Ayios Vasileios

The only Mycenaean palace ever discovered in Lakonia, Ayios Vasileios represents a significant advancement in understanding the story of archaic Greece.

Where We Work

Discovered less than 10 years ago and in excavation for the past three years, Ayios Vasileios is an unprecedented find: it is the only Mycenean palace ever discovered in Lakonia, the region surrounding the ancient city-state of Sparta. Although often associated with Homer’s Iliad, the site is more notable for the rare finds that accompanied its discovery and the unlikely story of its preservation.

History

Through the last eight years of excavation, Adamantia and her colleagues have pieced together a rough history of the settlement. Initially, the site was sparsely populated and no major, permanent settlement was established. In the 17th or 16th century BCE, however, the site was heavily developed into a 210,000-square-meter settlement, with the palace constructed in its center on a chain of commanding hills. Sometime at the end of the 14th century BCE, the palace was destroyed in a fire so ferocious it split the stone foundations of the building and, lying fallow for centuries afterwards, the site did not play host to any major settlement until the Late Byzantine period. The contemporary church of Ayios Vasileios was constructed in this time, perhaps in part from stone that originally belonged to the palace.

Ironically, the fire that destroyed Ayios Vasileios is precisely what preserved the records that now shed light on the site.  At the time, palace records were written on unbaked clay tablets, which were routinely discarded after their useful life had ended. However, the conflagration that engulfed the palace also baked these tablets hard and preserved them until the present day. Mainly ledgers dealing with goods and services, they offer important clues about the palace’s function and regional significance. Perhaps most notably, this library represents the only archives discovered from this period in archaic Greece.

Threats

The fire that preserved the palace at Ayios Vasileios also presents one of the site’s biggest conservation challenges. Substantial adobe structures, clay walls, and floor plasters were only preserved due to the random firing that took place with the destruction of the buildings. However, many of these clay plasters, mortars, mudbricks, and pottery were fired beyond their vitrification point, which fused them together in complicated collapse structures that are difficult to disentangle. Attesting to the ferocity of the blaze that destroyed the site, these collapse layers have nonetheless preserved important information on the architectural design and use of the buildings.

Before and after the removal of each layer, the archaeologists on site produce detailed documentation of the multiple collapse layers, and during excavation, they apply a series of ‘first aid’ treatments and supports to the collapsed architectural elements. This includes the removal of plant and tree roots that have penetrated walls, crack and edge filling on wall and floor plasters, the injection of earth-hydraulic lime grout into existing cracks, the stabilization of fragile walls, and the recovery of small-scale collapses.

A major problem requiring remedial first aid treatment is the Byzantine-era pits on the site. These pits were dug through the Mycenaean-era settlement layers, and in conjunction with the many tree roots on the site, caused the surrounding structures to lose their stability as well as their coherence. In most of the pits discovered so far, the edges were collapsing and causing damage to the adjoining structures. To maintain the integrity of the surrounding structures, the conservation team backfilled these pits with local soil and aggregate.

At summer’s end, temporary protective covers are erected to shield the site from rainfall and create a buffering microclimate until next year’s excavation season, when everything is removed. After work has ceased at the site, the conservation team and the skillful local technicians create a flat cover over the excavation area using timber planks and posts, which forms a stable load-bearing base. Layering geotextile and polyethylene membranes one atop the other over this base, the conservation team then buries the entire excavation zone with local soil until it is flush with the ground level.

Studies of these measures have shown their effectiveness in stabilizing the site’s most fragile features. However, while many of the first aid and remedial conservation treatments are de rigueur for a site preserved in such a unique way, others – such as the yearly erection of temporary protective structure – are cumbersome and could be avoided.

Indeed, these processes, while effective, have many challenges.

