floor.

The last as described by the excavator (see A. Delt. 10 (1926) par. 42) were mainly vases and fragments of vases, a female figurine, one sealstone of amber (with its device effaced), another seal of semi-precious stone (without and device) 25 small and round glass-beads of violet colour, several stone buttons of different colours and some other beads of various materials and colours.  The tomb measures: diameter of the tholos 6 m, height of the tholos 5 m, length of the entrance-message (dromos) 4.50 m, depth of the dromos 2.50 m and the height of the stomion (entrance) 2.50 m.  The tomb has a relieving triangle over its stomion.

Research into prehistoric Pellana was halted and only after 60 years was reopened by the author of this article (FIGS. 2.1-3).  Our first excavation took place in the area of the Cemetery of the Tholos Tombs.  Our trail trenches brought to light three rock-cut tholos tombs.  The biggest lies in the middle, the other two are placed either side.  All of them were found plundered and disturbed in ancient times, their roofs had collapsed and the two lateral tombs were found hardly damaged.  The central one – the biggest in the whole cemetery – deserves special mention and description.

We may refer in some detail to the Great Tomb of Pellana, the excavation of which lasted several months (FIG. 2.5).  The long dromos leading to the Tomb is oriented from SW to NE.  Its state of preservation is excellent.  Both walls of the dromos converge gradually upwards without, however, meeting, and this observation offers the first chronological indication for the construction of the tomb.  It is well-known that the dromoi of the earlier tombs of this type (fifteenth and fourteenth century BC) have almost vertical walls, while, from the thirteenth century on, the walls of the dromos tend to converge and almost join one another at the top.

The maximum preserved height of the dromos near the entrance attains 5.60 m.  The width of the dromos starts at 2.10 m and reaches 2.55 m by the entrance of the tomb.  The length of the dromos is preserved to 12.70 m and is small when seen in comparison with the chamber of the tomb, which exceeds 10 m.  This is because deep torrent cut into the hill out of which the tomb was excavated, thereby shortening the dromos.

Some very important finds of the early Mycenaean period were found in the dromos, among them a button made of amber (FIG. 2.6).  It is lens shaped and perforated; probably imported from the Baltic.

At the inner end of the dromos there was found the monumental façade of the Tomb.  Its stomion, set in the middle of the façade, forms a rectangular opening, sloping slightly at the top, where it is crowned by a relieving triangle.  The stomion leads to the chamber, where the burial of the dead took place, and was sealed with large stone, in dry-stone walling (FIG. 2.7).  The fact that the stones had been dismantled, when the tomb was excavated, suggested that the tomb had already been robbed.

In different parts of the tomb and more specifically by its entrance we found numerous objects of later date, among them figurines, animal bones and vases dating to the late Hellenistic and early Roman period (FIGS. 2.8 and 2.9-10), which testify to the use of the tomb in the later periods for cult purposes.

Among the exquisite finds in the tomb we may mention two remarkable piriform jars (FIGS. 2.11 – 12).  They are decorated with a marine landscape and seaweed and with rich ivy-leaves, tenderly drawn.  Other finds such as alabastra (FIGS. 2.13-14), amber beads, fragments of gold foil (FIG. 2.15) and fine pottery shreds witness the original richness of the tomb.  These brilliant finds present similarities with the well-known finds from Mycenae, Vapheio and Kakovatos in Trifilia, dated to around 1500 BC.

We have already mentioned that our investigations uncovered three tombs in the cemetery at the site known as Spelies or Pelekete.  In addition to the Great Tomb two others of the same shape but of smaller size were place to the left and to the right of it.  It is probable that these two smaller tombs belonged to members of the royal family in this theory is further supported by the fact that the graves of the ‘ordinary’ people were placed at a different site and more specifically on a slope called Tryporrachi, 400 m E of the cemetery for the royal family.  During our first excavations we had the opportunity to dig one of the smaller tholos tombs, that to the left of the Great Tomb.

