Ayios Stephanos: Excavations at a Bronze Age and Medieval Settlement in Southern Laconia

Ayios Stephanos: Excavations at a Bronze Age and Medieval Settlement in Southern Laconia


Lord William Taylour's excavations at Ayios Stephanos in 1959-77 investigated a port that relied on trade, fishing and metallurgy. It lay just north of the main Minoan east-west trade route via Kythera and exported the rare stone lapis lacedaemonius to Cretan workshops. As a Linear A inscription shows, the site illuminates the diffusion of Minoan culture to the mainland. Ayios Stephanos yielded a stratified pottery sequence from EH I to LH IIIC, with a break at the end of the Early Bronze Age. Study of this sequence has vastly improved our knowledge of the chronology, clarifying Cretan relations with the mainland. There were three phases of EH. After disastrous fires, rectangular buildings replaced the MH I apsidal dwellings, and the street plan came to resemble Minoan prototypes. The pottery illuminates the invention of Mycenaen ceramics. In line with the fortunes of Crete, the site declined in LH IIA, traded with Knossos in LH IIIA1, and declined again. It briefly revived in LH IIIC Early, probably following an influx of refugees. Then it was abandoned, perhaps after a massacre. Ayios Stephanos was reoccupied in c. 1270 AD, when a building with a walled yard and stables was erected to guard the approach to Skala along the River Vasilopotamos. This phase fills a gap in our knowledge, since no site of this period has been excavated south of Corinth. After 1321 a hostile raid plunged the site into oblivion. This publication studies the architecture and stratigraphy, the burials, the Medieval period, the pottery and small finds, the human and other organic remains, the settlement pattern and the regional and historical context. Numerous figures and plates document the results. Appendices containing techinical analyses, stratigraphic tables and concordances are on an accompanying CD.

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Review from the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 8 Sep. 2008, by Daniel J. Pullen

Review from the American Journal of Archaeology,April 2010, by Chrysanthi Gallou


Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.09.08

Reviewed by Daniel J. Pullen, The Florida State University (dpullen@fsu.edu)
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The final publication of the results of the excavations of the Bronze Age site of Ayios Stephanos in Laconia has now appeared, thanks to the diligence and perseverance of Richard Janko.1 Where others might have long ago given up, Janko has completed and revised the manuscript of the late William Taylour, assembled the contributions of a number of experts, and has brought up to date whenever possible sections that were written over many years (some up to twenty years ago), producing a remarkably uniform volume. Janko himself has reworked the stratigraphy, and thus has much to contribute to the volume. This volume presents primarily the results of the second phase of excavations (1973, 1974, and 1977); for the first phase of excavations (1959, 1960, and 1963) one must use Taylour's preliminary report, and for the important early Mycenaean pottery from 1973-1974 one must consult the publication of Rutter and Rutter.2 But Janko provides a very welcome and comprehensive "summary and historical conclusions," incorporating material from both phases of excavations (chapter 14; see below). The reporting of Medieval remains in nearly the same detail as that of the Bronze Age is noteworthy.

The overall importance of Ayios Stephanos to our knowledge of the Bronze Age makes this volume of great significance. While Ayios Stephanos never grew to be a major center, it is one of few stratified sites with nearly all phases of the Bronze Age represented (the EH III phase is the most noticeable gap) that has been published for the Peloponnesos. One could argue that its very lack of being a center makes this site interesting, and thus one can examine the dynamics of cultural change throughout the Bronze Age at one location. Its location on the Laconian coast, easily accessible from Kythera, undoubtedly encouraged early contacts with Crete whether directly or indirectly (see the Linear A sign catalogued in chapter 11). That we can see evidence of these contacts at a smaller site such as Ayios Stephanos suggests that the dynamics of Minoan influence on the development of Mycenaean culture may have been widespread and not oriented only towards major centers. The large number of burials provides a significant corpus of biological material, again not from primarily elite contexts.

