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The Dark Age of Greece

Irene S. Lemos

The term Dark Age is generally used to describe coincides with the last stage of the Late Bronze
the archaeological period which starts with the Age, is called Late Helladic IIIC (c. from 1200 to
collapse of the Mycenaean palatial system 1100 ); it is followed by a short transitional
(roughly 1200 ) and ends with the rise of the period, the Sub-Mycenaean period (c.11001025),
Greek city-states (around 770 ). the end of which finds Greek communities prac-
The influential and comprehensive studies by tising newly introduced iron-working technology.
Snodgrass (The Dark Age of Greece) and Des- The Early Iron Age in Greece coincides with the
borough (The Last Mycenaeans and their Successors beginning of the so-called Protogeometric period
and The Greek Dark Ages) remain valuable for the (c.1025900); both Protogeometric and the suc-
definition of the period. Both scholars justify their cessive Geometric styles are named after the char-
use of the term Dark Age in terms of describing acteristic geometric motifs employed to decorate
the post-Mycenaean period as one which was the pottery produced in most Greek regions (see
marked by destruction and abandonment of sites, also chapter 28). This is followed by the Early and
depopulation and a general fall in living stand- Middle Geometric stages, c. 900770 , which
ards. This gloomy picture of Greece was further cover the last stages of the so-called Dark Age.
accompanied by the loss of certain skills in archi- The final Geometric stage (the Late Geometric
tecture and art and most importantly by the loss period) is believed to mark the beginning of the
of writing (Snodgrass, Dark Age of Greece, p. 2; recovery in the Greek world and thus is not
Desborough, Greek Dark Ages, pp. 1518). It was included in the Dark Age. By this time Greeks
also believed that during this period contacts with had already adopted the alphabet for writing (see
areas outside Greece were severely interrupted also chapter 63).
and even within the Aegean communication was The importance of Late Helladic IIIC (LH
limited. The surviving communities appeared to IIIC) emerges from recent research which has
be isolated when compared to the international shown that this period was not as impoverished as
spirit which characterised their Mycenaean pre- once thought. At the beginning of the period some
decessors. of the Mycenaean citadels appear still to be occu-
Since the publication of those studies, under- pied and to have served as the seats of local rulers
standing of the Dark Age has been enhanced who replaced the Mycenaean wanaktes (rulers).
by a number of important archaeological discov- This is especially notable in the case of Tiryns,
eries, and by more surveys of the period. First, where the Mycenaean megaron (central hall) was
the chronological subdivisions within the period probably remodelled on a smaller scale to meet the
are now better understood, especially for that part needs of an administrative centre. The population
of it which is still assigned to the Late Bronze Age. in the Lower Citadel also appears to have increased
Advances have also been made in defining cul- during this period, indicating that refugees from
turally the crucial period following the collapse of destroyed or abandoned sites might have found
the Mycenaean palatial system. This period, which safety at Tiryns.

