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Jan Driessen

19. Marathon in the Middle and Late Bronze Age: New Evidence from an Old Excavation

Preliminary Results from the Excavation of the University of Athens at Plasi

Naya Polychronakou-Sgouritsa, Yiannis Papadatos, Anthi Balitsari et Eleanna Prevedorou

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Introduction: Marathon in prehistory1

  • 1 It is a pleasure to present this article on prehistoric Marathon in honour of Prof. R. Laffineur, w (...)

1The strategic location of Marathon on the east coast of Attica, which enables control of a large part of the Euboean gulf and the opposite coastline, favored intensive human occupation throughout prehistory (Fig. 19.1). The earliest evidence, dated to the Early and Middle Neolithic, has been discovered at Nea Makri, immediately south of the Marathon plain and the marshes of Brexiza (Pantelidou Gofa 1991: 182; Banou 2010: 36-37). Late Neolithic habitation is better documented, not only at Nea Makri, where the settlement continued from the earlier phases, but also at other sites, such as the cave of Oinoe (Steinhauer 2009: 32-45) and the settlement at Trikorynthos, close to the Olympic Rowing Center (Banou 2010: 37). The latter continued to be occupied and flourished particularly in the following phases of the Early Bronze Age. To the Final Neolithic (FN)/Early Helladic (EH) transition is dated the first evidence for an extra muros organised and formalised burial place, namely the extensive cemetery of cist graves at Tsepi (Pantelidou Gofa 2005: 326). The corresponding settlement remains unexcavated, but was probably located in the neighbouring site of Boriza, to the north of the cemetery (Banou 2010: 37). However, Tsepi was probably not the only burial place of this settlement, as is suggested by a grave of the FN/EHI transition found at Vranas, very close to the later Tumulus II, about 2 km from Tsepi (Banou 2010: 39-40).

Fig. 19.1. Map of Marathon (by the authors)

2The cemetery of Vranas is best known for the later monumental tumuli. The earliest of the four excavated, Tumulus I, was founded in Middle Helladic (MH) II, but the use of the cemetery continued, though not without gaps, until LH IIIB (Papadimitriou 2001: 101, 104-105, 107). The construction, towards the end of the 15th c. BC, of a monumental tholos tomb at Arnos (Pelon 1976: 228-231), only 700 m from the tumuli, and the contemporary use of the tumuli and the tholos, at least during the beginning of LH IIIA, imply significant changes in social organisation, possibly related to the emergence of new ruling elite (s), and different ways in which social differentiation was expressed in mortuary practices and funerary monuments. Also it is the first time that Mycenaean pottery and mortuary practices appear in the area (Papadimitriou 2001: 108). The Arnos tholos tomb served as a symbol of wealth, social status and/or political power of a ruling elite emerging in the area of Marathon at the same period during which tholos tombs gradually became the main elite burial monument across the Greek Mainland, including Attica (Cremasco & Laffineur 1999; Laffineur 2010). It is interesting, though, that the MH funerary tradition remained rather strong in the area, as indicated by the continuous use of some of the tumuli as late as LH IIIB.

3The evidence from Vranas and Arnos shows a thriving community of the MH and early LH period, with social complexity and elite groups burying their dead in high status monumental tombs. It should be stressed, however, that the evidence comes almost exclusively from funerary contexts, since evidence for domestic occupation in the area of Marathon is rather poor and, in one case, inconclusive.

4At the peak of Agriliki, close to Vranas and Arnos, the surface pottery and the architectural remains, including a cyclopean fortification wall, are controversial in regard to the existence of a significant prehistoric settlement (Papadimitriou 2001: 107). The hill is rather steep and unsuitable to host an extensive settlement inhabited by a large population, especially if one considers the small size of the fortified area, which has a circumference of only 300 m (McCredie 1966: 35). Moreover, surface pottery is not confined to prehistoric periods, but includes also sherds from the Archaic and Classical period (Sotiriadis 1935: 158; 1936: 42), which lead several scholars to regard the cyclopean wall as a fortified military camp of the ancient deme of Provalinthos, rather than as a fortified Mycenaean acropolis (McCredie 1966: 35; P. Fotiadi pers. comm.). Thus, the only known habitation site of MH and LH in Marathon is at Plasi, but its connection with the above cemeteries is questionable, due to its large distance from Tsepi (2.5 km), Vranas (4 km) and Arnos (3.5 km).

