The Mytilene Project

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Project Abbreviation: 

MytP

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Project Date: 

Wednesday, June 1, 1983 to Friday, August 31, 2012

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Project Description: 

 

The Mytilene Project [MytP] has involved research, remote sensing, and excavation concerning the Acropolis/Early Modern castle and the Lower City of the polis of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos in the eastern Aegean Sea. Mytilene is both the present and ancient principal city of the island of Lesbos. Founded by settlers from central Greece around 1000 BCE, Mytilene has flourished from the Archaic period down to the present. The largest and most important of the Aeolic Greek cities of the northeastern Aegean, it was home to the great 7th century BCE lyric poets Sappho and Alkaios and a major urban centre in Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman times.

From 1983 to 1992, teams from the Canadian Institute under the direction of Caroline and Hector Williams of the University of British Columbia carried out excavations on the acropolis and also in the lower town in collaboration with Mrs. Aglaia Archontidhou, Director of the 20th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities.

Mytilene is the principal city of the island of Lesbos, now and in antiquity. Founded by settlers from central Greece around 1000 BC, Mytilene has flourished from the Archaic period down to the present. Largest and most important of the Aeolic Greek cities of the northeastern Aegean, it was the home of the great 7th century BC lyric poets Sappho and Alkaios and a major urban centre in classical, Hellenistic, and Roman times.

From 1983 to 1992, teams from the Canadian Institute under the direction of Caroline and Hector Williams of the University of British Columbia carried out excavations on the acropolis and also in the lower town in collaboration with Mrs. Aglaia Archontidhou, director of the K’ Ephoreia of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities. Excavations at the highest point of the large Byzantine-Genoese castle that dominates the seaward side of Mytilene have revealed a previously unknown sanctuary to the chthonic goddesses Demeter and daughter Persephone (Kore) and the burial chapel of the Gattelusi, a Genoese family who ruled Lesbos and much of the northern Aegean between 1355-1462. Investigations revealed a series of five different altars of varying types and sizes arranged in a long line running from north to south; they included hearth altars with remains of hundreds of piglet bones as well as step altars. West of them were dining rooms with benches along the walls and a Sacred House, perhaps for the now-lost cult image of the goddess. Founded around 400 BC, the sanctuary continued in use until early Roman times, when it was covered with a thick deposit of earth, pottery, lamps and other dumped fill. Thousands of terracotta figurines, oil lamps, pots of different sorts, and small finds came from levels associated with different periods of the site’s history. Also found in the sanctuary were three curse tablets, sheets of lead with the names of jurors in local trials inscribed on them and then rolled up. The medieval and Ottoman levels were also of interest.

The Gattelusi chapel provided a number of skeletons of men and women of the late medieval period that have provided much information about local diet from chemical analysis of the bones and about life generally from studies of age, sex, and illnesses apparent in the remains. Remains of three Ottoman villages destroyed by successive earthquakes over three hundred years have opened new vistas on a little-studied period of early modern Greek history. Pottery from as far away as Italy in the west and China in the east attests to wide trade connections while over a thousand clay tobacco and hashish pipes (one of the largest collections in Greece) tell of smoking habits from the 17th century on. Near the North Harbour, a synergasia excavation with the K’ Ephoreia has revealed a site going back in time from the 19th century to the 7th century BC. In the 18th-19th centuries the site held a large Ottoman cemetery: one grave contained the remains of a middle-aged man buried with 20 cm. spikes through his neck, trunk, and ankles—a suspected vampire. Of particular importance from earlier times was a long section of the late classical city wall, a large Roman peristyle building of high Imperial date (ca. AD 200) that seems to have become a tavern/brothel in the 4th century, and a huge dump of industrial debris from the 3rd-2nd centuries BC, perhaps brought in as fill for the Roman building. The dump contained evidence for pottery and figurine manufacture, bone and horn work, cloth making and dyeing, and metal work in bronze and iron. Below it were rich levels of Classical and Archaic-period pottery, especially the grey wares characteristic of the Aeolic region.

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Bibliography: 

Williams, Hector. 2014. "The Fortifications of Ancient Mytilene: A Brief Introduction." Pgs. 231-248. In Meditations on the Diversity of the Built Environment in the Aegean Basin and Beyond. Proceedings of a Colloquium In Memorium of Dr. Frederick E. Winter, Canadian Institute in Greece, June 22-23, 2012. D. Rupp and J. Tomlinson eds. Publications of the Canadian Institute in Greece 8. Athens: Canadian Institute in Greece.

Williams, Caroline and H. Williams. 1991. “Excavations at Mytilene, 1990.”  Échos du monde classique = Classical Views 10, 34.2: 175-191.

Williams, Caroline and H. Williams. 1990. “Excavations at Mytilene, 1989.” Échos du monde classique = Classical Views 9, 34.2: 181-194.

Williams, Caroline and H. Williams. 1989. “Excavations at Mytilene, 1988.” Échos du monde classique = Classical Views 8, 33.2: 167-182.

Williams, Hector. 1989. “Notes on Roman Mytilene.” Pgs. 163-168. In The Greek Renaissance in the Roman Empire: Papers from the Tenth British Museum Classical Colloquium. S. Walker and A. Cameron eds. London: University of London, Institute of Classical Studies. 

Williams, Caroline and H. Williams. 1988. “Excavations at Mytilene, 1987.” Échos du monde classique = Classical Views 7, 32.2: 135-150.

Williams, Hector. 1990. “Hellenistic Mytilene.” Pgs. 504-505. In Akten des XIII.Internationalen Kongresses für Klassische Archäologie Berlin 1988. Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern. 

Williams, Caroline and H. Williams. 1987. “Excavations at Mytilene (Lesbos), 1986.” Échos du monde classique = Classical Views 6, 31.2: 247-262.

Williams, Caroline and H. Williams. 1986. “Investigations at Mytilene, 1985.” Échos du monde classique = Classical Views 5, 30.2: 141-154.

Williams, Caroline and H. Williams. 1986. “Ανασκαφές στην Μυτιλήνη κατά το 1986.” Lesbiaka 9: 223-232.

Papamarinopoulos, Stavros, Gregory N. Tsokas and Hector Williams. 1985. “Magnetic and Eletric Measurements on the Island of Lesbos and the Detection of Buried Ancient Relics.” Geoexplorations 23: 483-490.

Williams, Caroline and H. Williams. 1985. “Investigations at Mytilene, 1984.” Échos du monde classique = Classical Views 5, 29.2: 225-233.

Williams, Caroline. 1984. “Hellenistic and Roman Buildings in the Medieval Walls of Mytilene.” Phoenix 38: 31-76.

Williams, Caroline and H. Williams. 1984. “Investigations at Stymphalos and Mytilene, 1983.” Échos du monde classique = Classical Views 5, 28.2: 169-173.

Project Website: 

http://www.cnrs.ubc.ca/mytilene-greek-islands

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