It proved to resemble the Great Tomb in shape and construction: dromos with vertical walls, tholos chamber, and a conical vault (not intact).  It is generally admitted that this particular grave was used as a shelter during medieval times.  By the entrance of the tomb we found a small number of bronze coins struck during the reign of the Emperor Phokas (AD 602-610).  This is of great importance, considering that coins representing the Emperor Phokas in particular and more generally coins of the seventh century AD, are very rare in Greece, due to the Slavic invasions.  On the floor of the tomb, in accordance with a well-known Mycenaean custom.

The contents of these cist graves provide chronological evidence for the construction of the tomb as well as for the surrounding Mycenaean cemetery.  The finds, exclusively ceramic, date between 1350 – 1200 BC.  Thus this tomb was in use 1350 – 1200 BC, and we may reasonably conclude that the whole Mycenaean cemetery of Pellana was in constant use from 1500 – 1200 BC; this also applies to the Great Tomb.

In the light of this, we are led to the conclusion that Pellana was an important Mycenaean centre in continuos use, a conclusion which will help our understanding of LBA society in Laconia, as reflected in the Homeric epics and the Linear B tablets.  Pellana was then as its acme during the reigns of Tyndareos, Menelaos and Helen.

As far as the identity of the Great Tomb at Pellana is concerned, we note that is belongs to the same category of communal or family vaults as the chamber tombs and tumuli.  These graves are very common in Greece from the Early Helladic periods onwards.

During the Middle Helladic period (1950 – 1580 BC) the prevailing type of grave is the cist tomb, though during the Mycenaean period (1580 – 1100 BC) the type of tomb with chamber and dromos reappears.  The two main forms of family graves during the Mycenaean period are the tholos and chamber tomb.  The first type is usually constructed in stone slabs in the so-called corbelled technique (beehive tombs), whereas the other is always hewn out of the soft rock.  It has generally been held that the tholos tombs represent the majestic funeral monuments destined for royal burials.

To this variety belong the megalithic monuments of mainland Greece, such as the famous tombs at Mycenae, at Orchomenos in Boeotia, in the Pylos region, the tomb at Kapakli near Volos, those at Marathon and at Vapheio in Laconia and so on.  The chamber tombs on the other hand have been found in their thousands from Thessaly to Crete and Rhodes and they were the graves of the ordinary people.  The tombs at Pellana belong to specific category or a variation of the above main types.  They are cut out of rock like the chamber tombs, but their chambers take the beehive shape, like the tholos tombs.

The creator of this type of grave must have been well aware of the techniques used in the chamber and tholos tombs.  In the tholoi the linear and the curved components of the tomb are successfully harmonized. The dromos, the façade, the side walls of the stomion and the lintel are rectilinear and straight and wherever they join, they form right – angles, for example, at the junction with the dromos, behind the stomion, with the relevant parts of the beehive chamber (FIG. 2.18).

These features are necessary in construction a normal tholos tomb, both from the technical and the static point of view, but when they occur in the rock – cut tholos tombs, like the tombs at Pellana, they are properly characterised as stylizations, which show the efforts of the craftsman to imitate, with the greatest possible accuracy, the shape and appearance of the normal tholos tombs (see Iakovidis 1966: 98ff.).

Imitation is also shown in the cutting of a relieving triangle, which does not offer any significant relief for triangle, which does not offer any significant relief for the lintel above the stomion of the rock – cut tholos tombs.  It is only a skeuomorph.  On the other hand, the irregularity in the circumference of the chamber of the tomb is due to the nature of the monument (FIG. 2.1).  In the case of the Great Tomb at Pellana the diameter of the chamber from the stomion to the opposite side of the tomb is 0.60-0.80 m. shorter than the other diameter of the chamber, which runs from N to S.

The stomion in the normal tholos tombs is rectilinear, the side walls perpendicular and the lintel straight and linear; because of that the starting point of the dome lies much higher than on the opposite side of the chamber; the result is that, in section, the two arcs of the dome are not equal and the point of their intersection, at the apex, is nearer to the entrance of the tomb.  If this were not the case static problems could arise, even the collapse of the structure’s roof.