The volume is organized in a manner typical for large scale archaeological projects (see the list of contributions and authors below): chapters on the stratigraphy, architecture, and burials (chapters 1-3) are followed by chapters 4-7 on the pottery, and chapters 8-13 on small finds, organic materials, and the environment. A large number of appendices, found on the accompanying CD, presents various analyses (though it isn't clear why Appendix 6 on the chipped stone wasn't incorporated into the main text in addition to the cataloguing of individual lithic items in chapters 8-10). There are a few small difficulties in using this volume. One (very minor) difficulty is that the tables referred to throughout the printed text are to be found only on the CD. But admirably, the materials on the CD, all in PDF format, are available both in lower resolution "screen quality" PDF versions and in higher resolution "print quality" PDF versions. One can easily print out the tables (the 101 tables of chapters 1-12 occupy 82 PDF pages) and have them alongside the volume.

A conceptual difficulty is the rather odd "top down" approach that Taylour intended for discussion of the stratigraphy and which Janko has followed in chapter 1 (albeit reorganized in chronological sections). Thus for any one Area (trench), the Late Helladic IIIC Early architecture and stratigraphy is presented before that of the Late Helladic IIIB (or other earlier phase), and so on, until the Early Helladic components are to be found at the end of each Area's section. Granted this is the order of excavation, but the discussion of stratigraphy, especially when architectural components are built upon or reuse components of earlier periods, can be difficult to follow. One must flip back and forth among two or more plans to follow the discussion of which wall overlies which as the wall designations from earlier plans (later chronologically) are not always repeated later (on the chronologically earlier). Despite this criticism, there are many plans and stratigraphic and ceramic sections to help guide the discussion, with additional data found in the tables. There is a distinction between the two types of sections: the stratigraphic sections are generally drawn from the trench or baulk sides of the Area and present the various soil layers, while the more schematic ceramic sections often zigzag across the Area to cross walls and other features and present the sequence and location of the excavation "baskets." The location of both types of sections is clearly marked on the plans. Thus one is presented with a full documentation of the stratigraphy, albeit in "top down" organization.3

Janko has gone to Herculean efforts to overcome the most significant hurdle, that is, to make sure that all the chapters are up to date and reflect the most recent interpretations of the stratigraphy. One must note that not all the data and material from all years of excavation at Ayios Stephanos are to be found in this one volume and that some of the contributions were written up to two decades ago. Material from the first phase of excavations (1959-1960, 1963) is not republished here, unless as in the case of Areas Beta, Gamma, and Lambda excavation in adjacent or expanded trenches significantly altered the interpretation of the stratigraphy and architecture, or the understanding of the ceramic sequence changed with further excavation as in the case of the early Mycenaean ceramics. This does lead to an emphasis on the Middle and Late Bronze Ages in the present volume, whereas in Taylour's preliminary report on the first phase there was a greater emphasis on the Early Bronze Age, due largely to where the excavations took place in the two excavation phases. The first phase concentrated on the hilltop where the Mycenaean remains evidently were cut away or eroded but where EBA was plentiful, while the second phase concentrated on the southern slope of the hill where constraints of time4 did not allow full exploration to bedrock of many areas. Janko has inserted revisions and changes whenever necessary; while this may be a little untidy in terms of flow of narrative with numerous bracketed insertions, it does ensure that the information is up to date. A good case in point is chapter 6 on the Late Helladic pottery, by P. A. Mountjoy. As Mountjoy has now shown,5 there exists a phase transitional between the latest LH IIIB and LH IIIC Early; some of the Ayios Stephanos material originally catalogued as LH IIIC Early in fact belongs to this transitional phase. Janko has supplied references to Mountjoy's monumental Regional Mycenaean Decorated Pottery6 in which she redated the relevant material -- thus the chapter is now up-to-date. In other instances the specialists did not have access to all the relevant material for their study, and Janko has supplemented their work: in chapter 5 Janko adds important EH I material, and on the basis of a statistical analysis of material not available to the author (Appendix 1) Janko is able to divide the EH pottery into three periods corresponding to EH I, EH II Early and EH II Late. Chapter 14, the summary and historical conclusions by Janko, is all the more invaluable for the reader to understand the history of the site, incorporating the results from all the studies.

