Sparta: Greece’s ancient warrior city

SpartaAfter having seen Athens and Corinth, I couldn’t resist visiting one of the other great city-states of ancient Greece: Sparta.

Sparta needs no introduction. It’s a star player on the History and Discovery channels and that schlocky pseudo-historical film 300. While I wanted to see the ancient ruins where brave warriors once strode, my main reason for going was to explore nearby Mistra, a Byzantine ghost town with a castle that rivals Acrocorinth. I’ll get to that in my next post.

Sparta is a three-and-a-half hour bus ride from Athens. The route passes along the Aegean shore, through the Isthmus of Corinth, and into the Peloponnese, the peninsula that makes up southwestern Greece. Passing Corinth, the road ascends into rough hills that were being buffeted by a snowstorm.

Luckily the roads were in good condition and I made it on time. The clouds were breaking over the Vale of Sparta although it remained bitterly cold. My first stop was at the Fifth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities to learn more about how the economic crisis was affecting archaeologists’ ability to explore and preserve Greece’s past. The Ephorates are divided by region, in this case Lakonia, roughly the central and southern Peloponnese, and also by period. There’s a Fifth Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities too.

Archaeologists Lygeri Nikolakaki and Ageliki Mexia greeted me in their cramped office overflowing with books, reports, and maps. They spread out several maps in front of me to demonstrate just how rich their area was in medieval remains. Castles, churches, monasteries, and medieval towns dotted the landscape. This area was called the Morea in late Byzantine times and was one of the few centers of wealth, art, and learning during the waning days of the empire in the 14th and 15th centuries.

One region caught my eye–the Mani peninsula. The Ephorate has recorded some 2,000 Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments on the peninsula, and the map showed hiking trails crisscrossing the area. The Maniots were always semi-independent, fierce fighters and pirates who never fully submitted to the Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, or Byzantines. Their culture remains distinct even today. As I was researching this trip I was already planning another one.

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Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Mistra: a Byzantine ghost town in Greece!Nikolakaki and Mexia explained that Mistra, the Byzantine city outside Sparta, is their department’s star attraction and one of the top ten most visited historical sites in Greece. Numbers are generally down, however. There was a surge in visitors in 2005 and 2006 after the Olympics, and then a steady decline. They blame the economy and competition from more famous attractions in Greece.

Despite this, funding from the Greek Ministry of Culture and the European Union in recent years has led to improvement at many sites. At Mistra, the Ephorate had installed new signs in Greek and English to explain the remains, and the museum there has been reorganized and improved. The palace of the Despots (local rulers) is being restored. They hope to open a gift shop this summer.

Another Byzantine fortress city, Geraki, is being prepared for visitors and will open in two years, funding permitting. The Ephorate hadn’t received approval for their 2012 budget when I visited, and they’ve been told to “reduce expectations”. At the same time, they’ve been asked to increase the number of visitors.

The Fifth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities may lose its independence under a new scheme by the Ministry of Culture. It’s proposing to merge the Ephorates of each region into one, so that prehistoric, Classical, and Byzantine antiquities will all be handled by one office. Nikolakaki and Mexia are cautiously optimistic about this move, saying that it may help cut waste and improve the ability of the Ephorates to manage Greek’s heritage. After all, many sites, Sparta included, have remains from several different periods.

I hope they’re correct. Mergers generally mean layoffs, and I wouldn’t want to see these dedicated researchers join Greece’s large ranks of the unemployed.

The Archaeological Museum of Sparta is worth seeing to get some background on the city and its history. Despite the cold, only the front room where the ticket seller sat was heated. The rest of the heating had been turned off to save money.

I kept my coat on as I browsed the few rooms in this small but well-stocked museum. Funerary stelae, statues of the gods, and a remarkable bust of an ancient warrior showed that while Sparta was famous for its martial skill, it produced good art as well. Some of the best artifacts are a series of mosaics discovered in Roman-period houses in the area. Check out the photo gallery for some of the best displays from this interesting museum.

Chats with archaeologists and visits to museums, however informative, can’t compete with seeing the ruins themselves. That evening, with the sun peeking through the clouds, I took the short stroll to the edge of town to see ancient Sparta.

While not nearly as impressive as the ruins of Corinth or Athens, the remains of ancient Sparta are alluring. Soon the town of modern Sparta is left behind and you enter olive groves. There were almost no other visitors when I went and the place as quiet except for birdsong. From the old acropolis you can look out over the theater and the remains of a temple to Athena. Nearby lie the foundations of a Byzantine church. The ancient stones were taking on a golden hue from the evening light.

As I stood in an olive grove looking out over Sparta’s ancient theater, a shepherd grazed his flock nearby. A ray of sunlight broke through the clouds to shine on the medieval town of Mistra in the distance. Beyond that rose the snowy peaks and gorges of Taygetus mountains. Perfect.

A friend who has traveled extensively in Greece says that the country’s scenery “does tend to sneak up on you like that.”

Greece sneaked up on me several times during my trip.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Mistra!

Archaeologists search for missing medieval king

archaeologists, King Magnus IIIArchaeologists love a good mystery, and some researchers in Sweden have themselves a big one.

