Text #9352"The Greek Dark Ages", in .
The Greek Dark Age or Ages and Geometric or Homeric Age (ca. 1100–800 BC) are terms that have regularly been used to refer to the period of Greek history from the presumed Dorian invasion and end of the Mycenaean palatial civilization around 1100 BC, to the first signs of the Greek poleis in the 9th century BC.
The archaeological evidence shows a widespread collapse of Bronze Age civilization in the eastern Mediterranean world at the outset of the period, as the great palaces and cities of the Mycenaeans were destroyed or abandoned. Around this time, the Hittite civilization suffered serious disruption and cities from Troy to Gaza were destroyed. Following the collapse, fewer and smaller settlements suggest famine and depopulation. In Greece the Linear B writing of the Greek language used by Mycenaean bureaucrats ceased. The decoration on Greek pottery after ca 1100 BC lacks the figurative decoration of Mycenaean ware and is restricted to simpler, generally geometric styles (1000–700 BC). It was previously thought that all contact was lost between mainland Hellenes and foreign powers during this period, yielding little cultural progress or growth; however, artifacts from excavations at Lefkandi on the Lelantine Plain in Euboea show that significant cultural and trade links with the east, particularly the Levant coast, developed from c. 900 BC onwards, and evidence has emerged of the new presence of Hellenes in sub-Mycenaean Cyprus and on the Syrian coast at Al Mina.
From around 1200 BC, the palace centres and outlying settlements of the Mycenaeans’ highly organized culture began to be abandoned or destroyed, and by 1050 BC, the recognizable features of Mycenaean culture had disappeared. Many explanations attribute the fall of the Mycenaean civilization and the Bronze Age collapse to climatic or environmental catastrophe combined with an invasion by Dorians or by the Sea Peoples or the widespread availability of edged weapons of iron, but no single explanation fits the available archaeological evidence.
Around this time large-scale revolts took place in several parts of the Eastern Mediterranean, and attempts to overthrow existing kingdoms were made as a result of economic and political instability by surrounding people who were already plagued with famine and hardship. Part of the Hittite kingdom was invaded and conquered by the so-called Sea Peoples whose origins – perhaps from different parts of the Mediterranean, such as the Black Sea, the Aegean and Anatolian regions – remain obscure. The thirteenth and twelfth-century inscriptions and carvings at Karnak and Luxor are the only sources for “Sea Peoples”, a term invented by the Egyptians themselves and recorded in the boastful accounts of Egyptian military successes:
The foreign countries … made a conspiracy in their islands. All at once the lands were on the move, scattered in war. No country could stand before their arms… Their league was Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen and Weshesh.
A similar assemblage of peoples may have attempted to invade Egypt twice, once during the reign of Merneptah about 1208 BC, and then again during the reign of Ramesses III about 1178 BC.
With the collapse of the palatial centres, no more monumental stone buildings were built and the practice of wall painting may have ceased; writing in the Linear B script ceased, vital trade links were lost, and towns and villages were abandoned. The population of Greece was reduced, and the world of organized state armies, kings, officials, and redistributive systems disappeared. Most of the information about the period comes from burial sites and the grave goods contained within them. To what extent the earliest Greek literary sources, the Homeric epics (8th–7th century) and Hesiod’s Works and Days (8th–7th century), describe life in the 9th–8th centuries remains a matter of considerable debate.
The fragmented, localized and autonomous cultures of reduced complexity are noted for such diversity of their material cultures in pottery styles (conservative in Athens, eclectic at Knossos), burial practices and settlement structures, that generalizations about a “Dark Age society” are misleading. Tholos tombs are found in early Iron Age Thessaly and in Crete but not in general elsewhere, and cremation is the dominant rite in Attica, but nearby in the Argolid it was inhumation. Some former sites of Mycenaean palaces, such as Argos or Knossos, continued to be occupied; the fact that other sites experienced an expansive “boom time” of a generation or two before they were abandoned has been associated by James Whitley with the “Big-man social organization”, which is based on personal charisma and inherently unstable: he interprets Lefkandi in this light.
Some regions in Greece, such as Attica, Euboea and central Crete, recovered economically from these events faster than others, but life for the poorest Greeks would have remained relatively unchanged as it had done for centuries. There was still farming, weaving, metalworking and potting in this time, albeit at a lower level of output and for local use in local styles. Some technical innovations were introduced around 1050 BC with the start of the Proto-geometric style (1050–900 BC), such as the superior pottery technology, that resulted in a faster potter’s wheel for superior vase shapes and the use of a compass to draw perfect circles and semicircles for decoration. Better glazes were achieved by higher temperature firing of clay. However, the overall trend was toward simpler, less intricate pieces and fewer resources being devoted to the creation of beautiful art.
During this time the smelting of iron was learnt from Cyprus and the Levant, exploited and improved upon, using local deposits of iron ore previously ignored by the Mycenaeans: edged weapons were now within reach of less elite warriors. Though the universal use of iron was one shared feature among Dark Age settlements, it is still uncertain when the forged iron weapons and armour achieved superior strength to those that had been previously cast and hammered from bronze. From 1050 BC many small local iron industries appeared, and by 900 almost all weapons in grave goods were made of iron.
The distribution of the Ionic Greek dialect in historic times indicates early movement from the mainland of Greece to the Anatolian coast to such sites as Miletus, Ephesus, and Colophon, perhaps as early as 1000 BC, though the contemporaneous evidence is scant. In Cyprus some archaeological sites begin to show identifiably Greek ceramics, a colony of Euboean Greeks was established at Al Mina on the Syrian coast, and a reviving Aegean Greek network of exchange can be detected from 10th century Attic Proto-geometric pottery found in Crete and at Samos, off the coast of Asia Minor.
