Tag Archives: Greece

Greece orders emergency measures as heatwave grips the country

If this year hadn’t been marked so deeply by the pandemic, it might have remained in history as the year of wildfires. Countries in southern Europe are now also taking measures to prevent such events from sparking up along their borders, as a body of hot air coming from Africa is causing heatwaves across the area. This heatwave is expected to last more than a week.

Image via Pixabay.

Against this background, Greek authorities have ordered additional fire patrols and emergency efforts to create air-conditioned areas for workers, the public, and refugees. Still, this is all complicated by limits and measures imposed to control the pandemic.


“This is a dangerous weather phenomenon. We have been saying it from the start of the week,” said Theodoris Kolydas, director of Greece’s National Meteorological Service, for Agence France-Presse. “The conditions will be stubborn and only subside gradually. Very hot air masses from the shores of Africa are heading toward our region.”

The measures were announced on Friday, and are in effect starting this week, as temperatures are expected to rise over 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 F) in many areas of the country.

Short power outages were reported in parts of greater Athens on Friday as grids are struggling to keep up with air-conditioner-fueled demand for energy. Local authorities have performed multiple infrastructure maintenance inspections on Friday to ensure the grid and water distribution network can bear the increased loads Greece is likely to see this week. Despite this, officials said that the increased use of air conditioning is ‘testing’ the country’s grids.

But it’s not just hardware that’s getting special care. Workers who are exposed to the heat, such as those in construction, manual labor, or catering will be given longer breaks between midday and 4:00 p.m., the hottest part of the day, according to guidelines set down by the Labor Ministry. Employers will also have to provide them with water and air-conditioned rest areas to prevent heat-stroke.

Greece’s concern with the heat is understandable. The country traditionally has one hot and dry season, followed by a cold and wet one. Its forests are predominantly dry and resinous, and conifers are also quite common — making them very fertile ground for wildfires. Three separate fires have swept through southern Greece this week, damaging property around the cities of Athens and Patras.

“On average (in mid-summer), we are dealing with about 50 fires per day, and many of those are under difficult conditions. That number is clearly increasing each year,” civil protection chief Nikos Hardalias said for local TV station Antenna. “It’s a phenomenon that’s gradually getting worse. Climate change is now a climate threat. I say it everywhere I go. We all have a responsibility to protect the country”.

Such measures seem extraordinary to us today, tools to be used in usual circumstances before everything gets back to normal. But, sadly, climate emergencies are likely to become the norm rather than the exception in the future. For now, in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s summer — so we’re dealing with heatwaves and wildfires, mostly. But freak weather events will become more common all throughout the year and, as their toll on public services mounts, we might start seeing shortages of power and water — which is exactly why Greece is now performing emergency inspections on their power grid and water distribution network.

Genomic studies uncover the tale of the first Bronze Age civilizations in Europe

Although they were set apart in cultural customs, architectural preference, and art, the earliest bronze-using civilizations from Europe were quite similar from a genetic standpoint, a new paper reports.

Reenactors living as a bronze-age family. Image credits Hans Splinter.

The exact details of the Early Bronze Age civilizations across the world aren’t always clear — and the peoples living around the Aegean Sea are no exception to this. One theory regarding this period is that these groups — mainly the Minoan, Helladic, and Cycladic civilizations — were introduced to new technology and ideas by groups migrating from the east of the Aegean, with whom they intermingled.

However, new findings show that these groups were very similar genetically, which wouldn’t support the idea that an outside group was present and overwhelmingly mixed with the locals, at least during the Early Bronze age (5000 years ago). In turn, this would mean that the defining technologies and developments of this era, the ones that took us from the stone to the copper/bronze age, were developed in the Aegean Sea region largely independently of outside influences. That being said, the team does report finding genetic evidence of ‘relatively small-scale migration’ from the East of this area.

Domestically-developed, foreign influences

“Implementation of deep learning in demographic inference based on ancient samples allowed us to reconstruct ancestral relationships between ancient populations and reliably infer the amount and timing of massive migration events that marked the cultural transition from Neolithic to Bronze Age in Aegean,” says Olga Dolgova, a postdoctoral researcher in the Population Genomics Group at the Centre Nacional d’anàlisi Genòmica (CNAG-CRG), and a co-author of the paper.

The transition from the late stone age to the early bronze age was mediated (and made possible) by the development of ideas such as urban centers, the use of metal, an intensification in trade, and writing. History is rife with examples of people moving around and spreading ideas as they go, so the team set out to understand whether the Early Bronze Age in the Aegean area was made possible by such a movement of people and ideas.

To find out, they took samples from well-preserved skeletal remains at archaeological sites throughout this region. Six whole genomes were sequenced, four of them belonging to individuals from the three local culture groups during the Early Bronze Age, and two from the Helladic culture. Furthermore, full mitochondrial genomes were sequenced from 11 other individuals who lived during the Early Bronze Age.

This data was pooled together and used to perform demographic and statistical analyses in order to uncover the individual histories of the different population groups that inhabited this area at the time.

The findings seem to suggest that early developments were in large part made locally, most likely growing on top of the cultural background of local Neolithic groups, and weren’t owed to a massive influx of people from other areas.

By the Middle Bronze Age (4000-4,600 years ago) however, individuals living in the northern Aegean area were quite different, genetically, from those in the Early Bronze Age. Half their lineage traced back to people from the Pontic-Caspian steppe, an area spanning to the north of the Black Sea from the Danube and to the Ural river. By this point, they were already highly similar to modern Greeks, the team adds.

In essence, the findings suggest that immigration started playing an important role in shaping local genetics after the peoples in the Aegean area had already transitioned from the stone to copper/early bronze age. With that in mind, these influxes precede the earliest known forms of Greek; this would suggest that although immigration didn’t play a large part in shaping technology and know-how during the early bronze age, it did play a central role in cultural matters as time went on, such as the emergence and evolution of Proto-Greek and Indo-European languages in either Anatolia or the Pontic-Caspian Steppe region.