1. Plasi: the site and history of research

5The coastal site of Plasi lies on a low mound, between two perennial streams that run through the Marathon plain flowing to the sea, 1.5 km east of the Marathon Tumulus. The site was discovered in 1969 in rescue excavations carried out by E. Mastrokostas and S. Marinatos on behalf of the Greek Archaeological Service (Fig. 19.2). Unfortunately, the site attracted less attention in comparison to the rich cemeteries excavated at about the same time at Tsepi and Vranas by Marinates, and the excavation and the finds were never thoroughly studied and fully published. The available information is limited, deriving solely from short preliminary reports, published in Greek journals (Marinatos 1970a; 1970b; 1970c; Mastrokostas 1970). According to published information, the earliest evidence of habitation comprised scattered pottery sherds of the FN period, while the earliest architectural remains belong to the EH period. At some point a large fortification wall was built, but its precise dating is problematic, since Marinatos attributes it to either EH or MH, while other scholars solely to EH (Mastrokostas 1970; Travlos 1988: 183).

Fig. 19.2. Plan of the old excavations at Plasi (after Travlos 1988: fig. 272)

6In the MH period, an impressively large building was constructed. Because of its size, Marinatos called it ‘palace’, ‘mansion’ or ‘at least megaron’, but he excavated only half of it, without reporting the finds or specifying its date within the MH sequence. Just outside and in close proximity to the MH megaron, the excavations revealed several cist graves and a pottery kiln, which were also dated to MH, but their chronological and stratigraphical relation to the megaron remained unclear. Finally, the excavators did not report any architectural remains of the Late Helladic (LH) period, apart from sherds of LH IIIA-B date. Mycenaean architectural remains were however unearthed in a nearby plot a decade later (Theocharaki 1979: 90). Finally, the excavations discovered also pottery, graves and architectural remains from the Geometric to the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period, clearly suggesting the long history of occupation at the site.

7Despite the wealth of the finds described above, the hasty character and the poor recording of these excavations and the limited published evidence do not provide adequate information on issues such as the succession of phases from FN to LH III, the changes in the character of human activity, the precise dating of the built structures, the relation of the prehistoric cist graves with the domestic remains, and the relation between the community of Plasi and the burial places of Vranas and Arnos. With these questions in mind, new excavations were commenced in 2014 by the Department of Archaeology and History of Art of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, aiming at clarifying the above issues and throwing new light on the prehistoric human activity in Marathon. The evidence presented below is based on the results of only two excavation seasons (2014 and 2015), but allows us to make preliminary observations which modify or add to the existing knowledge on the history of human activity at Plasi and Marathon in general.

2. Middle Helladic period

8The new excavations confirmed the earliest habitation of the area in the FN and EH I phase, and produced pottery and walls from rectilinear houses of the EH II phase. Above them, the completion of the excavation of the so-called ‘megaron’ revealed the entire building, which measures 14 m by 7 m, i.e. a roofed space of 98 m2. This makes the megaron at Plasi the third largest MH building after the Large Building Complex (LBC) in Aegina and House P in Asea (Wiersma 2014: 207). Moreover, its size is double that of the normal MH I-II house (ca. 40-49 m2) in the Greek Mainland (Wiersma 2014: 206).

