Royal remains ... A collapsed stone shelf in what archaeologists believe may be the ruins of the capital palace of Mycenean Sparta. Source: Greek Culture Ministry
HELEN. Achilles. Agamemnon. They’re names which date from the dawn of civilisation. Now the lost capital of Mycenean Sparta is emerging from the rubble of myth and history.
The origins of the story of the Spartan King Menelaus who besieged the ancient city of Troy for 10 years in order to get back his wayward wife, Helen, are lost in time.
His story, and that of his brother King Agamemnon of Mycenae and a swathe of ancient heroes, was recorded several centuries later by the great Greek poet Homer in his works the Illiad and the Odyssey.
But it was long thought to be little more than mythology — until, in 1870, pioneering archeologist Heinrich Schliemann uncovered the ruins of two of the cities at the heart of the tale — King Priam’s Troy and King Agamemnon’s Mycenae.
The Sparta of King Menelaus, however, has never found.
Dawn of civilisation ... Called the mask of Agamemnon, though it may have belonged to his father, this mask was recovered from citadel of Mycenae. Source: ThinkStock
Seat of power
Now, a newly uncovered palace sitting on a hill in the Spartan plain is beginning to look as though it may have been the seat of his throne.
It’s not the Sparta you may be thinking of: The fanatical warriors, men and women trained from birth to fight to the death, as shown in movies such as the 300 belong to a much later time.
But the bronze-age Spartans played no less an important role in the political machinations and wars of their time.
The culture surged to prominence as part of the Mycenaean civilisation of 1700BC. It was an era of spectacular advancement in technology, art, writing and international trade. It was also a time of brutal politics.
Some 500 years later, the culture collapsed under the weight of a 300-year drought and a series of devastating earthquakes. Ancient Greece then entered a dark age.
The great palace of Sparta burnt to the ground in the 14th Century BC. It was never rebuilt, and knowledge of its whereabouts was eventually lost to time.
Holy of holies ... Excavation work within the rubble of what may be Mycenean Sparta’s royal palace. Source: Greek Culture Ministry
Clues in the rubble
The excavation site, first found in 2009, has revealed 10 rooms of an extensive structure called Ayios Vassileios, some 12km from the capital of the militant city state that arose centuries later.
Fragments of ornate frescoes, ivory figurines, 20 bronze swords, a bull-shaped cup and a seal emblazoned with the image of a nautilus shell are some of the artefacts sifted from the rubble.
Among the finds are the clay tables the bureaucrats of the time used to keep records. These were baked in the fire which destroyed the palace, preserving their text.
A bull-shaped cup and a nautilus-shaped seal found among the ruins. Greek Culture Ministry
They are written in an early version of the ancient Linear B script which was only deciphered in the 1950s. Some 100 years older than any other find, these rare clay tablets may help bridge the evolution of the script from the still unreadable Minoan Crete writing known as Linear A.
The writings have as yet not been fully deciphered, but a series of male and female names have been identified and some documents determined to be financial accounts and records of religious offerings.
Writing was so rare at the time that it is almost always only found at locations of great significance, such as royal palaces.