Iklaina: Was the First Greek City State of Mycenaean Culture?
Recent excavations at Iklaina, hitherto believed to be a sleepy historic village on the Peloponnesian Peninsula, have challenged the established chronology of state formation in Greece. The remarkable finds indicate that Iklaina was in fact a major center of Mycenaean culture and likely the very first independent state in Greece, and indeed the whole of Europe, by hundreds of years.
Iklaina has been immortalized by Homer’s Iliad, where it played an important role in the Trojan War. Situated strategically overlooking the Ionian Sea, on recent evidence Iklaina appears to have been an important state capital in the Late Bronze Age (C. 1600 to 1100 BC), also known as the Mycenaean period in Greece.
Ruins unearthed at Iklaina. (Iklaina Archaeological Project)
Remains Unearthed at Iklaina
An open-air pagan sanctuary, an early Mycenaean palace, giant terrace walls, murals, an advanced drainage system with massive stone-built sewers and an elaborate irrigation system with clay pipes that was far ahead of its time are just some of the unexpected finds at the site. Archaeologists have even uncovered a clay tablet which features an early example of Linear B writing, and dates back to between 1350 and 1300 BC. Excavations have revealed that the city was divided into three sections—administrative, residential and manufacturing—indicating a sophisticated economic and social structure.
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These discoveries have raised Iklaina’s status from an insignificant ancient settlement into one of the earliest, if not the earliest, complex states to arise in Greece and the western world. Indeed, as a fledgling state, archaeologists believe that further study of its remains will provide fascinating insights into the transition from a world without states to one where the state is the organizing principle. They also hope to learn more about the emergence of the Mycenaean state of Pylos and the processes of state formation around the world.
Iklaina ruins from the air. (Iklaina Archaeological Project)
Iklaina and its Cyclopean Terrace
One of the most intriguing finds unearthed by the archaeologists has been a gigantic building that has been named the Cyclopean Terrace. Found in the administrative quarter, the building has a commanding presence over the entire site. Built of giant limestone boulders roughly fitted together, with smaller stones placed between, it is difficult to imagine that it is the work of humans. The ancients coming several centuries later certainly didn’t think so, and believed that only giant beings like the Cyclops could have moved and maneuvered into place such massive stones. And so this kind of colossal Mycenaean architecture has come to be referred to as Cyclopean.
The giant terrace supported a two or three storey building which unfortunately no longer exists. However, rooms to the south side of the building complex survive and help to date it and give an idea of its original purpose. All the evidence is consistent with the building being a large palace or administrative center. “It appears that it was the buildings where the ruler and his family resided, part of the ’administrative center’ of the site. It was built sometime between 1350 and 1300 BC,” Prof. Michael Cosmopoulos of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who is heading the dig, told Haaretz.
This kind of an impressive structure would have required ample resources and manpower to build and there is no reason for constructing such a monumental structure in a remote or unimportant town. These buildings therefore suggest that Iklaina was the capital of an independent state for much of the Mycenaean period, long before such states were thought to exist in Greece. The earliest complex state in ancient Greece, in fact, had been thought to have arisen around 3,100 years ago. However, the discoveries from Iklaina indicate that such states were taking form as far back as 3,400 years ago.
The Linear B Tablet found at Iklaina. (Iklaina Archaeological Project)
The Linear B Tablet
The strongest evidence for this comes in the form of a clay tablet which has an administrative record written in Linear B, a syllabic script used for writing Mycenaean Greek. The tablet has inscriptions on both sides. On one side is a list of male names, which is possibly a list of personnel. On the reverse is a heading that translates as “manufactured” or “assembled.” However, since the tablet is broken the actual content of the tablet is missing.
There is however enough of the remaining part of the tablet to show that it is the earliest known government record in Europe. As Cosmopoulos says, dating from 1350 to 1300 BC, “it is the oldest Linear B tablet ever found, some 100 to 150 years older than those found at Nestor’s Palace [1200 BC]. As a state record, it reveals the existence of the independent state of Iklaina.”
Interestingly, the tablet also pushes back the spread of literacy in the region, suggesting as it does that bureaucracy and literacy appeared earlier in the region than previously thought and were not restricted to the elite and the major ruling centers. The existence of the tablet, containing a government record, and not sacred texts accessible only to high priests, suggests that literacy in Greece was more widespread at the time than earlier believed.
The Palace of Nestor is the best-preserved Mycenaean Greek palace discovered to date. (Dimitris19933 / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Palace of Nestor as a Federal Center and the Demise of Iklaina
Nestor’s Palace or the Palace of Nestor was Iklaina’s neighboring state 10 kilometers (6 miles) away in Pylos. Both states blossomed at around the same time from 1500 to 1250 BC. The Palace of Nestor likely functioned loosely as a federal center. Iklaina was destroyed by enemy attack around the same time that the Palace of Nestor expanded. It was probably the Palace of Nestor that swallowed it up, reducing it from an independent state in the federation to a mere manufacturing center.
In 1200 BC Pylos consisted of two provinces divided into independent regions, nine in the western province and seven in the eastern. The Palace of Nestor was the overarching center that held together all the regions. “Iklaina was the capital of one of the regions, the only one to reveal a settlement but also the existence of two levels of government, central and regional, as is the case in modern federal states,” explained Cosmopoulos.
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“Iklaina was occupied by the ruler of Nestor’s Palace around 1250 BC. The administrative center was destroyed by the invaders and only the workshops survived, meaning that it was demoted to a manufacturing hub. These were then abandoned in 1200 BC with the destruction of Nestor’s Palace.”
Recent excavations in Iklaina have unearthed enough fascinating evidence to make a strong case for it being one of the earliest states in mainland Greece and Europe. Just to keep the historical record straight, it should perhaps be remembered that this was thousands of years later than the appearance of similar forms of government in Mesopotamia.
Top image: Aerial view of Iklaina. Source: Michael Cosmopoulos
By Sahir Pandey
Bohstrom, P. 2017. “Unknown Monumental Palace Rewrites Ancient Greek History” in Haaretz. Available at: https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/2017-01-30/ty-article-magazine/unknown-palace-rewrites-ancient-greek-history/0000017f-e5b3-d97e-a37f-f7f7bd1e0000
Chrysopoulos, P. 2022. “Iklaina: The First City-State of Ancient Greece and Europe” in Greek Reporter. Available at: https://greekreporter.com/2022/05/12/iklaina-the-first-city-state-of-ancient-greece-and-europe/
Greek Reporter. No date. “Iklaina, The First City State” in A to Z Guides Blog. Available at: https://www.atoz-guides.com/iklaina-first-city-state/
Iklaina Archaeological Project. Available at: http://www.iklaina.org/
Karaiskaki, T. 2019. “Archaeology: Uncovering Homer’s Legendary Town of Iklaina” in Greece Is. Available at: https://www.greece-is.com/news/archaeology-uncovering-homers-legendary-town-of-iklaina/