Fig. 19.3. The MH megaron, from the east (photo by the authors)

9The excavation provided a few fragmented clay vases lying on the floor. They are inconclusive concerning the function of the megaron, but of special significance for its precise dating to the MH II phase. The pottery includes mostly Grey Minyan pottery, of good quality and of common types like the so-called Lianokladhi (Fig. 19.4a) (Wace & Thompson 1912: fig. 135) and Pteleon goblets (Fig. 19.4b) (Verdelis 1951: pls 9-10), typical shapes of the MH II phase in Central Greece (Maran 1992: 83-88), and the characteristic Gray Minyan MH II bowls with grooved shoulder (Fig. 19.4c) found especially in the North-East Peloponnese (Nordquist 1987: fig. 44). Matt-painted pottery was scanty (Fig. 19.4d), but the material indicates similarities with the pottery of Ceramic Phase I (MH 11) at Kolonna (Gauss & Smetana 2007: fig. 6). The contacts with Kolonna are also corroborated by the presence of a small number of fragmented matt-painted sherds, which on the basis of their fabric and style were imported from Aegina.

Fig. 19.4. MH II pottery from the megaron (drawings by Anthi Balitsari)

10Also, the new excavations reinforced Marinatos’ idea that the neighbouring pottery kiln (Fig. 19.5) is contemporary with the megaron, at least in terms of stratigraphy. It seems therefore that the open spaces around the megaron were used for craft activity, and firing of ceramics in particular. Finally, the architectural remains of smaller buildings were unearthed about 50 m to the north of the megaron. These walls had been discovered in 1969, but they were not reported, documented and dated in the short excavation reports. On the basis of the pottery, these buildings are also dated to the MH II phase, being contemporary with the megaron. It seems, therefore, that the megaron was the central building of a larger settlement, the size of which remains to be defined by future excavations.

Fig. 19.5. The MH ceramic kiln (photo by the authors)

11An important feature of the MH settlement is the fortification wall (Fig. 19.6). It is very strong, 1.5 m thick, with two well built faces filled with rubble in between, and with a rectangular tower near the only gate that has been discovered. Due to disturbance, our excavations have failed, so far, to identify the foundation date of the wall. It is, therefore, impossible to know whether it was founded in EH and continued into MH, like the fortification wall of Kolonna, or if it was constructed in MH, as in Haghia Irini. In any case it seems that it was still in use in MH II, protecting and/or demarcating the area of the megaron and the surrounding settlement and manifesting the power and prosperity of the community.

Fig. 19.6. The fortification wall (photo by the authors)

12The above evidence clearly suggests a prosperous settlement, flourishing as early as the MH II phase, having similarities with other important MH settlements in Attica, such as Vravron, Thorikos, Kiapha Thiti and Eleusis. Also, as indicated by influences in pottery style and the fortification walls, Plasi had close contacts with major harbour towns, particularly Haghia Irini on Kea and Kolonna on Aegina, which played a crucial role as intermediate trading communities between the Aegean and the Greek Mainland (Maran 2007: 175).

13The new evidence for MH II dating is of particular importance because it suggests that the megaron was contemporary with the construction of the earliest of the Vranas tumuli (Tumulus I). Therefore, the two structures may constitute the material manifestation of similar (if not the same) social phenomena, namely the emergence of elite group (s) in the area of Marathon already in MH II. It would be facile to assume that the tumulus and the megaron were used by the same elite family, especially if we consider the distance between Plasi and Vranas (4 km). In this respect, the MH tumulus excavated recently at Klopa, about 550 m from the Plasi megaron is of particular importance (Oikonomakou 2010: 236). It has a diameter of ca. 7 m and a cist grave at the centre. The precise dating of the Klopa tumulus remains unknown, but it has many similarities in terms of size and construction with the inner circle and Grave 1 (i.e. the earliest phase) of Vranas Tumulus I, which is dated to MH II (Kilian-Dirlmeier 1997: 91-97; Papadimitriou 2001: 100-101). It is possible, therefore, that a segment of the Plasi community, perhaps an elite family related to the megaron, was buried in a tumulus similar to Vranas Tumulus I (Phase I), which was much closer to the settlement.