“Taking advantage [of the fact] that the number of samples and DNA quality we found is huge for this type of study, we have developed sophisticated machine learning tools to overcome challenges such as low depth of coverage, damage, and modern human contamination, opening the door for the application of artificial intelligence to paleogenomics data,” says Oscar Lao, Head of the Population Genomics Group at the CNAG-CRG, and a co-author of the paper.

The advent of the Bronze Age in the Aegean region was a pivotal event in European history, one whose legacy still shapes much of its economic, social, politic, and philosophical traditions — and, by extension, the shape of the world we live in today.

Despite this, we know precious little of the peoples that made this transition, how they fared over time, or how much of them still resides in the genomes of modern-day groups such as the Greeks. The team hopes that similar research can be carried out in the Armenian and Caucasus regions, two regions ‘to the east of the Aegean’. A better understanding of peoples here could help further clarify what was going on in the Aegean at the time, helping us better understand the evolution of local technology, languages, customs, and genetic heritage.

The paper “The genomic history of the Aegean palatial civilizations” has been published in the journal Cell.

Archaeologists in Turkey uncover wicked 2,400-year-old Dionysus mask

Dionysus isn’t exactly the most powerful or well-known god of the Greek Pantheon. But as the god of wine, fertility, and ecstasy, he was bound to have his followers.

Now, archaeologists working in Turkey have uncovered an excellently-preserved terracotta mask depicting Dionysus dating from 2,400 years ago. The researchers believe the mask was used in wine-making rituals.

According to legend, a Dionysus mask would free the wearer from his inner desires, passions, and regrets.

Dionysus (called Bacchus in Roman mythology) is also the god of festivities, orchards, and theater. Image credits: Kaan Iren.

The ancient city of Daskyleion must have been a very interesting place. Located in the western part of Turkey, it was first settled by the Phrygians before 750 BC, and it is mentioned as a prosperous city in the times of the Trojan War. Some 200 years later, it was conquered by Cyrus the Great who went on to form the first Persian Empire. Daskyleion changed rulers between the Persians, Spartans, and the army of Alexander the Great — but culturally, the Hellenistic influence was obvious.

The ruins of Daskyleion were discovered in 1952 and since 1988, archaeologists have been digging continuously at the site, without getting even close to finishing. In 2005, archaeologists found a thrilling palace and since then, the artifacts have kept flowing. In more recent years, the dig has mostly focused on the acropolis — the religious citadel built on a large hill. That’s where the mask of Dionysus was also found, says Kaan Iren, an archaeologist at Mugla Sitki Kocman University.

“Excavations at Daskyleion are 32 years old, and this is the first time that we [have] unearthed a mask which is nearly intact,” the archaeologist says.

“This is possibly a votive mask,” Iren tells the Anadolu Agency; a votive mask would be donned when making a sacrifice or during a ritual. “More information will become available over time with more research.”

Image credits: Image credits: Kaan Iren.

Dionysus is mostly known today as a god of wine, but he was also a deity of agriculture and vegetation, with connections to grape-harvest and orchards. Wine, as well as the vine from which it was made, was seen not only as a symbol of the god — but a symbolic incarnation of the god himself (something which may sound a bit familiar). Performance art and drama was also important to Dionysus, and the Dionysian festivals would have featured an abundance of both. It is believed, in fact, that Greek theater started out from Dionysian festivals, where actors would draw support from the god to embody their roles and transform into the characters. Dionysus also fostered a “cult of the souls”, and the maenads who served him were said to make blood offerings.

Far from being the simple drunkard he is sometimes portrayed as, Dionysus was a complex and mysterious god, and his cult has spread far and wide in the Ancient world.

The location of Daskyleion. Wikipedia.

The terracotta mask is one of the many intriguing artifacts uncovered at Daskyleion. Just earlier this year, Iren and colleagues discovered a 2,700-year-old kitchen cellar, which they are now analyzing to understand more about the ancient city’s cuisine.

Daskyleion would have been a very multicultural city, at the crossroad of several cultures. Archaeologists believe these different cultures lived together in peace, as suggested by the different types of artifacts uncovered every year.

“Daskyleion was a multicultural city,” Iren said. “Mysians, Phrygians, Lydians, and Persians were living peacefully together in this city. Earliest finds go back to the 3rd Millenium BCE.”

“The peak time of the city was when it became a satrapal (administrative) center of the Persian Empire in 546 BCE,” Iren continued. “After the arrival of the Macedonians under the leadership of Alexander the Great (334 BCE), the city started to be ‘Hellenized.’”

UK, Greece, Czech Republic, Albania — no longer measles-free

Because of several measles outbreaks in the UK, Greece, Czech Republic, and Albania, these Four European states are no longer considered “measles-free.”

Measles is considered eliminated when there is no endemic disease transmission for 12 months or more in a specific geographic area, and this is no longer the case for these countries.

Measles is highly contagious and dangerous. Common complications include diarrhea and vomiting (which can lead to dehydration) middle ear infection (otitis media), inflammation of the voice box (laryngitis), infections of the airways and lungs, and fits caused by fever (febrile seizures). Measles is also potentially fatal. Other severe complications include blindness and, for pregnant women, miscarriage.

“Re-establishment of measles transmission is concerning. If high immunization coverage is not achieved and sustained in every community, both children and adults will suffer unnecessarily and some will tragically die,” warned Gunter Pfaff, the head of the WHO’s European Regional Verification Commission for Measles and Rubella Elimination.

Close to 365,000 cases have been reported worldwide this year according to the WHO — almost three times as many as in the first half of 2018. There were 89,994 cases of measles in 48 European countries in the first six months of 2019, more than double the number in the same period in 2018. Already, there have been more than the 84,462 cases reported for all of 2018.