Earlier this year a research team opened what they believed to be the tomb of King Magnus Ladulås, who ruled Sweden from 1275-90. Magnus was a popular king with the commoners and earned the nickname “Ladulås”, which means “lock the barn”, for his law giving peasants the right to refuse free food and lodging to traveling aristocracy and clergy.

When the team opened the tomb in Riddarholmen church in Stockholm, they found the remains of nine individuals. The bodies were subjected to carbon 14 dating and the archaeologists discovered they died sometime between 1430 and 1520.

The researchers already knew the tomb was later, built by King Johan III in 1573, and now it appears that Johan chose the wrong spot. Riddarholmen Church is the traditional burial spot for Swedish royalty. One would think they’d be more careful about marking the tombs.

So where is the missing king? The team is applying for permission to dig in another tomb at the same church, which also (supposedly) contains the remains of King Karl Knutsson. Perhaps they’ll find both kings. Or perhaps they’ll find another mystery.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Ancient palace discovered in Sudan

Sudan
Archaeologists digging in the ancient city of Meroë in the Sudan have discovered what they believe is a palace dating to 900 BC.

The team discovered the building under the remains of a later palace. It’s believed to be the oldest building yet discovered at the site, which was once the capital of the Kingdom of Kush. Kush had several great cities and exported iron all the way to China. From 747-656 BC, the Kushites ruled Egypt as the twenty-fifth dynasty. The empire lasted from about 1000 BC to 350 AD before being conquered by the Empire of Axum in Ethiopia.

Meroë is one of the greatest archaeological sites in Africa. It has more than 200 pyramids, although they’re smaller than the largest Egyptian pyramids.

For a long time Meroë and Kush were understudied in favor of the more famous Egyptian civilization. Now scholars are beginning to realize that this Sudanese civilization contributed a lot to Egyptian culture.

Meroë is two-and-a-half hours north of Khartoum and it’s feasable to do in a long day trip. If you’re not going to the Sudan, the British Museum in London has a whole room dedicated to this civilization and its art.

Image courtesy Sven-steffenarndt via Wikimedia Commons

Discoveries at a Templar abbey in Ireland

Ireland, Mourne Abbey
Mourne Abbey in County Cork, Ireland, has been the focus of an archaeological excavation to discover more about the history of this medieval religious center.

The abbey was built around 1199 by the Knights Templar. After the rulers of Europe turned on the Templars and destroyed the order in 1307, resulting in 700 years of conspiracy theories, the abbey was handed over to the Knights Hospitaller. This knightly order got its name because its original purpose was to care for sick pilgrims in Jerusalem after the First Crusade, but soon they acquired more land and more power to become one of the leading forces in the Holy Land and Europe. They owned some of the toughest castles in the world.

Their power waned after the Muslims reconquered the Holy Land but the order still exists today. The abbey was abandoned when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries as part of his break from Rome in 1541. It has since fallen into picturesque ruin.

Now a team of archaeologists has excavated the site and discovered remains from the Hospitaller’s stay in the abbey. The team uncovered the foundations of a 13th century preceptory, the local headquarters for the knights. Very few remains of the Knights Hospitaller have ever been found in Ireland. The archaeologists discovered decorated floor tiles, the tomb of a 16th century knight, and several artifacts.

The abbey is open to the public and there’s a medieval castle and town an easy walk away. For more images of this historic abbey, click here.

[Photo courtesy John Armagh]

Gladiator died because of ref’s error, says archaeologist

gladiator, gladiatorsA gladiator who fought 1,800 years ago may have died because of a bad call from a ref.

Archaeologists have long puzzled over a line in the epitaph of Diodorus the gladiator’s gravestone. It reads, “After breaking my opponent Demetrius I did not kill him immediately. Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis killed me.”

The summa rudis was a referee who oversaw gladiator games. Unlike what we see in the movies, real gladiator fights were highly ritualized and had strict rules. One rule was that if a man pleaded for mercy, it was up to the sponsor of the fight (a local bigwig or even the Emperor) to decide if the defeated gladiator should live or die. Another rule was that if a gladiator fell without being pushed down by his opponent, he was allowed to get up and retrieve his weapons before the match continued.

Now gladiator expert Prof. Michael Carter says he knows what this inscription means. His theory is that Diodorus knocked down his opponent and backed off, waiting for the sponsor’s orders to either kill him or let him go. The referee, however, ruled his opponent fell down on his own. He was allowed to pick up his weapons and fight on. . .and ended up killing Diodorus.

Whoever wrote Diodorus’ epitaph seems to have believed the ref did it on purpose. We’ll never know for sure, but it just goes to show that among the countless dusty old inscriptions preserved in museums and archives, there are stories of real people and how they lived, and died. So next time you’re shouting at a ref for making a bad call, think of poor Diodorus and remember that some bad calls are worse than others.

The gravestone was originally found in Turkey and is now in the Musee du Cinquanternaire in Brussels, Belgium. The best place to see where gladiators fought and died is, of course, Rome, where the Colosseum has opened its underground tunnels to show where gladiators, prisoners, and wild animals waited their turn to entertain the crowd. There’s also a well-preserved amphitheater in Mérida, Spain.

[Photo of gladiator grave courtesy Wikimedia Commons. No photo of Diodorus’ grave was available at press time, but you can see a photo of it here.]