For most archaeologists one characteristic that is peculiar in early Greek development is the city state system; an institution of flexible size and shape consisting of adult male citizens, women and children who were considered citizens but with no political rights, and non-citizens such as slaves and resident foreigners.
The archaic period in Greece was considered the Dark Ages by many until recent excavations have shed a new light on this thinking. Throughout the eastern coasts Greece has offered up startling new evidence of the inner city polis, or state. Regardless of how sparse the surrounding population may have been, the city proper seems to have grown up around a small, fortified, independent state that offered a market place, a public assembly area, a seat of justice, and an executive government.
Excavations of the last twenty years have awakened interest and prompted an alteration to ancient Greek perceptions. Archaeological evidence exposes that in central Greece there was a region of common culture extending from southern Thessaly, Boeotia, Attica, the island of Euboea, and the smaller islands to its eastern coast.
In the centre of this large area is the discovery of a major settlement at Lefkandi on the western coast of Euboea Island. Archaeological excavations have revealed it to have once been a stunningly prosperous city right through the ‘dark age’ reaching a height of wealth around the 9th century BC. Archaeological evidence points to Lefkandi being the central core of the wider community shattering the regarded view that the island’s two major cities were Chalcis and Eritria found respectively north and south of Lefkandi.
British excavations there have dramatically altered the view of archaic Greece during the 10th and 9th centuries BC.
The Buried Rich Girl
The excavation of a buried woman at Lefkandi found her well adorned in gold jewellery and an unusual gold brassiere. A cremation burial of a warrior was found near her with his ashes wrapped in a cloak. These remains were located in a great building measuring more than 45 metres long, with an external timber colonnade.
This discovery is a striking demonstration of the wealth and industrial development of a period in Greek history that has formally offered no other notable architecture. This tomb burial seems to suggest an affluent, dynastic society, with foreign connections.
By the end of the 8th century BC Greeks had begun to wander abroad as entrepreneurial traders searching for metals. Euboeans were at the forefront of travel and commerce. A typical Euboean style, painted vase, found near the Bay of Naples, hosts a drawing of an upturned ship with its crew thrown into the sea – one being eaten by a great fish. As shipping routes developed the risk of shipwreck increased. The vase is possibly a memorial record of a marine disaster that may have claimed the life or lives of elite Greeks.
A Change of Government
The city-states transitioned from monarchic and aristocratic to larger oligarchic or even democratic states as they entered a period of political reform, although women were still not entitled to vote.
It is vital to understand that political reform was a consequence of the economic influences of its Grecian neighbours that opened the Greek mind. There was power and organisation in the Near East, North Africa boasted an unimaginable wealth and culture, and in the north there lay a mixture of barbarism and potential trade. The Greeks exploited all directions to their profit and progress.
Artists copied motifs from the Orient, poor farmers emigrated to better living conditions, rich farmers produced wine and olive oil to sell abroad, the sophisticated poetical and philosophical classes pondered about writing with an alphabet, and above all, everyone was captivated by the dawning of a new political ideology.
Archaeology Rewrites History
Although the Greek archaic period does not yield such a wealth of architecture and artefacts as the following classical period, archaeological discoveries have changed our thinking about the culture that birthed democracy and artefacts recovered from such excavations have caused history books to be rewritten.