The UK reported 953 cases in 2018 and 489 for the first six months of 2019. In the same period of time, Greece reported 2,193 (vs 28 in 2018), Albania 1,466, and the Czech Republic 217. Based on 2018 data, the disease can no longer consider eliminated in the UK, Greece, the Czech Republic and Albania. The main reason for this is the insufficient vaccination rate — most people get vaccinated, but not everyone, which raises the potential for spreading the disease.

“Each of these countries are examples that have extremely high national vaccination coverage. So these are not examples of countries that have particularly weak systems,” said Kate O’Brien, director of the WHO’s Immunization Department. “This is the alarm bell that is ringing around the world: being able to achieve high national coverage is not enough, it has to be achieved in every community, and every family for every child,” she said.

While the disease is highly contagious, it can be entirely prevented through a two-dose vaccine. According to the WHO, more than 20 million deaths have been prevented around the globe between 2000 and 2016 thanks to measles vaccination.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called on health leaders to address the issue. Current statistics show that current second-round vaccinations for children in the UK are at only 87.2%. The first doe is only partially effective — it’s the second one that renders the body immune to the disease. Mary Ramsay, of the government agency Public Health England, states, “Anyone who has not received two doses of MMR vaccine is always at risk.”

The resurgence of a preventable disease

Globally, the picture is also concerning. Worldwide, the number of cases for January 1 to July 31 this year tripled to 364,808, compared with 129,239 during the same seven months last year. The highest numbers of cases were reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, and Ukraine. The United States also registered its highest number of cases in 25 years. The numbers are especially worrying as 90% of all cases go unrecorded worldwide, according to WHO.

The disease had been officially eliminated in many countries with advanced healthcare systems, with numbers steadily decreasing until 2016 when a resurgence began. Austria and Switzerland were confirmed to have elimination status in 2018. Measles has been eliminated in 35 of the 53 countries in the WHO’s European region for 2018, from 37 in 2017. Early this year, Sri Lanka has been declared measles-free.

Across the Atlantic, Americans have already suffered a record high measles outbreak in 2019. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently published a report showing that there were 1,172 cases so far with 124 hospitalizations and 64 reported serious health complications.

According to the WHO, the reasons for people not being vaccinated vary significantly between communities and countries, with a lack of access to quality healthcare or vaccination services hindering some from getting the jabs, while others may be misinformed about vaccines and the need to vaccinate. Some aren’t following up on their shots because they believe that measles no longer poses any risk. In situations when a disease like measles is eradicated, people start to think the disease isn’t around anymore.

Pizza Slice.

A look at how the world invented pizza

Thin, inviting, and delicious, pizza has a unique place in many people’s hearts (and bellies). Pizza today is considered the quintessential Italian dish, but many other cultures around the world have also created pizza-like dishes. So grab a slice and let’s take a look at the history of pizza.

Pizza Slice.

Image via Pixabay.

There’s some debate as to where the term “pizza” comes from. One of the prevailing theories, however, is that it comes from the Latin pitta, a type of flatbread. And, to the best of our knowledge, that is exactly how pizza started out: flatbread with extra toppings meant to give it flavor.

Flavor up!

But this idea didn’t originate in Italy. Or, more to the point, it didn’t only originate in Italy.

The fact is that ancient peoples loved bread. For many reasons. Grain kept relatively well in a world bereft of refrigerators, and bread is one of the more enjoyable ways to eat it. It was also among the cheaper foodstuffs, generally, as grain is easy to produce, ship, and process in large quantities. Finally, bread is also quite dense in protein, carbohydrates, fiber, and calories — especially whole-grain bread, which our ancestors ate. Bread doesn’t particularly shine in the taste department, however. Sure, it’s easy to carry and it will get you full, but it’s not very exciting on the palate.

This is perhaps why, as Genevieve Thiers writes in the History of Pizza, soldiers of the Persian King Darius I “baked a kind of bread flat upon their shields and then covered it with cheese and dates” as early as the 6th century B.C. The Greeks (they used to fight the Persians a lot) seem to have later adopted and adapted this dish for their own tables.

Naan bread.

Naan bread, apart from being delicious, can be seen as far-flung relative of pizza.
Image credits Jason Goh.

It was pretty common for ancient Greeks to mix olive oil, cheese, and various herbs into their bread — again, all in the name of flavor. But it seems that contact with Persian soldiers added a twist or two to the tradition, according to Thiers, and Greece started baking “round, flat” bread with a variety of toppings such as meats, fruits, and vegetables.

One interesting bit evidence of this culinary development comes from the Aeneid, an epic poem written around 30 or 20 B.C. In the work, Aeneas and his men (who were running away from Greek-obliterated Troy) receive a prophecy/curse from Celaeno (queen of the harpies). Caleano told him that his group will “have reached [their] promised land” when they “arrive at a place so tired and hungry that [they] eat [their] tables”. When the party came ashore mainland Italy they gathered some “fruits of the field” and placed them on top of the only food they had left — stale round loaves of bread.

The use of hardened bread or crusts of bread in lieu of bowls was quite common in antiquity and the middle ages. So the group’s actions can be seen as them putting the food — the fruits of the field — on a plate, or a table, rather than being used as a topping. Still, famished, the adventurers quickly ate the plants, and then moved on to the ‘plates’ of bread. Aeneas’ son, Ascanius, then remarks that the group has “even eaten the tables” (“etiam mensas consumimus!” Aeniad Book IV), fulfilling the prophecy.

Aeneas fleeing Troy.

Painting by Pompeo Batoni, “Aeneas fleeing from Troy”, 1753. He’s carrying his father, Anchises. Also shown are his first wife, Creusa, and their child, Ascanius.
Image credits Galleria Sabauda.

