Death on Paros

The twelfth-century destruction of Koukounaries

The century following the collapse of the Mycenaean Palaces in Greece is marked by successive destructions, but also revival. The Cycladic Islands of Naxos and Paros offer a compelling case study of these times.

Matthew Lloyd

The Cycladic islands were the host of one of the earliest recognizable icons of Greek archaeology. The painted marble figurines of the early Bronze Age (ca. 3200-2000 BCE) once occupied graves and sanctuaries across the archipelago, but due to their iconic status were largely looted into context-free collections.

The significance of the Cyclades from these times has largely been down to the islands’ role in the maritime networks of the Aegean, a role that persisted through the “Minoan” and “Mycenaean” periods of the Bronze Age (ca. 2000-1600 and 1600-1200 BC respectively). This significance has two basic forms: in the early stages, the conditions of the archipelago necessitated that their growing communities be in constant contact with others to provide any labour, material, and skills not present on the islands (Broodbank 2013, pp. 307-308); later on, their position in the Aegean linking Crete to the north and the mainland to the south, west, and east made them essential stop-off points for travel throughout the Mediterranean (Broodbank 2013, p. 322).

Maritime connectivity in the Aegean was always going to rely to some degree on the Cycladic islands, and thus is especially likely to be visible among these islands. When the palatial Aegean Bronze Age reached its final catastrophic end around 1200 BC, it might seem that the loss of the Mycenaean infrastructure would have had a negative effect on maritime connectivity through the archipelago.

This does not appear to have been the case. As with many other non-palatial regions such as Achaea and the Euboean Gulf, in the Postpalatial period the Cyclades appear to have been something of a success story. A variety of settlements are known throughout the archipelago including new “refuge” settlements in naturally defensible places to harbour settlements already centuries old. However, even the refuge settlements seem to have favoured positions near protected harbours, suggesting that connection to the sea was still considered desirable.

Two Cycladic settlements, Koukounaries on Paros and Grotta on Naxos, are especially indicative of the changing times in the Postpalatial Aegean.

A good time: Grotta on Naxos

The settlement at Grotta is located on the northwest coast of Naxos, in the modern island capital. Founded in ca. 1400-1370 BC, the settlement has a prosperous early period but went into decline in the thirteenth century, and the original town was temporarily abandoned – perhaps following an earthquake or flood – by the time of the destructions on the mainland in ca. 1200.

Grotta, Metropolis Square. The excavations at Grotta revealed Iron Age burials in the Postpalatial Bronze Age settlement. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

In the twelfth century, Grotta appears to have been reinvigorated. A large wall of mudbrick on a stone socle (wall base) was perhaps a fortification, or perhaps a retaining wall to protect against further flooding. Pottery on the neighbouring islet Palatia indicates that it may have been a base for controlling the two harbours on this portion of the Naxian coast.

Workshops for the production of pottery and for working faience have been excavated in the Grotta settlement. Naxian pottery of the Late Helladic IIIC (LH IIIC) phase, which corresponds to the Postpalatial period, has a distinctive style that features scenes of dancing, fishing, and horseback riding that are unique to our knowledge of LH IIIC pictorial pottery. Alongside these are also many stirrup jars decorated with octopodes of the type familiar in the Postpalatial Aegean.

There is also wide array of imported pottery at Grotta, which points to the status of Naxos as a hub of Aegean traffic in this period. Imported faience was worked locally, imitating styles from Cyprus or the Levant; further evidence of the commercial interests of Naxos.

Pictorial pottery from Grotta, dated to Late Helladic IIIC Middle (ca. 1130-1070 BC) showing respectively a dance scene and people fishing. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

There are two Postpalatial chamber tomb cemeteries known in Grotta, one at Kamini and the other at Haplomata hill. Each is accompanied by exceptionally rich burial goods, including gold jewellery, seals, and spectacular pottery. Two of the chamber tombs contained swords. In the Kamini cemetery, there was also an exceptional burial with two spears, gold jewellery, a seal ring, and fine vases, all buried in a think pyre of burned animal sacrifices.

Not a long time: Koukounaries on Paros

Neighbouring Naxos to the west is Paros, the island that would be its fierce rival in the seventh and sixth centuries based on each island’s natural resources of fine marble. We have no evidence for such a rivalry in the Late Bronze Age, except perhaps in the case of the settlement at Koukounaries, a rocky peak overlooking the bay of Naoussa on the north coast of Paros.