Only a few walls that could be dated to the EH period were found in the second phase of excavations, to be added to those walls discovered in the first phase. But there was much stratified material that greatly adds to our understanding of the ceramic sequence of Ayios Stephanos. What is interesting for the Early Helladic sequence is that there is clear stratigraphic evidence for the two major divisions of the EH II period (EH II Early and EH II Late) as seen in the northeast Peloponnesos, such as at Lerna, overlying the EH I period. Unlike many of the sites in the Argolid and Corinthia, there is no indication of a preceding Final Neolithic occupation here at Ayios Stephanos. The few EH burials (circa 17), all found in the first phase of excavations, are still identified as intramural (pp. 142, 564), a practice unusual in the Early Bronze Age Aegean for non-infants. The lack of EH III ceramics is typical for the southern Peloponnesos.

Perhaps one of the most important things about Ayios Stephanos is that it presents a stratigraphic sequence from the beginning of the Middle Helladic period through the transition to the Late Helladic period, and on to the Late Helladic IIIC period, with plentiful architecture and burials to complement the pottery. Thus we are able to study the process of Minoan influence in a region that is near the Minoan outpost of Kythera as well as the emergence of what we call Mycenaean culture. And with C. Zerner studying the MH pottery from both Ayios Stephanos and Lerna, we can be assured of similar approach to and subdivision of the difficult MH ceramic sequence. This is critical when trying to isolate what is purely "mainland" from what is purely "Minoan" from everything in between. The architecture shifts from primarily apsidal structures in MH I to "agglutinative" rectangular structures of multiple rooms and courtyards arranged along streets in MH III. The ceramic picture of the latest MH phases, including the transitional MH III to LH I is very dynamic, with Minoan, Aiginetan, and mainland influences intermingling. Zerner and Janko argue that Mycenaean ceramics as we know it began in southern Laconia, though not necessarily at Ayios Stephanos itself; this of course follows the conclusion of Rutter and Rutter.7

One of the reasons Ayios Stephanos may have been a successful site throughout the MH and LH periods is that it was coastal and it was involved in the widespread web of trade in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. Janko places Ayios Stephanos into this "global" context in an attempt to explain its presence. Its proximity to the famous lapis lacedaemonius quarry is one good example: the stone was probably not worked at Ayios Stephanos (no object or debris has been found, though unworked fragments have been found), but it was most likely the entrepôt for its exportation, most likely to Kastri on Kythera and from there to the wider world. Evidence for working metals at Ayios Stephanos, plus the presence of copper and lead sources in Laconia, lead Janko to suggest that the exporting of metals, especially to metal-poor Crete, may have contributed to the settlement's prosperity. Despite the connections, Ayios Stephanos, Janko concludes, was "neither a Minoan colony such as Kastri [on Kythera] nor a heavily Minoanised settlement like Phylakopi."8

Ayios Stephanos declined during the Late Helladic period, probably due to its dependence upon connections with the Minoan world. By the end of LH II the site had physically shrunk by nearly half. Connections with Crete are still evident, though Mycenaean pottery for instance constitutes nearly 75% of the LH IIA ceramics. Still, Janko contrasts the reduced circumstances of Mycenaean Ayios Stephanos with the greater prosperity of Laconia and the rest of the Peloponnesos. Some periods display increased Cretan connections (LH IIIA2 for instance), and it is still uncertain what the relationship between coastal Laconia and the political center in central Laconia. Whether Ayios Stephanos was incorporated into the state based at the Menelaion is still an open question, though the recent finds of Linear B tablets at Ayios Vasilios to the north of Ayios Stephanos would suggest that this is most likely. Ayios Stephanos briefly again experienced growth during the Transitional LH IIIB2-LH IIIC Early phase and LH IIIC Early phase, perhaps to as large a settlement as it had seen during the MH-LH transition, but this expansion was short lived, and the settlement was abandoned by LH IIIC Middle.

The Medieval chapters present a snapshot of the effects of the political and military competition among the various powers on the people of 13th and 14th century AD Greece. A small fortified tower and enclosure, perhaps serving as an inn, was erected on the site by the Franks, though the Byzantines soon controlled the territory. As in the Bronze Age, Medieval Ayios Stephanos presents a mix of material cultures, including Frankish coinage, Italian ceramics, and eastern bread stamps. Sometime between 1321 and 1334 settlement at Ayios Stephanos ceased, with only a chapel of St. Stephen remaining to the present day.