Italian cuisine

The ‘pizzas’ we’ve talked about up to now are far from unique. Cultures around the world have developed their own brand of goodie-laden bread. Flatbreads, naan, and plakountas are all early preparations that could be considered cousins to the modern pizza, and they sprung up from ancient Greece to India, from Persia to Egypt. However, it would be kind of a stretch to call them pizza; they’re certainly not what you’d expect to see inside a pizza box today.

One Greek settlement would become the forefront of pizza as we know it: Naples. The city was founded by Greek colonists in the shadow of Vesuvius around 600 B.C. Writing in Pizza: A Global History, Carol Helstosky explains that by the 1700s and early 1800s, Naples was a thriving waterfront city — and, technically at least, an independent kingdom.


Painted lithography showing a group of lazzaroni. Author: Silvestro Bossi.
Image in the public domain, via Wikimedia.

The city was famous for its many lazzaroni, or working poor. They needed inexpensive food that could be consumed quickly, for the lazzaroni had neither the time nor the money to invest in their meals. Many street vendors and other informal “restaurants” catered to their need, primarily offering flatbreads with various toppings (as per the area’s Greek heritage). By this time, Naples’ flatbreads featured all the hallmarks of today’s pizzas: tomatoes (which were brought over from the Americas), cheese, oil, anchovies, and garlic.

Still, the dish wasn’t enjoying widespread appeal or recognition at this time. Pizza was considered a poor man’s dish, partially due to the lazzaroni, partly due to the fact that tomatoes were considered poisonous at the time. Wealthy people, you see, used to dine from pewter (a lead alloy) plates at the time. Tomatoes, being somewhat acidic, would leach lead out of the plates into food — which would eventually kill these wealthy people. The tomatoes were blamed, and that made them cheap. The lazzaroni were poor and hungry, so the tomato was right up their alley. Luckily for the lazzaroni, pewter plates were expensive, so they weren’t poisoned.

“Judgmental Italian authors often called [the lazzaroni’s] eating habits ‘disgusting,'” Helstosky notes.

Pizza got its big break around 1889. After the kingdom of Italy unified in 1861, King Umberto I and Queen Margherita visited Naples, Thiers writes. It’s not exactly known how but they ended up being served ‘pies’ made by Raffaele Esposito, often hailed as the father of modern pizza. Legend has it that the royal pair was bored with the French cuisine they were being offered, although Europeans love bad-mouthing their neighbors and especially their neighbors’ foods, so that may not be completely factual.

“He first experimented with adding only cheese to bread, then added sauce underneath it and let the dough take the shape of a large round pie,” Theirs explains.

Esposito is said to have made three of his pies/pizzas. The story goes that the one the Queen favored most showcased the three colors on Italy’s flag — green basil, white mozzarella, and red tomatoes. Whether this was a coincidence or by design, we’ll never know. But you can pick the story you like most. Esposito named his pizza “Margherita” in honor of the Queen, although today it’s more commonly referred to as ‘cheese pizza’.

From there, pizza has only reached greater heights. It established itself as an iconic Italian dish, first in Italy and later within Europe. America’s love of pizza began with Italian immigrants and was later propelled by soldiers who fought — and ate — in Italy during the Second World War.

Today, it’s a staple in both fast-food and fancy restaurants, can be bought frozen, or can be prepared at home (it’s quite good fun with the right mates). I think it’s fair to say that although Persia’s soldiers couldn’t conquer the world, their food certainly did.

One of the largest spiderwebs in the world just appeared on a Greek shoreline

One of the largest spiderwebs ever witnessed was spun across a lagoon in the Greek town of Aitoliko. The eerie 300-meter-long-spiderweb covers an entire shoreline and should disappear naturally.

As you can see in the footage embedded here, everything from trees to shrubs was covered in spiderweb.

Warmer climate conditions than usual in western Greece likely triggered Tetragnatha spiders to build their large nests for mating. This is usually a seasonal phenomenon, as warm temperature, high humidity, and plentiful food create the ideal conditions for this species to reproduce in large numbers. This year, a sizable increase in the mosquito population is also an important driver for the spiders’ prolific web spinning.

Spiders in the Tetragnatha genus are found all over the world but mostly occur in the tropics and subtropics. They are commonly called stretch spiders because of their elongated body form. When disturbed they will stretch their front legs forward and the others in the other direction, thus being able to hide on blades of grass or similar elongated substrates. They are able to run over water.

The webbing is a normal occurrence and poses no danger whatsoever to humans, although the sight may look frightening to some. In fact, local people ought to be happy because the event means many pestering mosquitoes will be trapped by the spiders.

Archaeologists find oldest known extract of Homer’s “Odyssey”

A record of one of the world’s oldest literary works has been unearthed in Greece.

An undated picture released by the Greek Culture Ministry depicting 13 verses from the Odyssey.

Legend has it that after the fall of Troy, the Greek hero and king of Ithaca Odysseus (known as Ulysses in Roman myths) wandered for 10 years as he tries to return home and reclaim his throne. The Odyssey — named after the hero — tells this amazing story, intertwined with myth and reality both.

Scholars believe Homer, the author of both the Odyssey and the Iliad, developed these works sometime around the late 7th or early 8th century BC. The stories were likely passed down in an oral tradition (through spoken word, without being written down) for hundreds of years before they were inscribed on tablets like the one researchers have now found.

The clay tablet was discovered near the ruined temple of Zeus, in Ancient Olympia in the Peloponnese peninsula — coincidentally also the birthplace of the Olympic Games. It holds 13 verses from the Odyssey’s 14th Rhapsody, including a dialogue between Odysseus and his lifelong friend, Eumaeus.

The tablet was not dated yet, but likely belongs to the Roman era, so it likely hails from the 2nd or 3rd century BC — a thousand years after Homer’s lifetime, when his stories were already the stuff of legends.