Cyprus was inhabited by a mix of “Pelasgians” and Phoenicians, joined during this period by the first Greek settlements. Potters in Cyprus initiated the most elegant new pottery style of the 10th and 9th centuries, the ‘Cypro-Phoenician’ ‘black on red’ style of small flasks and jugs that held precious contents, probably scented oil. Together with distinctively Greek Euboean ceramic wares it was widely exported and is found in Levantine sites, including Tyre and far inland in the late 11th and 10th centuries. Cypriot metalwork was exchanged in Crete.
It is likely that Greece during this period was divided into independent regions organized by kinship groups and the oikoi or households, the origins of the later poleis. Excavations of Dark Age communities such as Nichoria in the Peloponnese have shown how a Bronze Age town was abandoned in 1150 BC but then reemerged as a small village cluster by 1075 BC. At this time there were only around forty families living there with plenty of good farming land and grazing for cattle. The remains of a 10th century building, including a megaron, on the top of the ridge have led to speculation that this was the chieftain’s house. This was a larger structure than those surrounding it but it was still made from the same materials (mud brick and thatched roof). It was perhaps also a place of communal storage of food and of religious significance. High status individuals did in fact exist in the Dark Age, but their standard of living was not significantly higher than others of their village. Most Greeks did not live in isolated farmsteads but in small settlements. It is likely that, as at the dawn of the historical period two or three hundred years later, the main economic resources for each family was the ancestral plot of land of the oikos, the kleros or allotment; without this a man could not marry.
Lefkandi on the island of Euboea was a prosperous settlement in the Late Bronze Age, possibly to be identified with old Eretria. It recovered quickly from the collapse of Mycenaean culture, and in 1981 excavators of a burial ground found the largest 10th century building yet known from Greece. Sometimes called ‘the heroon, this long narrow building, (50 metres by 10 metres, or ca. 150 feet by 30 feet) contained two burial shafts. In one were placed four horses and the other contained a cremated male buried with his iron weapons and an inhumed woman, heavily adorned with gold jewellery. The man’s bones were placed in a bronze jar from Cyprus, with hunting scenes on the cast rim. The woman was clad with gold coils in her hair, rings, gold breast plates, an heirloom necklace (an elaborate Cypriot or Near Eastern necklace made some 200–300 years before her burial) and an ivory handled dagger at her head. The horses appeared to have been sacrificed, some appearing to have iron bits in their mouths. No evidence survives to show whether the building was erected to house the burial, or whether the ‘hero’ or local chieftain in the grave was cremated and then buried in his grand house; whichever is true, the house was soon demolished and the debris used to form a roughly circular mound over the wall stumps.
Within the next few years and down to c 820 BC, rich members of the community were cremated and buried close to the eastern end of the building, in much the same way as Christians might seek to be buried close to a saint’s grave; the presence of imported objects, notable throughout more than eighty further burials, contrast with other nearby cemeteries at Lefkandi and attest to a lasting elite tradition.
The archaeological record of many sites demonstrates that the economic recovery of Greece was well advanced by the beginning of the 8th century BC. Both cemeteries such as the Kerameikos in Athens or Lefkandi and sanctuaries such as Olympia, recently founded Delphi or the Heraion of Samos, first of the colossal free-standing temples, are richly provided with offerings including items from the Near East, from Egypt and from Italy made of exotic materials such as amber or ivory, while exports of Greek pottery demonstrate contact with the Levant coast at such sites as Al Mina and with the region of the Villanovan culture to the north of Rome. The decoration of pottery becomes more and more elaborate and includes figured scenes that parallel the stories of Homeric Epic. Iron tools and weapons become better in quality, while renewed Mediterranean trade must have brought new supplies of copper and tin to make a wide range of elaborate bronze objects such as tripod stands like those offered as prizes in the funeral games celebrated by Achilles for Patroclus. Other coastal regions of Greece besides Euboea were once again full participants in the commercial and cultural exchanges of the eastern and central Mediterranean, while communities developed which were governed by an elite group of aristocrats rather than by the single basileus or chieftain of earlier periods.
By the mid- to late 8th century BC a new alphabet system was adopted from the Phoenicians by a Greek with first-hand experience of it. The Greeks adapted the Phoenician writing system, notably introducing characters for vowel sounds and thereby creating the first truly alphabetic (as opposed to abjad) writing system. The new alphabet quickly spread throughout the Mediterranean and was used to write not only the Greek language, but also Phrygian and other languages in the eastern Mediterranean. As Greece sent out colonies west towards Sicily and Italy (Pithekoussae, Cumae), the influence of their new alphabet extended further. The ceramic Euboean artifact inscribed with a few lines written in the Greek alphabet referring to “Nestor’s cup”, discovered in a grave at Pithekoussae (Ischia) dates from c. 730 BC; it seems to be the oldest written reference to the Iliad. The Etruscans benefited from the innovation: Old Italic variants spread throughout Italy from the 8th century. Other variants of the alphabet appear on the Lemnos Stele and in the alphabets of Asia Minor. The previous Linear scripts were not completely abandoned: the Cypriot syllabary, descended from Linear A, remained in use on Cyprus in Arcadocypriot Greek and Eteocypriot inscriptions until the Hellenistic era.