The wealth of data and the interpretations presented in this volume will ensure that Ayios Stephanos will continue to be a site important for our understanding of several major issues in Aegean Bronze Age studies. Janko is to be congratulated for seeing this volume to fruition.


1.   I must state at the beginning that I provided comments on the manuscript of Janko's seriation of the Early Helladic pottery that forms Appendix 1. I did not, however, see any other section of the manuscript. 
2.   W.D. Taylour, "Excavations at Ayios Stephanos," Annual of the British School at Athens, 67 (1972): 205-270; J.B. Rutter and S.H. Rutter, The Transition to Mycenaean: A Stratified Middle Helladic II to Late Helladic IIA Pottery Sequence from Ayios Stephanos in Lakonia, Monumenta Archaeologica 4, Los Angeles: University of California, 1976. 
3.   It would have been helpful to have the Structure and Street numbers consistently placed on the relevant plans, but one can always consult the summary period plans in chapter 14. 
4.   The 1974 season was cut short by the events in Cyprus. An admirable feature of Janko's Introduction is the discussion of the various problems and shortcomings that befell the project, from misplaced a datum point to lack of storage facilities. 
5.   P. A. Mountjoy, "The Destruction of the Palace at Pylos Reconsidered," Annual of the British School at Athens, 92 (1997): 109-137. 
6.   P. A. Mountjoy, Regional Mycenaean Decorated Pottery, Rahden: Verlag Marie Leidorf, 1999. 
7.   See above, note 2. 
8.   Janko, p. 589. For a recent evaluation of Kastri and the concept of "Minoanization," see C. Broodbank and E. Kiriatzi, "The First 'Minoans' of Kythera Revisited: Technology, Demography, and Landscape in the Prepalatial Aegean," American Journal of Archaeology 111 (2007) 241-274.


Review from the AMERICAN JOURNAL OF ARCHAEOLOGY APRIL 2010 (114.2); Creative Commons Licensing NC4.0

This is a long-awaited book on the excavations of the important settlement at Ayios Stephanos in southern Laconia. Ayios Stephanos was a major Bronze Age (BA) harbor town with an important gateway community actively involved in the exchange network between Minoan Crete and mainland Greece. Evidence exists for short reoccupation in Medieval times. Fourteen chapters and nine appendices, complemented by a vast number of figures, plates, charts, maps, and plans, present in the most coherent way the evidence from the excavations carried out by the late Lord William Taylour at the site. Although some reference is made to the 1959–1962 seasons, this book covers only 1973–1977.

The introduction by Janko presents in a lively way the history of excavations at the site, the problems encountered in the process of publication, and the structure and conventions of the volume. Janko shouldered the burden of bringing the excavations to publication after Taylour's death. It must have required an immense investment of time and effort on his part, which makes his accomplishment all the more praiseworthy, as his main scholarly work is altogether different. Gathering the contributions of the various specialists has taken many years, and the integrative burden has also fallen to the editor.

Chapters 1 and 2 discuss the evidence for BA architecture and settlement and BA intramural burials, respectively. The stratified sequence of architectural remains provides a clear understanding of construction activity and building techniques employed at Ayios Stephanos throughout the Bronze Age. The study of BA burials informs burial traditions in southern Laconia and provides one of the few well-documented corpora of BA child burials.

The prehistoric ceramic finds, presented in chapters on Early Helladic (EH) pottery (ch. 4), Middle Helladic (MH) pottery (ch. 5 ), and Late Helladic (LH) pottery (ch. 6) form a complete corpus of pottery covering EH I–LH IIIC, with a break at the end of the Early Bronze Age. The authors of the individual chapters are to be praised for their detailed analyses of typological forms and fabric, even in the case of nonstratified contexts, and for the thorough comparative studies they carried out for each chronological period. MacGillivray does not detect any local variations in the EH pottery forms from the site and correctly assumes that the local community was in “close contact with the centres of EH society” (176). Following a meticulous charting of the evidence, Zerner demonstrates the close relationship between MH and Minoan ceramics at the site and concludes that Laconia throughout most of the Middle Bronze Age did not belong to the same cultural sphere as the northeastern Peloponnese. Mountjoy's thorough study of Mycenaean ceramics, combined with her exemplary work (Regional Mycenaean Decorated Pottery [Rahden 1999]), provides an important LH pottery sequence for Laconia.