“If this date is confirmed, the tablet could be the oldest written record of Homer’s work ever discovered in Greece,” the culture ministry said in a press release.

Although its age has not yet been confirmed, the plaque is still “a great archaeological, epigraphic, literary and historical exhibit,” the ministry added.

Homer remains one of the most intriguing authors in history, so much so that many historians even question wether he was a single person. The ancient Greeks held that Homer was a blind poet from Chios or Smyrna, but there’s no way to be absolutely certain of this. Both of his two monumental works have been preserved orally throughout several centuries, so it’s very likely that the works we know today were quite different from the originals — and there were several “Homers” over the years, as each storyteller forgot, added, and improved upon the original work (a universal occurence in oral tradition).

The Odyssey spans some 12,000 lines and is considered to be one of the most influential works of literature in the Western World. It was written in Homeric, or Epic Greek — a mixture of several dialects from different centuries. You can read a free English translation here.

Researchers find surprisingly sophisticated prehistoric monuments off the coast of Greece

New excavations from the Aegean Sea have revealed the impressive sophistication of the Greek Bronze Age. Archaeologists have uncovered a number of monuments, including ones built from massive imported rocks.

The Isle of Keros was a busy place during the Bronze Age. Image credits: Phso2 / Wikipedia.

The findings were made on the small, relatively unknown isle of Keros. Keros lies somewhere between Greece, Turkey, and the island of Rhodes. Not much is going on today on Keros, but four to five millennia ago, things were much different. Scientists have previously found evidence of ritual activities dating from 4,500 years ago, rituals which involved marble figurines. Now, archaeologists have found evidence that one of the island’s promontories was almost entirely covered by remarkable monumental constructions, built using stone brought painstakingly from Naxos, some 10 km away. Professor Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge, co-director of the dig, believes the narrow promontory offered a great view over the sea.

The island must have been an extremely important place. In total, more than 1000 tons of stone were imported, and archaeologists have found evidence that pretty much every flat bit of the island was built upon. The complex is the largest of its kind ever found in the area. The dig also revealed, two metalworking workshops, full of metalworking-related objects and debris. Within, archaeologists found a lead axe, a mold used for making copper daggers, as well as dozens of ceramic fragments (such as tuyères, the ceramic end of a bellows, used to force air into a fire to increase its temperature).

It’s not just the sheer size and mass of the constructions, but the level of technological advancement is also impressive. Underneath the stairs and within the walls, archaeologists uncovered sophisticated systems of drainage, indicating an advanced level of urban planning, and careful design of the structures. The team is now trying to figure out whether the drainage system was for water management or more like a sewer system. The settlement was named Dhaskalio.

Excavations underway on Dhaskalio, off Keros. Image credit: Cambridge Keros Project.

To make things even more impressive, the people of Dhaskalio were also knowledgeable farmers. Dr. Evi Margaritis of the Cyprus Institute is currently analyzing the soil on Keros for seeds, burnt wood, and animal and fish bones to see what locals were eating.

“Dhaskalio has already provided important evidence about the cultivation of olive and grape, two key new domesticates that expanded the horizons of agriculture in the third millennium. The environmental programme is revealing how agricultural strategies developed through the lifetime of the site.”

This won’t only provide agricultural and cooking information — it might also show what trading networks locals established. Since Keros was so small and hilly, it probably couldn’t sustain itself, and food was brought from other places.

“Keros was probably not self-sustaining, meaning that much of this food was imported: in the light of this evidence we need to reconsider what we know about existing networks to include food exchange”.

Mould for a copper spearhead, just after discovery during the excavation Image credit: Cambridge Keros Project.

At a time when access to raw materials and skills was very limited, establishing such a finessed complex is no easy feat. The Dhaskalians needed to have not only the technology but also the power and will to make something so special on such a small and inconspicuous island. It was truly a time of change, and a time when society as we know it today was starting to shape up. Dr. Michael Boyd of the University of Cambridge concludes:

“What we are seeing here with the metalworking and in other ways is the beginnings of urbanisation: centralisation, meaning the drawing of far-flung communities into networks centred on the site, intensification in craft or agricultural production, aggrandisement in architecture, and the gradual subsuming of the ritual aspects of the sanctuary within the operation of the site. This gives us a clear insight into social change at Dhaskalio, from the earlier days where activities were centred on ritual practices in the sanctuary to the growing power of Dhaskalio itself in its middle years”.

It’s not just the Dhaskalians who were technologically advanced — modern archaeologists are also bringing the best they have to the table. The data is recorded digitally, using a new system called iDig – an app that runs on Apple’s iPads. Lab results are also recorded on the same app, which means that anyone working (on or off the site) has instant access to the data. As diggings reveal new structures, 3D models are created using a technique called photogrammetry. At the end of the digs, the trenches will be recorded in detail through laser scanning.

The Greek Navy’s wooden wall — Olympias, last trireme on duty in the world

The HS Olympias is a ship of a kind. Build in 1987, the craft conforms to ancient standards and is currently commissioned by the Hellenic Navy of Greece.

‘Pretty as a trireme’ should definitely be an idiom.
Image credits Templar52 / Wikimedia.

The next time grandpa says ‘they don’t do X like they used to’, feel free to reply with ‘but they do boats’. Then you can thank the Hellenic Navy of Greece for your epic comeback because three decades ago they commissioned a breathtaking reconstruction of a trireme — a variant of the galley with three oar-decks, commonly used by Mediterranean civilizations. The ship was built in 1987 in Piraeus. It currently serves with the Navy, and it’s the only ship of its kind in the world on duty.

Work on the vessel began in 1985 based on blueprints made by naval architect John F Coates with help from historian J.S Morrison. Classics teacher Charles Willink was also brought on board to make sure the ship followed ancient standards by picking up clues from history, art, literature, and shipwrecks.