Koukounaries saw habitation in the Early Cycladic Bronze Age (third millennium BC), but there is no evidence that the site was occupied in the Mycenaean palatial period until the very end of the thirteenth century. As or just before the Aegean palaces were destroyed, at the peak of the formidable acropolis of Koukounaries, a large, two-corridor “mansion” was constructed, along with an almost-Cyclopean fortification wall – that is, a fortification wall in a similar style to the palatial centres of Mycenaean Greece.

The finds from the mansion point to the high status of the occupants: a clay bathtub; large quantities of storage vessels and fine ware pottery; ivory furniture; a piece of a horse harness; and weapons.

Remains of the “mansion” in Koukounaries. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

The position of the mansion affords a wide view of both the surrounding countryside and across the bay of Naoussa, which itself is a sheltered harbour. It is not difficult to see why Postpalatial Koukounaries has been identified as a refuge settlement: a temporary settlement, easily defensible, to which the rulers of Mycenaean Greece fled as their mainland palaces were destroyed.

The identification of the mansion at Koukounaries as a temporary settlement is largely based on the evidence that it was not occupied for very long: at the end of the “early” or beginning of the “middle” phase of Late Helladic IIIC pottery, the mansion was destroyed by fire. Within the building were the skeletal remains of humans and animals in the corridor leading to the north entrance, and the remains of children in the southern intersection of the basement (Schilardi 1992).

The mansion burners

Who destroyed the mansion at Koukounaries? Scholarship about the settlement has proposed a number of possibilities that can be divided into two main camps: that the settlement was destroyed by human raiders; or that the settlement was destroyed by a natural disaster, namely an earthquake.

The main proponent of the earthquake hypothesis is Andreas G. Vlachopoloulos, whose research focuses on the Late Bronze Age Cyclades. Vlachopoulos argues that the valuable nature of the finds on the site indicates that pirates or raiders were not responsible, as they would have looted these finds (reported in Middleton 2010, p. 74; Vlachopoulos and Charalambidou 2020, p. 1010).

It is certainly feasible that an earthquake could have severely damaged the mansion, although we must also consider that there is no clear evidence of falling rocks or masonry. Furthermore, while smoke and fire are major risks in modern earthquakes, in an ancient building we must suppose that an oil lamp or cooking fire somehow got out of control and caused most of the damage to the site.

Human aggression in the destruction is supported by a variety of scholars, all with alternative preferences. Drews suggests that “sea raiders” from coastal Thessaly and Achaea Phthiotis were responsible for this destruction, among many others (Drews 1993, pp. 221-222). Dimitrios Schilardi, the excavator of Koukounaries, prefers more general or local explanations: he has suggested that the site was destroyed by pirates, or Mycenaean refugees – or perhaps by the neighbouring Naxians (Schilardi 1984, pp. 202-203; 1992, pp. 635-636).

Koukounaries and Grotta are extremely close – Vlachopoulos describes them as “opposite” coasts, although cater-cornered might be more accurate; nevertheless, sailing time between the two is not significant for seasoned crews (Vlachopoulos 2003, p. 230). Despite the size of Naxos, it is to the eastern side of the Cyclades and settlement at Koukounaries might certainly have been in a position to cut it out of Aegean seaways in a time of crisis.

Alternatively, we may be reading the settlement at Koukounaries the wrong way entirely: it may be the base of pirates; the precious artifacts booty from raids conducted from this outpost. The architecture of the building may not support this interpretation, but it is worth considering as an alternative motive for the destruction of the site.

“Sailor-Warriors” of the Aegean? Cultures of violence in the Postpalatial period

How can we determine which approach makes better sense of the evidence from Koukounaries? Realistically, any answer to the question who or what destroyed the mansion at Koukounaries? will be inconclusive. Our interpretation will be partially be based on how we understand the “crisis years” at the end of the Aegean Bronze Age. Did the survivors of the Mycenaean palatial collapse live peacefully or violently?

Pictorial pottery from Koukounaries. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

Margaretha Kramer-Hajos has described the culture of the Postpalatial Euboean gulf as one of “sailor warriors” who used their coastal settlements to raid and pillage (Kramer-Hajos 2016, pp. 149-165). The basis for this argument in the Euboean gulf, where few Postpalatial burials are known, is largely that of the pictorial pottery showing warriors and ship battles from Lefkandi and Kynos; however, Kramer-Hajos draws the parallel with Achaea, another non-palatial gulf-region where warrior burials become prominent in the twelfth century.

At Grotta two swords are known from nine chamber tombs, plus the strangely differentiated “warrior” with two spears buried in a pyre of animal sacrifices. As with all of the burials known from Postpalatial Naxos, they are very wealthy. Vlachopoulos and Xenia Charalambidou suggest that these weapons “could have served as symbols of prestige and insignia of office” rather than indicating warfare (Vlachopolous and Charalambidou 2020, pp. 1012-1013).