  1. The documentation, excavation, and preservation of these rather complicated and vulnerable collapse layers are a real challenge, involving hard, time-consuming procedures on a site where the excavation and conservation seasons are abbreviated to two months out of the year.
  2. Setting up the temporary covers requires significant investments of time and money, eating up a large portion of the yearly budget and preventing time from being spent on more targeted or relevant conservation goals.
  3. The yearly erection of temporary shelters has caused many building materials to accumulate at the site, creating issues around storage and turning the site into a target for theft.
  4. The cultivation and maintenance of the surrounding olive orchards has continued the process of root intrusion into the delicate, as-of-yet unexcavated collapse layers.
  5. The parlous financial situation the Greek government has found itself in after the Great Recession has meant a reduced budget for regional archaeology, imperiling the conservation and management of Ayios Vasileios and other sites.
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What We Do

Ayios Vasileios requires extensive conservation work to preserve the many remnants of Mycenean civilization that are yet to be discovered. GHF’s primary involvement is to provide comprehensive planning for the long-term conservation and management of this site. On the ground, GHF is assisting with the conservation work on site, including the construction of a shelter for both conservation and research purposes. GHF is also intensively researching community development opportunities for the modern city of Sparta and the nearby village of Xirokambi in order to foster a sense of stewardship for the site.

Phase One

Phase I will comprise necessary research and planning for the development of a framework to guide the effective long-term sustainable preservation of Ayios Vasileios, including: an assessment of what Ayios Vasileios is and stands for, an analysis of its current state and the development of a management plan and risk management program.

Phase Two

Phase II will be contingent on the above-mentioned activities and the implementation of management, conservation, and community development plans identified in Phase I.

Phase II will involve significant infrastructure investments, including visitor facilities and site interpretation, to offer education on the history, archaeology, and conservation of the site. These measures are designed to ensure Ayios Vasileios becomes self-sustaining, creating the revenue that it spends for its improvement and conservation.

Shelter Structure

At the forefront of the conservation plan is the construction of a permanent shelter over the archaeological dig site. The first step of this process was completed in July, 2016, when structural engineer, Theodoros Marinis, who specializes in the restoration and protection of archaeological sites, created a technical study and design of the shelter and submitted it for evaluation and approval by the central directorates of the Ministry of Culture and the Central Archaeological Council. When constructed, the shelter is expected to facilitate further field research, survey, conservation, and assorted works in the main excavation area of Ayios Vasileios as well as be applicable to future expansion above adjacent trenches of the main excavation site.

Particular consideration was paid to the sensitive nature of the dig site, as much of the former palace remains unexcavated and the imposition of a support structure could potentially destroy or render inaccessible unexplored areas. To create a space that both protects the archaeological remains while allowing ongoing excavation work to continue, the shelter has been designed to be much larger, at 818 m2, than the currently excavated area of approximately 300 m2. A perimeter of five meters around the outside of this site has also been excluded from excavation for at least the next 10 years to serve as the foundation for the structure.

The design is intended to preserve not just the archaeological integrity of the site but its aesthetic beauty as well. Some designs, such as the tent placed over the Temple of Apollo Epikourios in Arcadia, are imposing in keeping with the nature of the site and its surroundings. Ayios Vasileios, on the other hand, has no above-ground structures and is situated not in a dramatic mountain range, as is the Temple of Apollo, but on a low hill in the Eurotas river valley. The nature of the adobe and plaster remains and the cycle of cold, rainy winters and scorching hot summers further necessitated a space that would be waterproof and provide sufficient natural light and ventilation. A more nuanced and understated structure was thus required.

The final choice was a frame structure with sidewalls. The steel structure consists of frames with a span of 31.40 meters on the columns axis. The roof height descends from north to south in three levels following the slope of the ground, each part lowering one meter in height. Each roof part is supported by three frames in six-meter spacing. For this span, a sloped truss beam forms the frame with two edge columns, while orthogonal trusses connect the frames on the sides. The demand for the most limited foundation possible, both in size and loading, was the dominant consideration for this shelter design. Therefore, the foundation is calculated with very low allowable stress on the soil of σ=100KN/m2.

This satisfies the multiple and seemingly contradictory demands for a protective shelter over the site. Despite the small footprint, the structure will have both the strength to withstand local climatic conditions and produce minimal stress on the soil. Furthermore, it will maintain the aesthetic continuity of the site through balancing the large-scale shelter with a simplicity of form that is in keeping with the understated nature of the site. Although the design has not been given the green light by the Ministry of Antiquity and the AVAP team as of yet, models of the frame building have been mocked up by Mr. Marinis in his capacity as chief engineer for the project. The aesthetics of the design and the compatibility of this “ordinary” form with the archaeological landscape is mostly a matter of balanced volumes and material choices.

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