Greece has a long and proud naval tradition. They were a collection of city states that colonized the Mediterranean and united the known world on the decks of their galleys. Their ships explored, fought wars, and traded in goods and science. Faced with invasion from a hugely superior force (yep it was the Persians), Greek oracles said that ‘Zeus, the all-seeing, grants that the wooden wall only shall not fail’ — and through a long and bloody war, it was the only one that didn’t.

The navy is a central cultural pin for Greece — and nothing screams Greek-navy louder than the bronze-headed, painted-eyes trireme. So they set about to create this awesome piece of experimental archaeology at work.

Old tricks

One thing that’s stood the test of time is that triremes are not cheap to build. The project was funded mainly by the Hellenic Navy, with individual donors such as Frank Welsh, a banker and trireme enthusiast, also pitching in. Olympias was built from Virginia Oak, Oregon pine, and an Iroko hull. Her bow is adorned with a hefty, 200 kg bronze ram, copied after one currently held by the Piraeus archaeology museum. This was the main anti-ship weapon of triremes, and in ancient battles was supplemented with the spears and bows carried by her crew.

Some things, unfortunately, could not be perfectly recreated. Triremes were designed to be fast, aggressive attack ships with low displacement, so they were built to be as light as possible. They were also really long, to house a lot of oars. Combined, these factors meant that the ships were particularly susceptible to bending on the waves — like a bow being pulled. To sustain the hull, a hypozomata (bracing rope) was mounted beneath the deck, tying the two ends of the ship (bow and stern) together. It kept the hull from breaking in two without adding weight — win-win. After every trip, the ships were pulled ashore in slides and the hypozomata was re-tightened.

Originally made out of hemp, the hypozomata had to be replaced with steel cables. Unlike the natural fiber ropes which kept a constant pull, the tension in these cables varied as the hull bent on the waves. Protective measures were taken to prevent crew injury in case they snapped.

The result

So what can this baby do? The Olympias underwent trials at sea in 1987, 1990, 1992, and 1994. In the first one, 170 volunteer men and women took to the oars to power the trireme. She reached 9 knots and could turn 180 degrees in one minute, setting an arc of just two and a half ship-lengths.

These results were achieved with an amateur crew of volunteers, not a seasoned crew. Olympias was also considerably overloaded compared to the triremes of old, due to the addition of the steel hypozomata and protective measures. Still, the ship proves that the ancient Greek historians didn’t embellish the capabilities of their triremes.

Olympias isn’t just a revived sliver of history — the ship is making history today, too. In 1993, she went to Britan for the celebration of two and a half millennia since the birth of democracy. In 2004, she carried the Olympic Flame from Keratsini to the main port of Piraeus, for the Summer Olympic Games.

Today, Olympias is put to dry dock in the Naval Tradition Park, Palaio Faliro, Athens.

All image credits to Wikimedia user Templar52.

Greek arts may have led to the creation of the Terracotta Army in ancient China

Ancient Chinese sculptors may have gotten some help from the Greeks when making their world-famous Terracotta Army, new archaeological work has surprisingly found.

Image credits Dimitry B. / Flickr.

In 221BC Ying Zheng, a prince from the state of the Qin, became the first man to unify ancient China, taking up the mantle of emperor. He became Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor of Qin, and did a whole bunch of impressive stuff — he revolutionized the administration, expanded the empire, and began building the great wall — then died. He was entombed in a huge mortuary complex, watched over by some 8,000 lifelike terracotta soldiers.

And these soldiers look nothing like Chinese sculptures of the time. Now, a team of archeologists working in the Xinjiang province discovered European DNA at several sites in the region from the time of the First Emperor in the Third Century BC and the sudden appearance of life-sized, highly detailed statues — like those the ancient Greeks. This, they say, could mean that ancient Greek artists traveled to the country to help design the famous landmark — marking European-Chinese ties a full 1,500 years earlier than Marco Polo’s historic trip.

The theory is that Chinese artists may have been influenced by the arrival of Greek statues in central Asia in the wake of Alexander the Great’s incursion through India. There’s also speculation that Greek artists could have been present when the Terracotta Army was made, either teaching others or helping themselves. Other evidence of ties to Greece came from several bronze figurines of birds found at the site — which were cast with a lost wax method known in ancient Greece and Egipt.

But, what strikes archeologists the most is the intricacy of the sculptures. Ancient Greece was the place to be for sculptors — where previous sculptures were stylized, rough cuts, the Greek statues flowed. Just look at the figures carved on the Pantheon. Even our most famous works today, such as Michelangelo’s David, were made by Renaissance artists re-using ancient Greek techniques. Dr Li Xiuzhen, senior archaeologist at the tomb’s museum, believes Greek art had a role to play in China, over 7,000 km away.

“We now have evidence that close contact existed between the First Emperor’s China and the West before the formal opening of the Silk Road,” he said. “This is far earlier than we formerly thought.”

“We now think the Terracotta Army, the acrobats and the bronze sculptures found on site have been inspired by ancient Greek sculptures and art.”

“I imagine that a Greek sculptor may have been at the site to train the locals,” said Professor Lukas Nickel, chair of Asian art history at Vienna University.

Excavations at the site also revealed traces of European mitochondrial DNA, showing that they settled and died in the area during the time of the First Emperor or even before.

“The archaeological work undertaken here recently is more important than anything in the last 40 years,” added Professor Zhang Weixing, lead archaeologist at the tomb site. “By systematically examining the First Emperor’s main tomb and subsidiary burials we have discovered something more important even than the Terracotta Army.”

The findings will be presented in a National Geographic and BBC Two documentary “The Greatest Tomb on Earth: Secrets of Ancient China,” which will be shown on Sunday 16th on BBC Two.