88 Classics and the Classical World

Another important observation is that a num- and the beginning of the Sub-Mycenaean period
ber of sites which were either newly founded is probably the best candidate.
(such as Perati in East Attica) or which were The following stage is called the Sub-
insignificant under Mycenaean rule (such as Lef- Mycenaean period by experts, in order to sug-
kandi in Euboea and Kynos in east Locris) now gest that the pottery produced during this period
appear to be more important. This becomes more is made and decorated in a debased version of
apparent during the middle part of this period Mycenaean style. But pottery apart, the Sub-
when a number of sites located along the coasts Mycenaean phase introduces a number of new
and the islands of the Aegean show signs of a features which will become more prominent at
short recovery. This is reflected in the deposi- the beginning of the Iron Age. In addition, schol-
tion of grave oerings found in tombs (for exam- ars have rightly commented that it is not only
ple in the tombs at Perati, and on the islands of the new features which made the dierence in the
Naxos and Rhodes) and in the appearance of a archaeological picture of the period but also the
pictorial style of decoration on vases (Deger- complete rejection of important Mycenaean ones
Jalkotzy, Aegean islands; Last Mycenaeans). (Desborough, Greek Dark Ages, pp. 6479). One
The repertoire of this pictorial style includes of the most important changes taking place is
monsters, such as grins and sphinxes in burial practices: in some of the core areas of
fantastical images which continue to be imported Mycenaean culture, such as the Argolid, central
from the Near East and also octopuses, birds and Greece, Euboea and the Cyclades, single
most importantly scenes with warriors (Rutter, burials in cist tombs and pits completely replaced
Cultural novelties). The most celebrated exam- the Mycenaean rite of multiple burials in cham-
ple of such scenes is the Warrior Krater from ber tombs. Multiple burials in tholoi or chamber
Mycenae (French, Mycenae, pp. 13540), while tombs, however, continued in Thessaly, Phokis,
kraters found at Kynos in east Locris and Messenia and Crete. Desborough suggested that
Lefkandi in Euboea, depicting scenes with war- such a change in burial rites could only have
riors fighting on ships, are an innovation of the happened with the arrival of new people, most
period (Dakoronia, Representations of sea bat- probably from areas where cist tombs were in use
tles). The popularity of warriors iconography such as Epirus (Greek Dark Ages, pp. 10611).
indicates clearly their importance in the running Others put more emphasis on the changing social
of the aairs of the surviving communities and political conditions, which required a more
(Deger-Jalkotzy, forthcoming). economical way of burying the dead (Mee and
Despite, however, the apparent presence and Cavanagh, Mycenaean tombs, pp. 4564). Snod-
protection oered by a society of warriors, many grass saw in these changes a revival of similar
of the LH IIIC settlements were destroyed or practices in the Middle Helladic period which
abandoned at the end of the period. Some of them preceded the Mycenaean era (Greek Dark Ages,
were abandoned for good, but most only for a pp. 17784). Whatever the reasons for such a
short period of time. For example, Koukounaries change, the fact remains that in the areas where
on Paros and Emporio on Chios are both aban- the rite of single burials appears, there was no
doned after the end of the Late Bronze Age but return to previous Mycenaean practices. At the
then reoccupied late in the Iron Age. Other sites same time most regions, including Crete, adopt
such as Kastri at Palaikastro and Chania in Crete more extensively the practice of cremation which,
appear to be abandoned for good. Perati in Attica although it first appeared in the previous (LH
was also abandoned, while Athens, Lefkandi and IIIC) period, became gradually more common
Argos survived, even if, according to the present during this period and the ensuing Early Iron Age
archaeological picture, living standards seem to (Lemos, Protogeometric Aegean, pp. 1846).
have deteriorated (Popham, Collapse of Aegean Therefore, the Sub-Mycenaean period should
civilization). In fact, if we want to find a period to be seen merely as a short transitional period from
which the term Dark Age could apply, then this the last stages of the Late Bronze Age to the
short period at the end of the Late Bronze Age beginning of the Early Iron Age. The main sites
15. The Dark Age of Greece 89

