B.C. Archaeology

Study Tours of the Ancient World


In preparation for the upcoming B.C. Archaeology Tour of Ancient Greece in September 2010, Michael Birrell and his trusty assistant Ian Casey undertook a reconnaissance of prospective Greek archaeological sites and museums, and assessed suitable hotels and restaurants - I had not visited Greece for many years and was interested to reacquaint myself with the region. 'Junket' I hear you say! My only response is: 'it's a hard job but someone has to do it'.

We began our investigations by flying into Athens and picking up our rental car. We made our way to the south coast of Attica to visit the remains of the picturesque Temple of Poseidon on the end of Cape Sounion. It was a dark and rather stormy day, which seemed entirely suitable since the beautiful Doric shrine was designed to give aid to travellers of the Aegean. We stayed overnight in a small local hotel and the following morning headed NE to the ancient shrine of Artemis at Brauron. Set in a rural landscape the compound preserves evidence of ancient dining halls and temple.

From here we headed north to Delphi, stopping en route at Thebes. Greek roads are very badly sign posted and we often got lost but we eventually found our way to Delphi. Perched on the precipitous slope of Mt Parnassos, the ruins are very scenic and look out over a wide valley leading down to the Gulf of Corinth. We had a perfect sunny day for our exploration of the site - we walked up the hill through the remains of numerous 'treasuries' to the Temple of Apollo, god of light and music, and then further up to see the magnificent theatre and stadium. The lower sanctuary with its distinctive tholos temple and gymnasium was also well worth exploring. An afternoon in the local museum was well spent. The sculpture from the site is superb, ranging from archaic kouroi to the famous bronze 'charioteer'.

The following day we made our way southward again, stopping to see the site of the Battle of Charonaea (where Philip II of Macedon defeated the Greeks) and the Mycenaean tombs at Orchomenos. We then travelled on to Corinth, site of an important Greco-Roman city. The temple of Apollo is a definite highlight and the local museum contains much interesting sculpture from the region. We drove up to the Acrocorinth, which has a majestic castle, for a superb view over the Gulf.

Our route took us southwards into the Peloponnesus - the county is very scenic and full of wineries. We stopped at Nemea, home of an ancient pan-Hellenic games and a superb Temple of Zeus, situated in a beautiful agricultural landscape. The temple is being reconstructed and will superb when completed. The nearby stadium was of interest because it retains evidence of the original mechanism which operated the starting gates. A picnic lunch in the olive groves was very pleasant.

The Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion
The Theatre and temple of Apollo at Delphi

From Nemea we headed down through the Argolid plain to Nauplion which would be our base for the next couple of days. This is a very pleasant seaside town with an impressive Venetian fort and excellent recently revamped Museum. We explored the laneways, restaurants and gift shops of this relaxing town before venturing out to see archaeological sites in the local area. The first sites we went to were Dendra, which has some interesting Mycenaean tombs, and Midea, which is a Mycenaean fortified city on a very high hill overlooking the plain of the Argolid. From here we went north and saw the Argive 'Heraeon', an ancient sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Hera. Located on a magnificent hill with sweeping views, we enjoyed walking through the wild flowers to see the remains of the temple and associated buildings.

In the afternoon we headed further north to Mycenae to see the impressive Late Bronze Age city and tombs. The enormous tholos tombs of the Mycenaean rulers are particularly impressive and compare to the inside of the Old Kingdom pyramids for scale and majesty. The city of Mycenae, surrounded by enormous Cyclopean walls, contains the private residences of the kings and is entered by the splendid 'Lion Gate'. Inside the city one gets a good view of the royal grave circle and there are sweeping views of the pass leading down into the plain of the Argolid. We climbed down the steep staircase into the watercave, designed to ensure water for the citadel in times of crisis. The local museum is excellent and has a fine collection of artifacts from the tombs and town site.
The next day we spent in the Nauplion Museum, which is very well laid out and labelled - artifacts include a number of suits of Mycenaean armour and numerous grave goods from the area. In the afternoon we visited the site of Argos, an important city state in the Classical and Roman period. The theatre is very well preserved and parts of the agora give an impression of this prosperous centre. We then drove to the summit of the Larissa hill, location of a well defended castle. We had a very clear day which enabled us to look over the entire valley as far as Mycenae in the distant north.

Our next day's travel took us to the north and east of Nauplion. In the morning we headed to Tiryns to see the splendid Mycenaean era walls and palace. The city lies on a small hill in the centre of the plain and is defended by massive enclosure walls. Most impressive are the corbelled storage rooms and the well defended gates. We then headed towards the coast to visit the site of Epidauros, home of a major cult to the god Asclepios. This deity was a healing god and the site was one of the most important medical centres in the Greek world. The theatre at Epidauros has one of the best preserved auditoriums anywhere and gives the visitor a magnificent view over the site. Much of the extensive sanctuary site is being restored from original and new material, with rebuilding of the central tholos temple and sleeping quarters.

A long and winding mountain pass led us across the central part of the Peloponnesus to the ancient Mycenaean site of Pylos. Located on a headland with a view of the sea, the remains include the main palace with its central hearth and surrounding storage magazines. From here we made our way up the west coast to the site of Olympia where we were to stay for 2 nights.

Olympia has an excellent site museum which has been rebuilt since I was last there. It contains a superb new display of the restored pedimental sculpture from the temples as well as numerous other artefacts from the sanctuaries. The metal work is particularly impressive. We then spent many hours at the site, our visit corresponding with spring blossom season. Olympia is a large site with many well preserved remains - most impressive are the tholos temple and the Doric Temples of Hera and Zeus. The Olympic running track gives one a good impression of the games.