Ancient, 2000-year-old skeleton found in legendary Antikythera shipwreck

The ancient bones could offer valuable DNA information from an ancient shipwreck victim.

The Antikythera site is one of the most intriguing ones in history, particularly because of what you see above. That’s the Antikythera mechanism, a 2000-year-old analogue computer used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for the astrological calendar as well as the ancient Olympic Games. Composed of over 30 meshing bronze gears, the mechanism shows an unprecedented level of sophistication, and one that wasn’t re-encountered in history until the fourteenth century. But that’s not all of it.

The Antikythera Shipwreck is the largest ancient shipwreck ever discovered, probably representing a large grain carrier. Discovered by Greek sponge divers in 1900, it was also the first wreck ever to be investigated by archaeologists. After recovering dozens of valuable antiques, marble statues, gold jewellery, glassware, and an unique weapon the research team might have discovered something even more valuable: a skeleton.

“Against all odds, the bones survived over 2,000 years at the bottom of the sea, and they appear to be in fairly good condition,” Dr. Hannes Schroeder of the Natural History Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark, and an expert on DNA, said in a news release.

The find consists of a partial skull with three teeth, arm and leg bones, and several pieces of rib, the study writes. The skeleton, discovered in August, is the first to be recovered from an ancient shipwreck since DNA studies became a thing – and this could be very important. If the samples are well-preserved, then we could learn much about the person’s ethnicity and geographic origin, as well as some hints about his lifestyle. This would open an unprecedented window into the past. Who were those people? Where were they coming from, and where were they going? Schroeder guesses from the skeleton’s fairly robust femur and unworn teeth that the individual was a young man, but without the DNA tests, it’s hard to say more.

Image credits: Marsyas (via Wiki Commons).

So far, they’ve named the bones’ owner Pamphilos, after a name found neatly scratched on a wine cup from the wreck. But we have no idea who he – or the original Pamphilos – was.

“Your mind starts spinning,” says Schroeder. “Who were those people who crossed the Mediterranean 2,000 years ago? Maybe one of them was the astronomer who owned the mechanism.”

Researchers are understandably excited. Dr. Brendan Foley of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and a member of the research team said:

“This is the most exciting scientific discovery we’ve made here,” Foley told the Guardian, adding that he believed the passenger or crew member “was trapped in the ship when it went down and he must have been buried very rapidly or the bones would have gone by now.”

He and the rest of the team hope to reconstruct a map of past population movements, and they want to see how ancient individuals can fit on that map.

Underwater ‘lost city’ turns out to be a geological formation

Excitement of an underwater “lost city” turned out to be premature, after further research showed the entire structure was actually a natural geological structure formed a few million years ago.

These structures, thought to be a lost city are actually a geological formation. Credit: University of Athens

When scores of divers reported what seemed to be an ancient sunken city, archaeologists were thrilled. The divers claimed they saw be paved floors, courtyards and colonnades – all on the shores of the popular tourist island of Zakynthos.

But a research published today proves that the site is nothing like a city – in fact, it’s a geological formation from the Pliocene. Lead author Prof Julian Andrews, from the University of East Anglia’s School of Environmental Sciences, said that the area looks nothing like an archaeological site:

“The site was discovered by snorkelers and first thought to be an ancient city port, lost to the sea. There were what superficially looked like circular column bases, and paved floors. But mysteriously no other signs of life — such as pottery.”

After the initial reports, a research team was quickly assembled.  Archaeologist Magda Athanasoula and diver Petros Tsampourakis studied the site, together with Prof Michael Stamatakis from the Department of Geology and Geoenvironment at the University of Athens (UoA). They not only dived to the site, but also studied the texture of the underwater formation with microscopy, X-rays and dated it with isotope techniques. As it turns out, nothing there is man-made and the structures are actually a natural occurrence formed around hydrocarbon seeps. Prof Andrews said:

“We investigated the site, which is between two and five meters under water, and found that it is actually a natural geologically occurring phenomenon. The disk and doughnut morphology, which looked a bit like circular column bases, is typical of mineralization at hydrocarbon seeps — seen both in modern seafloor and palaeo settings.”

Geologically, a fault emerged in the area, allowing hydrocarbons (which are lighter than water) to flow upwards. For scores of microbes, these hydrocarbons are a fantastic source of nutrients – especially methane. The microbe colonies then secrete limestone-like minerals, resulting in the concretionary structures observed here:

“In this case the cement was an unusual mineral called dolomite which rarely forms in seawater, but can be quite common in microbe-rich sediments,” Andrews added. “These concretions were then exhumed by erosion to be exposed on the seabed today. This kind of phenomenon is quite rare in shallow waters. Most similar discoveries tend to be many hundreds and often thousands of meters deep underwater.”

Journal Reference: Exhumed hydrocarbon-seep authigenic carbonates from Zakynthos Island (Greece): Concretions not archaeological remains. Marine and Petroleum Geology, 2016; 76: 16 DOI:10.1016/j.marpetgeo.2016.05.022

Luxurious Greek artefacts unearthed in the Antikythera site

The ancient Greek shipwreck that produced the awesome Antikythera mechanism, hailed as the world’s first analog computer (being almost two millenia old), had archaeologists’ collective pants full of ants and it seems that their enthusiasm was well placed. The shipwreck is slowly yielding new artifacts, offering a glimpse into the lifestyles of the ancient “1%” in the Hellenic peninsula.