Therefore the cavity which is encountered in the inner part of the roof of the Tombs at Pellana is not found in the very centre of the ‘ideal’ circle of the chamber but nearer to the entrance of the tomb.  This cavity has no constructional significance for these rock – cut tholos tombs; on the other hand, it is an organic component of the normal tholos tombs, because their upper courses converge at an angle of 30º and then a big horizontal stone, (the so-called key-stone) closes the opening giving the shape of a shallow cavity.

The above proves that the rock – cut tholos tombs have adopted several constructional features from the stone – built tholos tombs.  It is then possible that the craftsman who made the Great Tomb at Pellana were familiar with the technical specifications of the normal tholos tombs, some of which are contemporary or earlier. We can refer to Tholos Tomb І at Peristeria, to the two tombs at Koukounara, to one of the tombs at Koryfasion, to the tombs at Vapheio and at Kampos in Mani, to the tomb at Analipsis in Arcadia etc.  The imitation of certain constructions elements found in the stone – built tholos tombs does not prove, however, that their rock – cut counterparts are of lesser monumentality and significance.

The construction of a huge tholos tomb at Pellana during the LH IIв period, testifies to great expertise and technical virtuosity, of a kind not found in any other funeral monument of this type in the whole Greek mainland.  Note, on the other hand, that the Royal Tomb of Mycenaean Thebes, the administrative and political centre of Boeotia, was also rock – cut, i.e. it was not made after the manner prevailing in other parts of Greece.

The tomb at Pellana is then a Royal Tomb, and Pellana was an administrative centre during the period.  This period at Pellana, on the evidence of the finds from the Great Tomb and the other princely tombs beside it, extends from the LH II to the LH IIIc period, a chronological span of continuos habitation, which is encountered in other places in Laconia, even at the Menelaion itself.

Some tombs of the same type have been excavated by Marinatos at Volimidia in Messenia, some 5 km N of the Palace of Nestor.  The smallest of those tombs has a diameter of 3.13 m and the largest, which has been characterised as monumental, has a diameter of 6.13 m.  They are also dated in the LH II period (Marinatos 1952; 1953; 1954; Das Altertum I (1955): 141ff.).  A similar tomb was found some years ago at Agrapidochori in Elis and has a diameter of c. 4 m (see Parlama 1971; Pelon 1976: 443, not 7).  At the same time that Great Tomb at Pellana was made, another great tholos tomb was constructed at Vapheio in Laconia (see Tsountas 1889: p. 140-171; Vermeule 1964:90 ff. and 127 ff.).  Two more similar tombs of the same date have been found in a wider area, at Kambos in Messenia and at Analypsis in Arcadia.

Without doubt this was a period of great prosperity and a climax in Mycenaean civilisation.  During the thirteenth century BC, when the Mycenaean kingdoms in the Peloponnese were consolidated and their geographical borders were stabilised, as they are portrayed in Iliad ii, on of the princes of Laconia became the king (wanax) of the whole territory.  The most probable place for this to take place was Pellana, which presents, among other evidence, to be discussed below, continuos habitation and continuos funerary use of the great Tombs until the beginning of the twelfth century BC.

The prehistoric and the classical acropolis of Pellana was undoubtedly situated on the hill of Palaiokastro, which lies opposite and to the E of the modern village.  My excavations at the site during the last 15 years have brought to light ruins of an extensive settlement of the Early and the Middle Bronze Age Periods.  On the summit of the acropolis only ruins of a spacious building were unearthed, which was destroyed by fire during the EH II Period.  Everything above this layer was removed, probably during the Frankish occupation of the acropolis, to judge from a tower and other buildings erected over and amid the prehistoric ruins.

Whether there was a royal residence built on the top of the acropolis during the Middle Helladic or the Mycenaean period will remain a matter of speculation.  On the next terrace down, just below the summit of the hill, where some signs of artificial terracing are visible, the stone krepis and the interior of tumulus was excavated (FIGS. 2.19-21); this contained burials of the EH II period, unfortunately without grave offerings.  Next to it, however, a bothros was located (FIG. 2.22), containing ashes and a couple of vases of the same period.  The bothros was attached to the tumulus and contained the ashes from the sacrificial rites and the bowls for offerings to those buried under the tumulus.