of this period that have produced settlement rites of the period and of the society which prac-
deposits or cemeteries continued to be important tised them. The building itself, apsidal in plan,
centres in the Early Iron Age. It is in such import- as was the norm for the period, is of monumental
ant sites, such as Athens, Knossos, Lefkandi, dimensions (50 m 10 m 164 ft 32.8 ft);
Argos and Tiryns, that the first iron weapons under the floor, in the central room of the
appear in the burials of elite groups during the building, elaborate rites were oered to a male
early stages of the Protogeometric period, mark- who was cremated and buried with his iron
ing the beginning of the Early Iron Age in Greece. weapons. Next to him was found the burial of a
Snodgrass and others have argued that the new woman, heavily adorned with gold jewellery. In
technology arrived from Cyprus, an island which another shaft next to them four horses were
maintained close links with Greece through- buried. Subsequent to these burials, other indi-
out the period (Snodgrass, Dark Age of Greece, viduals continued to be buried in front of the
pp. 22831; Pickles and Peltenburg, Metallurgy, building, indicating that they belong to the same
pp. 67100). kin group (Figure 15.1). The main characteris-
It is unfortunate that most of the archaeological tic in the Toumba cemetery is the rich
evidence for Early Iron Age Greece comes from oerings given to the dead. Apart from the local
cemeteries rather than settlements. It is indeed only and imported pottery and the metal ornaments
from burial practices that attempts have been which were the usual oering for the time, exotic
made to understand the social structures and devel- goods imported from the Near East and Egypt
opments of these early Greek communities (Morris, were also oered (see also chapter 12). The pres-
Burial and Ancient Society). From study of the ence of exotic goods clearly indicates that contacts
mortuary evidence from major sites, scholars have with the Eastern Mediterranean were well estab-
proposed that diversity is a major characteristic of lished, while the discovery of Euboean pottery in
Early Iron Age societies. Such diversity is clearly the East suggests that Euboeans might have also
reflected in the variety of burial rites practised in played a part in this exchange (Lemos, Protogeo-
Greece during this period (Whitley, Social diver- metric Aegean, pp. 1618, 2023).
sity, pp. 34165; Lemos, forthcoming). There are, Conspicuous consumption was also a feature of
however, a number of common practices. For exam- the burials at Knossos, a site with contacts with the
ple, it is clear that elite members are buried with the East, especially with Cyprus. Crete also produced
status of warriors; such burials occur mostly in evidence of Phoenician presence at the site of
Athens, Knossos and Lefkandi. Care is also taken Kommos on the south coast, where around 800 ,
to dierentiate gender and age. Another helpful a small stone temple was constructed which housed
observation is that in most sites, burials are organ- a structure made of three stelai (stone slabs) on a
ised in separate plots, indicating that each one of base, resembling similar cult arrangements found
them may have belonged to a specific kin group or, later in the Punic world. Cypriot and Near Eastern
as Coldstream suggested, that each one of them imports are also found in the cemetery at Eleu-
may have been the family seat of a genos or elite therna in Western Crete (Coldstream, Geometric
descent group (Coldstream, Rich lady of the Greece, pp. 99102, 3815).
Areiopagus). Such plots can be found, for example, Athens and Argos also catch up with the oer-
in the Kerameikos in Athens, in the cemetery of ing of imported goods during the Early and
Toumba at Lefkandi, and in several burial plots in Middle Geometric periods. In Athens, one excep-
the area around the palace of Knossos, where a tional woman was buried in the area of Areopagus
number of cemeteries have been located, such as with imported faience beads and ivory ornaments.
Fortetsa, Tekke and the North Cemetery. In addition to the local fine pottery and elabor-
Insights into the complexity of the burial rites ate jewellery, she was given a clay chest represent-
of the period were spectacularly revealed with the ing model granaries. This last oering might have
discovery of a male and a female burial under a symbolically signified the wealth of her family
building at Toumba, in Lefkandi. This discovery in arable land (Coldstream, Rich lady of the
left no doubts about the complexity of the funeral Areiopagus; Geometric Greece, pp. 5561).
90 Classics and the Classical World

Fig. 15.1 The Protogeometric building and the cemetery at Toumba Lefkandi (after Mervyn Popham and Irene S. Lemos,
Lefkandi III: The Toumba Cemetery, London: British School at Athens, 1996).

Athens is also responsible for developments existed, cult activities connected with the chief-
in the Geometric style of pottery. The style finds tains dwelling were gradually moved to a city
its first expression in the Attic workshops which temple (Mazarakis Ainian, From Rulers Dwellings
profoundly influenced the production of pot- to Temples).
tery in other centres. Euboea, Thessaly and the The study of the so-called Dark Age has been
Cyclades, however, although keen to import Attic advanced by archaeological discoveries and re-
products, stubbornly continued to produce a Sub- search (see also chapters 2 and 3). Compared with
Protogeometric style of pottery. It is not until later what came before it, and what came after, this
that these areas joined Athens and the Argolid period can no longer be considered dark, only
in the production of the Late Geometric style of dierent. It is clear that a number of features
pottery. which in the past were thought to post-date the
Recent archaeological discoveries also suggest Dark Age had already appeared during its course.
that the emergence of sanctuaries cannot any One of the most important is that communication
longer be considered to be a post- Dark Age within and outside Greece had already revived,
phenomenon. Excavations at Kalapodi in Phokis stimulating an improvement in living conditions,
and Poseidi in Chalcidice, and research at Isthmia which brought with it changes in the social
and Olympia, show that these sanctuaries were structures of early Greek communities. The
receiving oerings during this period (Morgan, understanding of these social structures can at
Isthmia VIII; Lemos, Protogeometric Aegean, present be observed only in the diversity and
pp. 2214). In addition, the study of the architec- complexity of burial practices. The discovery of
tural remains of the period indicated to Mazarakis more settlements dating to this period
Ainian that rituals associated with cults were will oer further insights as to the degree of their
taking place inside or outside the chieftains sophistication.
houses (see also chapter 4). He further suggested One of the most important innovations of this
that in those settlements where such evidence period, however, is the introduction of a superior
15. The Dark Age of Greece 91