The individual studies on pottery forms and fabric are complemented by statistical ware analysis of EH pottery deposits (appx. 1),
petrographic and chemical analysis of MH and LH I–II pottery (appx. 2), and the reevaluation of the data from the Perlman and Asaro analyses of LH I–III sherds from the 1963 excavation (appx. 3).

Bronze Age small finds are systematically discussed in chapters on EH small finds (ch. 8), MH small finds (ch. 9), and LH small finds (ch. 10). The analysis is thorough and supports the dating of pottery finds and architectural remains. Of particular interest is the Linear A inscription that, when associated with the MH pottery data, provides another important piece of evidence for close contacts between southern Laconia and Minoan Crete.

The data obtained from the nondestructive analysis of MH and LH crucibles (appx. 4) and the results of the X-ray fluorescence analysis on MH and LH bronze objects (appx. 5) offer incentive for further comparisons of the metallurgical processes used at Ayios Stephanos during the different phases of MH I with those employed in MH III–LH IIA (appx. 4, CD-125). The study of flaked and ground stone (appx. 6) is instructive and enhances the publication of associated material from the Laconia Survey, providing fresh data for the investigation of the lithics industry in BA Laconia.

Chapters 3, 7, and 11 discuss the medieval occupation (architecture, stratigraphy, and burials); the pottery; and the Roman, medieval, and modern small finds, tiles, and coins, respectively. The information compiled is an essential and welcome addition to the few existing publications on medieval archaeology in the Peloponnese.

Chapter 12 includes a lively discussion of the human and other organic remains, complemented by bone mineral analyses of selected skeletons (appx. 7) and the thorough and comparative study of mammalian and reptilian remains (appx. 8). The data provide valuable diachronic insights into life and death circumstances at Ayios Stephanos concerning such issues as pathological conditions, demography, and infant deaths. These are the most complete anthropological and zooarchaeological analyses presently available for prehistoric Laconia. Although the samples are undersized (CD-186), the data from radiocarbon dating in appendix 9, when compared with data from other samples, yield evidence related to the longer duration of MH I at the settlement, the custom of using (and indeed reusing) old timber in constructions, and the placing of LH I/IIA at the site within the low Aegean chronology framework.

Chapter 13 by Bintliff provides a detailed account of the regional geography and geology and a cumulative survey of sites in the Helos region. It is unfortunate that Bintliff was not able to revisit the region and reanalyze its settlement history, since the citation of updated references to recent archaeological work would have given another direction to the analysis of the data, especially in terms of settlement hierarchy and the role of funerary monuments, such as the tholos tomb at Ayios Efstratios and the chamber tombs at Peristeri.

Chapter 14 provides the summary and historical conclusions. The presentation of the facts for the diachronic history of Ayios Stephanos reconstructs in the clearest way the settlement development. However, I am not convinced at all by the hypothesis for the Minoan character of the now-submerged town at Pavlopetri and of the chamber tombs at Epidaurus Limera. The Minoan colony on Kythera, close to both sites, would have affected—to a certain extent—their material culture, but there is no firm evidence to support the hypothesis of a Minoan colony at either site.

Nevertheless, Janko has undertaken the Herculean task of bringing together and presenting the results of the excavations at Ayios Stephanos. The splendid presentation of the volume, the vast amount of data, and the analysis of the data make waiting for the publication worthwhile. The reasons behind the lack of recent bibliographical references and the omission—here and there—of recent discoveries have already been underlined by the editor himself (9). These minor shortcomings must be overlooked, given the mass of excavation data and the circumstances under which this volume was brought to publication. Overall, the evidence is presented in the most exemplary way, complemented by well-drafted maps, plans, and sections; clear figures and plates; and detailed charts and tables.

Certainly this is a book of great quality, highly recommended for all libraries and scholars interested in the history and archaeology of Laconia and the Peloponnese. The editor is to be warmly congratulated for his astonishing effort.

Chrysanthi Gallou
Department of Archaeology
University of Nottingham
Nottingham NG7 2RD
United Kingdom

Last updated on 12/08/2017