Geometric Greece: 900-700 BC

By J. N. Coldstream | Go to book overview

12

Towns and Villages

Geometric Greece is rich in graves, but traces of the living are comparatively scarce. Whereas eighth-century burials have been excavated at well over a hundred sites throughout the Greek world, fewer than fifty have produced any evidence of settlement. At most of these places the architectural remains are either negligible or missing altogether, the evidence often being confined to a handful of Geometric sherds found in later contexts. The chief reason for this state of affairs is the flimsy nature of most Geometric houses, especially on the Greek mainland where it was the custom to build in mud brick on a rough stone base. This sort of structure had little chance of surviving the hazards of later periods, whenever wide and deep trenches had to be dug for the laying of massive and monumental foundations. Hence we may never gain anything more than a very sketchy knowledge of those major Geometric cities on the mainland which were also destined to enjoy the most distinguished future: Athens, Corinth, and Argos. Thanks to the huge overlay of Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, and more recent periods, the remains of Geometric houses in these cities are very scanty indeed; at many points nothing is left except for domestic deposits in wells. However, by taking into consideration the wide scatter of contemporary graves, we can roughly plot the inhabited areas; and in each case it seems that the eighth-century city still consisted of a group of detached and unfortified villages, without any obvious centre of public life. 1 The same appears to be true of Eretria and Knossos, two other major cities of this period which are less heavily overlaid, and which may therefore reveal more of their plan to present and future excavators.

Opportunities for exploration are especially favourable at Old Smyrna, a polis cut off in its prime by a Lydian army around 600 B.C. The Geometric town was of moderate size, occupying a promontory about 350m. long and 250m. wide. To judge from the main area so far excavated (c. 90×4001.), habitation was already quite dense by the late eighth century; but there was a curious contrast between the squalor of the private houses and the magnificent walls which enclosed the whole city. To have any fortifications at all was unusual for a Geometric polis; the only other complete circuits of these times are at Melia and Emporio, hastily thrown up in rubble to protect the acropolis only. But there is nothing hasty about the walls of Smyrna (fig. 96a pp. 261 f.), which must have been the pride of the city. They have a monumental appearance, far in advance of their time. Even in their original form (c. 850 B.C.), the foundations of one bastion consist of sawn ashlar blocks almost a metre long, laid in regular courses. 2 When the circuit was repaired and thickened in the mid-eighth century, the

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