Archaeologists excavating the famous ancient Greek shipwreck that yielded the Antikythera mechanism have recovered more than 50 items including an intact amphora; a large lead salvage ring; two lead anchor stocks (possibly indicating the ship’s bow); frag (Photo : Brett Seymour, EUA/ARGO)

Archaeologists excavating the famous ancient Greek shipwreck that yielded the Antikythera mechanism have recovered more than 50 items including an intact amphora; a large lead salvage ring; two lead anchor stocks (possibly indicating the ship’s bow); Image credits : Brett Seymour, EUA/ARGO

Archaeologists recovered several artifacts from the wreck that they have started to name “the Titanic of the ancient world” due to the luxurious nature of its cargo. The findings include a bone flute, a bronze armrest believed to have originated from a throne, fragments of fine glassware and ceramic and even a board game that was popular among ancient Greeks. Marine archaeologist Brendan Foley from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the project’s co-director, believes that the wreck still has a lot more to offer scientists, with ever single dive unearthing (unwatering?) new items that show the level of comfort and sophistication the rich and powerful enjoyed in the time of Ceasar.

The ship sunk sometime in 65 B.C off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera, and was found by sponge divers in 1900. The wreck is considered one of the world’s biggest underwater archaeological projects, and Woods Hole is now conducting the first systematic excavation of the site, using data surveyed by a robotic submersible last year.

And it seems the teams have good fortune on their side too. A spokesperson for the institute said good weather allowed their divers to perform more than 60 dives across the site last month alone. Foley also adds that they were indeed lucky this year, as the finds that were excavated are within their context, bringing them an opportunity to take full advantage of archaeological information.

The new finds also prompted the divers and the scientists to dig deeper into the ocean floor where one of the last searches carried out last year that used this current technique yielded small bronze pieces, a wine jug and a possible part of a cooking pot. The team believes that more significant finds await them until next year’s expedition begins.

You can see the full list of all artifacts found in the site on WHOI’s page.

Danish archaeologists uncover ancient killing fields in the Ukraine

Chersonesos was an ancient city on the Crimean peninsula, in today’s Ukraine; the name itself means ‘peninsula’, and Greeks founded it some 2500 years ago, to supply their homeland with grain and other strategic resources. The famed Greek city-states had much need of such resources in order to survive and thrive.


Picture Source

Archaeologists from Aarhus (Denmark) have been exploring the development of the rural area from its peak until its decline; their conclusion is a pretty dire one: during a crisis in the 300BC, much of the population was slain following a military invasion. Men, women and children – they found skeletons of all.

“We’ve learned things that have changed our view of what life was like in the Chersonesean countryside, which the Greeks called chora. The city’s rural territory, particularly on the Herakleian and Tarkhankut peninsulas, is incredibly well preserved. The houses of the rural population dating back to about 300 BC lie dotted around the untouched landscape in the form of ruins that are still visible. For instance, in one of the excavated ruins we have found the remains of a whole family. So we’re working on a murder scene dating back 2,300 years,” reports project director Vladimir Stolba, an archaeologist from Aarhus University.

Chersonesos and its rural area have just been added to UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites – it is a perfect example of how Greek organization changed and improved settlements in that period.

“We’ve had several teams of students from Denmark and the host country Ukraine on our expeditions. It’s been a great experience and very fruitful collaboration. We are in a lucky and, in a sense, unique situation to work on short-lived rural sites which have never been re-inhabited since their destruction in the early 3rd century BC. The picture that emerges from the excavations is a snapshot of daily activities of the ancient peasantry, of its life and dramatic death. We’ve found answers to many of our research questions: for instance, who cultivated the Greek grain fields, how densely the area was settled and how it was organised, and how the ancient population adapted to changes in cultural and natural environment. The answers have given rise to new questions that we want to explore next. The world heritage status will hopefully help to preserve this unique area despite the increase in tourism and tourism infrastructure development, enabling us to continue our work,” concludes Vladimir Stolba.

Oldest readable writing found in Europe

A 3500 years old Mycenaean tablet found last summer in Greece is the oldest form of writing found in Europe. (c) Christian Mundigler

Extraordinary enough, an ancient Greek tablet dating  far as back as 1450-1350 BC was found last summer in an olive grove in what’s now the village of Iklaina, which makes it the oldest readable piece of writing found in Europe. The position and time frame of the artifact places it in the time of the Mycenaean, often mentioned in Homer’s Illiad, who ruled much of ancient Greece between 1600 to 1100 B.C.

In the ruins of Iklaina, so far archeologists have found a palace, murals, fortified walls and this highly valuable tablet, most probably written by a local scribe. The tablet is roughly 1 inch ( 2.5 centimeters) tall by 1.5 inches (4 centimeters) wide, and has markings evident of the ancient writing Greek writing system known as Linear B, which consisted of about 87 signs, each representing one syllable.

According to lead archeologists of the project Michael Cosmopoulos, the tablet is definitely the biggest surprise they could have stumbled upon.

“According to what we knew, that tablet should not have been there,” the University of Missouri-St. Louis archaeologist told National Geographic News.

First, Mycenaean tablets weren’t thought to have been created so early, he said. Second, “until now tablets had been found only in a handful of major palaces”—including the previous record holder, which was found among palace ruins in what was the city of Mycenae.

Although the tablet is dated as being 3500 years old, it was made out of clay and clearly never meant to last. Archeologists theorize that  on the tablet fiscal related data intended for the elites’ records were scribbled, basically paper work junk, which was put in the sun to dry and then thrown in a pit as trash when it wasn’t needed. Although researchers didn’t have too much markings to read and interpret, they could tell that the front of the Iklaina tablet appears to form a verb that relates to manufacturing, the researchers say, while the back lists names alongside numbers—probably a property list.

“Those tablets were not baked, only dried in the sun and [were], therefore, very brittle. … Basically someone back then threw the tablet in the pit and then burned their garbage,” Cosmopoulos said. “This fire hardened and preserved the tablet.”

While the Iklaina tablet is an example of the earliest writing system in Europe, other writing is much older (writing in China, Mesopotamia and Egipt are thought to date back from 3,000 B.C.) , explained Classics professor Thomas Palaima, who wasn’t involved in the study, which is to be published in the April issue of the journal Proceedings of the Athens Archaeological Society.