A channel runs through the interior of the sepulchral monument and recalling the blood – channels in Tomb II at Dendra and other funerary monuments of Mycenaean and later date in Greece (Andronikos 1968: s.v. ‘Blutrillen’).  We have good reasons to believe that the tumulus at Pellana, the first to be found in Laconia, was not a single funeral monument.  The size of the terrace suggests that more tumuli might have been erected there, a whole cemetery of tumuli, like that at Stavros in Lefkas (Dörpfeld 1927; A. Delt. 27 (1972) Chr: 211-6).

The place where the tumulus, or tumuli, at Pellana, were situated has a broad view over the whole plain, the beautiful mountain of Taygetos and the mountains of Arcadia.  The tumulus occupies the best situation on the acropolis, just below the houses on the top of the hill, and undoubtedly contained the remains of the chieftains, who ruled over Pellana and perhaps over Laconia during the Early and Middle Bronze Aged Periods.  The siting of the tombs is another argument in favour of Pellana’s special position and significance in the prehistoric civilisation of the whole area and argues for the primary role of the site and its development as an administrative centre in the later Mycenaean period as well.  The line of chieftainship remained probably unbroken until the Early Mycenaean Period, when the royal tholos tomb was constructed nearby and survived up to the end of the Mycenaean period.

A small excavation on the second lower terrace of the acropolis to the S (FIGS. 2.23-25), opposite the copious spring Pellanis, has brought to light part of a settlement of the Late Mycenaean  period (LH IIIA to LH IIIв2/сI).  Despite the very small area excavated the discovery of a Mycenaean settlement at Pellana becomes a very important element for the topography of the site and presages further valuable finds and results (FIGS. 2.26-27).

The last but not least, important find at Pellana is a monumental road (FIG. 2.28), which starts at the foot of the acropolis to the E and ascends to the acropolis itself.  It is one of the largest and best preserved roads ever found in Mycenaean Greece and we have good reasons to believe that it led either to a royal residence or to some other important installation on the acropolis.

If we now turn to the epic tradition and morspecifically to Iliad ii (581-7) we are informed that the following cities of Laconia took part in the expedition against Troy, under the leadership of Menelaos.  Lakedaimon, Sparta, Pharis, Messe, Brysseai, Augeai, Amyklai, Helos, Laas, and Oitylos.  The Homeric poems never refer to Sparta as the seat of King Menelaos, on the contrary the Odyssey (book iii) makes it clear that the palace of Tyndareos and Menelaos was in Lakedaimon, which, in both poems is characterised as ‘κοίλη’ and ‘κητώεσσα’ that is ‘hollow’ and ‘with subterranean trenches.’

Pellana is, in our opinion, Mycenaean Lakediamon, and the traditional epithets of κοίλη and κητώεσσα fit it geographical situation and its geological structure very well.  Other Mycenaean sites in Laconia, which have been investigated or excavated have not yielded positive funds or indications for the identification or the discovery of a palatial centre of the fourteenth and the thirteenth centuries BC.  Only a few sites date to the sixteenth and fifteenth centuries BC.  Twenty sites were inhabited during the fourteenth century BC, 39 in the thirteenth and 17 places in twelfth century BC (Hookes 1976: 60 ff.; Furumark 1972: 49).

Two of the sites seemed to hold most promise for the discovery of a Mycenaean palatial centre: the site of Menelaion and Palaeopyrgi near Vapheio, which is generally identified with the Homeric city of Pharis.  Unfortunately neither of these places supports the existence of a palace of the thirteenth century BC.  The case consequently remains open and the palace of Tyndareos and Menelaos is still to be found.

The excavations at Pellana over the last 15 years have opened a new chapter and a new perspective on this question.  We still do not have the palace there, but we can point to the impressive finds and to the royal administrative ideology, which underlines the chieftains’ tumulus, the magnificent tholos tomb, the majestic road, and the undoubtedly royal residences which existed at Pellana –Lakedaimon during the prehistoric and Mycenaean periods of Laconia (Kilian, 1988; Wright 1987).



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