3. The Middle to Late Helladic transition

14The cist graves excavated in 1969 in many areas of the site, some of them inside or near the MH houses or even on top of their walls, suggest that the MH settlement was abandoned and the area became a burial place. The precise dating of the abandonment remains unknown, but the establishment of the cist-grave cemetery could provide a terminus ante quem. However, the excavators attributed these graves to MH, without reporting the finds or giving a more precise dating.

15Valuable insights were gained in 2015 thanks to the discovery and excavation of a new cist grave, a few meters to the west of the MH megaron (Fig. 19.7). The grave was preserved with its covering slabs still intact and in situ. It contained a minimum number of two individuals and was used for, at least, two successive burials (Fig. 19.7). The deceased of the last interment was placed in a contracted position, lying on the left side. The skeleton was found roughly in situ, with elements still in articulation, but with evidence for disturbance. The majority of the remains of the previous interment were found gathered at the south-west corner of the grave, with the exception of the metatarsals that were preserved in their primary position at the south-eastern area of the grave, close to the feet of the in situ skeleton. Both skeletons were adult individuals. The in situ skeleton belongs to a probable female, while the sex could not be determined for the other individual.

Fig. 19.7. The MH III/LH I grave before and after the removal of the covering slabs (photos by the authors)

16An interesting feature of both skeletons is the different degree of representation of the various body parts. The presence of small bones points towards primary burials in both skeletons. Postcranial bones and especially foot bones are the best represented elements. On the other hand, crania, mandibles, and dentitions show the poorest representation. Only the incomplete cranium of the in situ skeleton was recovered, while the cranium of the disarticulated skeleton was missing. A mandibular segment and a single isolated tooth were recovered from the grave’s loose filling. The differential recovery of elements from the upper and the lower skeleton and the near absence of dentitions indicate that the lack of cranial elements and mandibles is not the result of taphonomic processes. To the contrary, it seems that the grave context reflects multiple episodes of re-opening, during which certain skeletal elements were removed. The scarcity of isolated teeth might further indicate the removal of cranial and mandibular elements early in the decomposition stages, before the anterior teeth had detached from the alveolar bones. The disturbance and the elements missing from the in situ skeleton indicate that since the last interment took place, the grave was re-opened at least once, though not for the interment of another individual. Thus, it becomes clear that grave re-openings did not have to be associated with primary or even secondary burials, even though in this case they were possibly associated with the removal of skeletal elements. This practice is also known from other MH III/LH I cemeteries, such as Prosymna and Haghios Vasileios (Voutsaki et alii 2007: 146; Moutafi & Voutsaki 2016). The practices of secondary treatment and re-opening may be related to the human skeletal remains which were found outside the grave, on top of the covering slabs. These consisted of the cranium of an adult individual and a partial femur. Based on preliminary osteological observations, it is not possible either to exclude or to confirm the possibility that the bones found outside the grave were in fact derived from the disarticulated skeleton recovered inside the same grave and that they were removed during one of the grave’s re-openings.

17The grave contained also three intact vases, which provide valuable information for dating purposes. The matt painted jug (Fig. 19.8a) has parallels in terms of shape with Mycenae Grave Circle B (Mylonas 1973: fig. 128: γ) and decoration with Eleusis (Mylonas 1975: pl. 91: 609), all dated to the MH III/LH I transition. The first cup (Fig. 19.8b), although without precise parallels, has features, such as the ring-shaped base and the raised handle, which are compatible with cups of the MH III/LH I transition (e.g. Dietz 1991: fig. 48: AB-7, 11 and 15). Finally, the second cup (Fig. 19.8c) has good parallels in MH III/LH I funerary contexts, such as the West Cemetery at Eleusis (Mylonas 1975: pls 6: γ, 27: γ).