An argument often made is that so-called “warrior burials” should be taken as symbols of prestige and not biographical information about the interred individual. This argument is especially persuasive in situations where children, including infants, are buried with swords that are larger than they are (Härke 1992, pp. 150-152).

On the other hand, one has to wonder why weapons – especially swords, weapons specifically for inter-human combat – become prestigious in a culture if there isn’t some prestige attached to being a warrior. So, while we might want to be cautious describing the individuals interred with swords as warriors – although we don’t necessarily have to be in all circumstances – it would be churlish to suggest that burial with weapons aren’t indicative that violence was an important part of the social structure in which those burials occur.

View of Naoussa Bay, Paros, from the acropolis at Koukounaries. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

But if we look at the Naxian pottery of LH IIIC we do not see any indication of this “warrior” character. As described above, LH IIIC Naxian pottery is distinct, focusing on maritime themes. The significant amount of imported pottery points to a vibrant trading community at Grotta, and could perhaps point to the nature of the weapons as defensive – perhaps against Euboean gulf “sailor-warriors” – rather than offensive.

But the twist in this tale is that the prominence of Grotta appears to begin in the aftermath of the attack on Koukounaries in the middle of the Postpalatial period. It may be the case that the prosperity of Naxos was the result of their attack on their neighbour, rather than an indication of their generally peace-loving ways.

Furthermore, while Vlachopoulos once pointed to the absence of evidence of other destructions in the Postpalatial Cyclades as evidence that this was a peaceful period (2003, p. 231), further research has undermined this interpretation. The sanctuary of Phylakopi on Melos was destroyed around the same time as the mansion at Koukounaries; other sites throughout the archipelago are abandoned early in the twelfth century, including Ayia Irini on Kea, where the sanctuary remained in use, and Ayios Andreas on Siphnos.

View from Koukounaries, with Naoussa Bay in the distance. Contrary to what Robert Drews has suggested, any attackers would be visible from a long way away, and the inhabitants would have had plenty of time to prepare their defences. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

On the other hand, the acropolis at Koukounaries is intentionally incredibly difficult to attack, hence its interpretation as a “refuge settlement”. Despite Drews’ argument that it would only take fifteen minutes for “veteran sackers of cities” to reach the top of the citadel once they arrived in Naoussa Bay, the entire bay is extremely visible from Koukounaries, and invaders would be visible for their entire approach to the acropolis. If the settlement were under attack, it would have to be a conscious decision on the part of the occupants not to try to make their escape – perhaps because they recognized the vessels of their neigbours.

Vlachopoulos also makes the point that the Postpalatial period is around a century and a half long: “diverse cultural phenomena and historical events unrelated to each other may have taken place in an expanded insular region, where mercantile and seafare [sic] activities seem to have been vigorous and continuous” (2003, p. 231). One act of extreme violence does not make the entire archipelago a culture of “sailor-warriors”; rather, it may have been defending a peaceful status quo.

Grotta itself does not suffer any visible destruction until the end of the Postpalatial period, where an abundance of sea sand seems to indicate that the site was flooded. Settlement moved to the Kastro hill, and the former settlement became a cemetery in the tenth century. If Grotta were defending itself by destroying the settlement at Koukounaries, it appears to have been successful.

Concluding thoughts

We can never know for sure who the agents behind prehistoric destructions really were; this would even be the case if we could know for sure that human violence rather than a natural disaster destroyed a site. While further excavation or research can often clarify archaeological questions, it is almost impossible to identify who destroyed a settlement without some kind of historical tradition to point the way (as in the case of the destruction of Asine).

In the aftermath of the palatial destructions in Greece there are a number of further destructions throughout the Aegean, suggesting that the period was one of instability and violence. And yet, in the period concurrent with the middle phase of Late Helladic IIIC pottery, there is one last flourish of Mycenaean culture, pottery, and burial. Sites across Greece remain interconnected and further connected with other regions of the Mediterranean, west and east.

Was this flourishing a last hurrah of “sailor-warriors”, settlements that violently dominated the seaways and thus prospered in a period where the previous power structure had been annihilated? Or is the evidence of violence the result of natural disasters from which degraded building techniques and inadequate food stores could no longer protect settlements?

We will never know if the Naxians, or any human action, destroyed the mansion at Koukounaries. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the rise in violent iconography and the prestige of swords and spears in the Postpalatial period is no coincidence, and that willingness to do violence was becoming a necessary skill in the cultural climate. But certain centres do seem to have been more resistive to this pressure – among them, the potters of Naxos. Postpalatial Greece was likely a violent place to live, but there are some bright spots among the violence.