technology: iron-working (see also chapter 28). Successors: An Archaeological Survey c.1200c.1000
Its application at a number of sites demonstrates , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964.
that Greek communities were ready to experiment V. R. d A. Desborough, The Greek Dark Ages, London:
with it, and that they did so successfully. At the Ernest Benn, 1972.
same time, it appears that most Greeks took an E. French, Mycenae: Agamemnons Capital, Stroud:
important decision to reject for good the failed Tempus, 2002.
palatial system, which had proved to be unsuitable I. S. Lemos, The Protogeometric Aegean: The
for their requirements, and to start looking for Archaeology of the Late Eleventh and Tenth Centuries
more suitable solutions in the form of smaller but BC, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
more flexible political units. It is at least misleading I. S. Lemos, Athens and Lefkandi: a tale of two sites, in
not to recognise that, during the so-called Dark S. Deger-Jalkotzy and I. S. Lemos (eds), Ancient
Age, archaeology reveals the rise of the processes Greece from the Mycenaean Palaces to the Age of Homer.
which led towards the formation of the city-states. A. Mazarakis Ainian, From Rulers Dwellings to
Temples: Architecture, Religion and Society in Early
Iron Age Greece (1100700 BC) (SIMA CXXI),
Further reading
Jonsered: Paul Astrms Frlag, 1997.
J. N. Coldstream, The rich lady of the Areiopagus C. B. Mee and W. G. Cavanagh, Mycenaean tombs as
and her contemporaries, Hesperia 64 (1995), 391403. evidence for social and political organisation, Oxford
J. N. Coldstream, Geometric Greece (2nd edn), London: Journal of Archaeology 3 (1984), 4564.
Routledge, 2003. C. Morgan, Isthmia VIII: The Late Bronze Age
F. Dakoronia, Representations of sea battles on Settlement and the Early Iron Age Sanctuary,
Mycenaean sherds from Kynos, Tropis 5 (1993), Princeton, NJ: American School of Classical Studies
11928. at Athens and Princeton University Press, 1999.
S. Deger-Jalkotzy, The Aegean islands and the break- I. Morris, Burial and Ancient Society: The Rise of the
down of the Mycenaean palaces around 1200 , in Greek City-State, Cambridge: Cambridge University
V. Karageorghis and N. Stampolidis (eds), Eastern Press, 1987.
Mediterranean Cyprus, Dodecanese, Crete 16th6th cent. S. Pickles and E. Peltenburg, Metallurgy, society and
BC, Athens: University of Crete and A. G. Leventis the bronze/iron transition in the east Mediterranean
Foundation, 1998, pp. 10520. and the Near East, Reports of the Department of
S. Deger-Jalkotzy, The last Mycenaeans and their suc- Antiquities, Cyprus (1998), 67100.
cessors updated, in S. Gitin, A. Mazar and E. Stern M. Popham, The collapse of Aegean civilization at the
(eds), Mediterranean Peoples in Transition, Thirteenth end of the Late Bronze Age, in B. Cunlie (ed.), The
to Early Tenth Centuries BCE, in Honor of Professor Oxford Illustrated Prehistory of Europe, Oxford:
Trude Dothan, Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1998, Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 277303.
pp. 11428. J. Rutter, Cultural novelties in the post-palatial
S. Deger-Jalkotzy, Late Mycenaean warrior tombs, in Aegean, in W. A. Ward and M. S. Joukowsky (eds),
S. Deger-Jalkotzy and I. S. Lemos (eds), Ancient The Crisis Years: The 12th century BC, Dubuque:
Greece from the Mycenaean Palaces to the Age of Kendall/Hunt, 1992, pp. 6178.
Homer: Proceedings of the 3rd Leventis Conference from A. Snodgrass, The Dark Age of Greece, Edinburgh:
Wanax to Basileus, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Edinburgh University Press, 1971.
Press, 2006. J. Whitley, Social diversity in Dark Age Greece,
V. R. d A. Desborough, The Last Mycenaeans and their ABSA 86 (1991), 34165.