Fig. 19.8. Vases from the MH III/LH I grave (photos by the authors)

18The above suggests that the grave was established towards the end of MH or the transition to LH I. This may be the case for the entire cemetery, since the old excavations have produced some high quality examples of bichrome painted ware, such as the well-known jug with painted birds (Steinhauer 2009: 71). Although the exact findspot of these special vases is not reported by the excavators, it is plausible that some of them come from the graves.

19To summarise, an extensive cemetery was established at Plasi after the abandonment of the MH settlement, towards the end of MH. This is a well-known phenomenon which spreads across Central Greece and the North-East Peloponnese and is indicative for the reorganisation of settlements at the end of the MH period (Maran 1995: 67-71). It should be stressed that in the case of ordinary MH houses, graves were opened inside, outside and on top of their walls. In contrast, in the case of the megaron, graves were opened around the building and very close to its walls, but not inside it. Therefore, it seems that the ruins of the megaron were still visible when the cemetery was established, and that the people who established these tombs had memories and knowledge about the significance of this large building, and consciously avoided any disturbance inside it. Consequently, the above suggests that the time gap, if any, between the abandonment of the settlement and the establishment of the cemetery was probably very short.

4. The Mycenaean phases

20Our knowledge of the early Mycenaean phases at Plasi is rather limited, and the old excavation reports do not provide any information. The new excavations produced fine LH I-II pottery (Fig. 19.9a) as well as fine and standard LH IIIA-B wares (Fig. 19.9b), but this comprised only sherds from disturbed or surface layers, not associated with architecture or closed deposits. The presence of this pottery shows continuity of human activity in the area, but it is not clear if it is funerary or domestic in character. In other words, did the MH III-LH I cemetery continue to be used in the 16th and 15th c. BC, or was there re-occupation, with the establishment of a new settlement in the area of the earlier cemetery?

Fig. 19.9. Fine and standard pottery of LH I-II and LH IIIA-B date (photos by the authors)

21Evidence becomes clearer for the LH IIIA-B phases. Rescue excavations of the Greek Archaeological Service discovered houses, undisturbed deposits and LH IIIA-B pottery in a plot 100 m from the megaron and the MH houses (Theocharaki 1979: 90). Therefore, in the LH IIIA-B period occupation resumed at Plasi, albeit with a shift in the area of habitation to the south-east of the MH II settlement and the MH III/LH I cemetery. This shift may be related to a conscious effort to avoid building houses on top of the former settlement and cemetery. However, this area, which was perhaps full of ruins, myths and memories, was not abandoned. Very close and above the remains of the MH houses and graves, and 50 m from the megaron, the new excavations revealed an extensive deposit of animal bones, a few obsidian blades and many sherds belonging mostly to Mycenaean drinking vases, especially plain kylikes (FS 267 and FS 255 or FS 264) dated to LH IIIA-B (Fig. 19.10). The deposit was not associated with architectural remains and, at the moment, it is not possible to know whether it is a primary or secondary deposit, i.e. whether the vases were used and dumped in the same area, or whether they were collected and transferred from another area. In any case it seems that the deposit represents the debris from one or more feasting and drinking episodes, which took place in the broader area during the palatial period, and included the consumption of food, at least meat, and drink.

Fig. 19.10. LH IIIA-B kylikes (photos by the authors)

22The relationship of the LH habitation at Plasi with the LHII-IIIA1 tholos tomb at Arnos and the tumuli at Vranas, which continued to be used in this period, cannot be established. It should be stressed, though, that Plasi is the only site in the entire Marathon plain that has provided clear evidence for human occupation in this period. This may be related to the great advantages offered by Plasi in relation to other sites in the hinterland of Marathon. Due to its coastal location, Plasi could have been part of an active network of interaction between other flourishing coastal settlements along the maritime route that connected the South Aegean with the Euboean Gulf (i.e. Kynos, Mitrou) and the palatial centres of the Pagasitic Gulf (Dimini, Pefkakia).

