Greek Maymester 2012: The Peloponnese

Greek Maymester 2012: The Peloponnese

A great deal of mutual learning took place over the course of the Maymester. As at Phaistos, the students were often asked to take the time to investigate a site for themselves – and then to give their own tour to the profs. Every student was also asked to prepare two presentations on topics which interested them and which had specific relevance to sites or museums on our route. We were led competently and inspiringly through issues as diverse as the Linear B tablets of Pylos, the debates surrounding the so-called Mask of Agamemnon, and the question of gendered space in Greek houses, and the knowledge gained from these lessons was put to immediate use, immediately adding new contextual dimensions to the objects and structures we were seeing each day. In addition to the sites themselves, we spent a great deal of time in museums both large and small, and the students did an amazing job of working out how to get to grips with the large bodies of material which accompany almost any excavation. We tried to approach the museums armed with questions; some of these were shared between all members of the group, while some were specific to the students’ individual interests. At the end of the day, students would report back on what they had found, and we would discuss as a group some of the most typical, atypical, or simply the most eye-catching things we’d come across in the course of our site and museum visits.

Joe Morgan presents on the Linear B tablets from the "Palace of Nestor" at Pylos



Kim Michaud presents in front of the Kerameikos, Athens


Sparta was a site at which interpretation and discussion became particularly loaded. We began our visit with a talk by Kim Michaud on the lawcode of Lykourgos and the issue of early Spartan government and identity, raising questions about the extent to which later literary accounts were helpful or complete in trying to understand early Spartan history. We didn’t find too much to help us on the site itself (though there was a Roman theatre where Spartan culture myths would have been re-enacted for an audience of foreign tourists), but the local museum yielded a rich horde of objects and ideas – completely complicating our preconceptions about what early Spartan culture looked like: Where did the imagery of male-female couples fit into the male-female separation we were hearing about in the textual sources? And what on earth did the fantastically wrinkled terracotta masks from the shrine of Artemis Orthia have to do with anything?



We crossed Taygetos the same afternoon and headed over into Messenia, the land so successfully exploited by the Spartans when they were at the height of their power. We were in for a shock. Where the Spartan temple of Artemis Orthia had been almost impossible to make out through a tangle of wire fencing and later domestic ruins, Messene is magnificently preserved. Rebuilt in the 4th century after the downfall of its Spartan oppressors, the city’s remains showed prosperous continuity well into the Roman period – a record matched by few sites that we visited outside of Athens and Corinth. One of the first thing the Messenians had built, post-independence, was a temple to the deified Messene, in pride of place at the centre of the main agora; a couple of hundred years down the line, a stone pit made of immense masonry blocks was constructed alongside the temple, in which at least one opponent of Messenian political policy is supposed to have come to a sticky end. But as well as civic monuments we found incredible testimony of personal wealth and power here – a Hellenistic, and then a Roman-period (3rd century CE), funeral monument, each in full view of the city’s stadium and marble sporting complex, on scales which made us think more of the dynastic tombs of Hellenistic Asia Minor than the more modest monuments we had seen on our travels round Greece. Messene, we found, was far more than simply a footnote to Spartan glory.

Where the bad guys go


Back in time again to ca. 1200 BCE, we arrived at Pylos on the far southwest of the Peloponnese. From a hotel looking out over the bay of Sphacteria we pieced together what we knew so far of the East-coast Mycenaeans, and then hit the ground running at one of the most exciting – and most clearly laid out – palaces we’d seen so far. Joe Morgan’s knowledge of the Linear B tablets found at Pylos, and of the economic and social structures which historians have reconstructed from their contents, gave us a superb framework within which to set the palace and the activities – feasting, storage, organisation – which we could deduce from the non-textual archaeological record.



We had a rare free afternoon while at Pylos, and we decided unanimously to spend it on a boat trip, pottering out to Sphacteria to gawp at the rocks and the deep blue sea. “Try not to think about the bodies,” someone said to me afterwards; happily I managed to avoid doing so, focussing more on spotting fish than on the various last stands which have taken place on this spot. We came into land windswept and well sunned – and of course with expanded consciousness of the geographic contingencies of Atheno-Spartan relations during the Peloponnesian War!


View from the classroom over the Bay of Sphacteria

Our next stops were Olympia and Delphi – the big two when it comes to Greek sanctuaries. We’d already visited a multitude of sites which we described as “sanctuaries” – Nemea, Epidavros, the Asklepieion at Messene, a multitude of smaller temenoi – and the term was becoming somewhat overloaded, but we were also starting to inquire quite acutely into the differences between these sites. Olympia and Delphi were good places for honing these skills. These two were interesting on many different levels – as individual sites, in their relation to the many cities and individuals who came to them, and also in functional contrast with the sanctuary sites which had proved so important in the other regions we’d visited. Although function and comparison occasionally vanish into thin air when you’re stand at the top of the theatre in Delphi…

Temple of Apollo at Delphi


Somewhere in the gaps between the sites of the Peloponnese and the Corinthian Gulf we managed to lay our hands on one of the most delicious fish suppers I’d ever had, a gorgeous local cheese which can be found only in the little village of Arachova along the road from Delphi, and mountainside olive groves galore. Some of us attended the service for Pentecost in a church at Olympia, and we all managed to find time somewhere along the road to engage in some retail therapy – mostly of an archaeologically-themed nature!


A walk in the woods below Delphi

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