With some sadness we left the Peloponnesus and drove back to Athens through Arcadia and Achaea - most of the route seemed to be along a goat track with a precipitous valley on one side but the scenery was superb. We checked into the Athens airport hotel for our early morning flight to Iraklion on the Aegean island of Crete. This is a pleasant seaside town with a well preserved castle defending the harbour. The local museum was under restoration but they had a temporary exhibition of the most important finds which was very impressive. From Iraklion we visited the ruins of Knossos, the most important of the Minoan palace sites. Expensively 'restored' by Arthur Evans in the late 19th Century, the place remains are extensive and need time to fully understand. Much more conservation work has been done since my last visit which makes the remains come alive.

The lion gate at Mycenae
The throne room at Knossos

The following day we drove east to see the Minoan palace ruins of Mallia, located near the sea. These are well preserved and include an area of townsite outside the main palace. We then headed into the interior, passing through some very scenic country on our way to the southern archaeological sites of Aghia Triadha and Phaestos. The first site was a small palace compound while the later is a major site with a spectacular view of the snow capped mountains in the distance. The private rooms of the palace are well preserved. That evening was Easter and we saw some of the procession which took place from the local church.

On our last day on Crete we enjoyed a scenic drive into the interior of the island. We headed into the mountains, stopping to look at a Minoan villa. We went up to the high country and visited the Idaean Cave, traditional the birthplace of the god Zeus. The mouth of the cave was hidden in snow and we made our way gingerly into the depths which were dark, mossy and suitably mysterious. En route we stopped to look at a few traditional stone houses used by shepherds in the winter months. We had a wonderful Easter lamb lunch with excellent red wine before heading down to the coast at Rethymnon through some magnificent rural countryside. Here we toured the Venetian castle before making our way back to Iraklion. The following morning we caught our ferry to the island of Santorini. The trip, about 80 km, took about 2 hours. The island is a flooded volcano and one approaches the main ferry stop as the towering cliffs rise above you. We stayed in the small town of Thera which has some good restaurants and a number of hotels with superb views over the caldera. The town in perched on the rim of the volcano with an almost vertical drop into the sea. We explored the numerous lanes of shops and then went for a walk along the edge of the volcano rim to a marvellous rock outcropping with magnificent views of the entire caldera.

The next day we took a cruise to the centre of the caldera where a new volcanic island is being formed. The small islet contains evidence of numerous eruptions over the past few centuries, and the central crater is still steaming with sulphurous fumes. We had a chance to swim in the thermal waters which bubble up along the edge of the island - getting into the sea was cold, but the volcanic fumaroles heat the sea water and make it quite pleasant. In the afternoon we visited the local museum. This contains a very good display of artefacts and frescoes from the Minoan colony at Akrotiri (currently closed for restoration but due to re-open next year). The sunset from our hotel terrace was truly spectacular!

The village of Thera on Santorini
The Parthenon on the Athenian acropolis

Our last day on Santorini was spent exploring the ruins of the Hellenistic site of Thera, perched on a high hill overlooking the southern coast of the island. The remains are well preserved and offer a remarkable insight into the lives of the residents. In the morning we flew to Athens which would be our base for the next few days.

In Athens our first day was spent with an extended look at the wonderful National Museum. This collection of artefacts is enormous and really requires 2 visits. The ground floor is largely dedicated to sculpture and relief and contains some masterpieces. Some of the bronze sculpture, including the famous statue of Poseidon, needs to be seen to be believed. The interior rooms on the ground floor are dedicated to the Mycenaean treasures including the famous Death Mask of Agamemnon from Mycenae. Upstairs there is an extensive re-vamped collection of Greek pottery and an excellent display of artefacts from Akrotiri on Santorini.

The following day we explored some of the antiquities of Athens. In the morning we went to see the remains of the monumental Temple of Zeus which the Roman Emperor Hadrian built below the acropolis. We also explored the remains of the sanctuaries nearby. Rom here we made our way to the acropolis, stopping to see the Theatre of Dionysus and the Asclepius Shrine. After lunch we climbed up to the summit of the acropolis to see the superb temples. Much reconstruction work has been done recently and the Parthenon and Erechtheion are both looking superb. The view across the city is stunning, and one can see the new Acropolis Museum which contains a stunning collection of sculpture from the area. We then explored the Areopagus Hill, and the Pnyx.

Our exploration next took us to the island of Aegina, located to the south of Athens in the Saronic Gulf. We caught the ferry from Piraeus to the island, the trip taking about an hour. We explored the ruins of the fortified Bronze Age city near the port, including a temple of Apollo, and then made our way by bus across the island to see the beautiful Temple of Aphaia. This superb Doric shrine is located on a high point overlooking the sea and is very well preserved. The on site museum contains some superb sculpture from the pediment.

Back in Athens, we spent another day exploring the ancient sites to the north of the Acropolis. We started by exploring the Roman Forum and the superb 'Library of Hadrian'. Most impressive is the 'Tower of the Winds' with beautiful relief scenes of personified breezes. We had lunch with actress Kate Blanchet and her family (well, they were at the next table!) and then went to the Athenian Agora. This fascinating area, centre of economic and political life of the ancient city, retains numerous ancient structures from the classical period. The superb Temple of Hephaestus, which is virtually intact, leaves a lasting impression. The Agora Museum in the reconstructed Stoa of Attalus contains a wonderful selection of artefacts from the Agora area, providing the visitor with an overview of the history of Athens. In the afternoon we explored the Kerameikos Cemetery area with its impressive collection of ancient tomb reliefs. Our exploration of the Greek archaeological sites was a wonderful experience, and I look forward to revisiting many of these same sites when I lead the first tour of Greece next year in September 2010.

Michael Birrell

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