23A similar picture may be suggested for the following phases, but the evidence, at the moment, remains rather scanty. The old excavations had discovered building remains to the south-east of the megaron, which from a stratigraphic point of view seem to be later than the MH II megaron and the MH III/LH I graves, but without providing any information concerning their character, finds and chronology. In the new excavations an intact two-handled bowl of LH IIIC late date (Fig. 19.11) was found in situ inside one of the rooms. Future excavations in the area will provide more data, but the available evidence suggests that human occupation continued at Plasi until the very end of the Bronze Age. As in the previous period, Plasi is the only site in the broader Marathon area with evidence for LH IIIC occupation; this may be the result of participation in maritime networks of interact ion between the flourishing coastal sites of this period along the Euboean Gulf (i.e. Perati, Vravron, Lefkandi, Kynos).

Fig. 19.11. LH IIIC late bowl (photo by the authors)

Concluding remarks

24The new excavations clearly suggest that Plasi was the main focus of habitation and human activity in the broader area of Marathon for more than three millennia. The character and extent of the FN and EH occupation will be investigated through future excavations, but the available evidence shows that Plasi was a prosperous settlement at least in MH II. The large megaron and the fortification wall, the distant contacts with important harbour towns (Haghia Irini and Kolonna), the probable use of a tumulus at the neighbouring site of Klopa, and the evidence for local ceramic production may suggest a settlement of regional importance, with increased social complexity and the presence of elite group (s), in a period characterised elsewhere by major depopulation, limited interaction, material poverty and cultural introversion. This suggestion coincides with older ideas for the presence in Marathon of an important early centre of power, or even an early ‘local principality’ (Dickinson 1977: 96), based on evidence from the Vranas cemetery.

25The area of the MH II settlement remained an important locus of human activity even after the abandonment of the settlement, since it remained clear of buildings at least until the end of the Bronze Age. The use of the area as a burial place in MH III/LH I strengthened the symbolic significance of the locality, probably causing a small shift in the focus of habitation when occupation resumed in LH IIIA-B, if not earlier. The deposit with the animal bones and the LH IIIA-B kylikes suggests that in this period the area of the earlier settlement and cemetery was possibly reserved for feasting and drinking ceremonies honouring the dead ancestors that lived or were buried there several centuries before. Finally, the continuity of habitation until the end of the Bronze Age distinguishes Plasi from other sites in the broader area of Marathon, perhaps as a result of the ability of this coastal settlement to participate directly in the maritime routes of exchange and interaction along the Euboean Gulf until the end of the Bronze Age.



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▪ Wiersma 2014 = C.W. Wiersma, Building the Bronze Age. Architectural and Social Change on the Greek Mainland during Early Helladic III, Middle Helladic and Late Helladic I, Groningen (2014).


1 It is a pleasure to present this article on prehistoric Marathon in honour of Prof. R. Laffineur, who contributed much to our knowledge and understanding of prehistoric Attica with his work on prehistoric Thorikos.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 19.1. Map of Marathon (by the authors)
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Légende Fig. 19.2. Plan of the old excavations at Plasi (after Travlos 1988: fig. 272)
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Légende Fig. 19.3. The MH megaron, from the east (photo by the authors)
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Légende Fig. 19.4. MH II pottery from the megaron (drawings by Anthi Balitsari)
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Légende Fig. 19.5. The MH ceramic kiln (photo by the authors)
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Légende Fig. 19.6. The fortification wall (photo by the authors)
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Légende Fig. 19.7. The MH III/LH I grave before and after the removal of the covering slabs (photos by the authors)
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Légende Fig. 19.8. Vases from the MH III/LH I grave (photos by the authors)
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Légende Fig. 19.9. Fine and standard pottery of LH I-II and LH IIIA-B date (photos by the authors)
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Légende Fig. 19.10. LH IIIA-B kylikes (photos by the authors)
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Légende Fig. 19.11. LH IIIC late bowl (photo by the authors)
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