Archaic Weapons: Graves and Sanctuaries (Part 2)

Thasos and her sanctuaries

Around the second quarter of the 7th century, the first indications of an organized Greek settlement can be identified on and around the Thasos acropolis. The sanctuaries of Apollo and Athena on the acropolis hill, and of Heracles and Artemis near the 6th-century agora are established. The material recovered from these sanctuaries consists primarily of fine pottery, jewelry, loom weights, figurines and statuary. Unfortunately, very little in the way of early votive weaponry has been recovered from these holy sites. This is quite interesting: in the central and southern Aegean, weapon dedications in sanctuaries are considerably more common than in the Thasian sphere during the 7th and particularly the 6th century.

–7th-century BCE reliefs depicting panthers, from the sanctuary of Apollo on the Thasos acropolis.

Cl. Prêtre, working on the material from the Thasos Artemision in her recent publication La fibule et le clou: Ex-voto et instrumentum de l’Artémision, has provided us with some examples of spear- and arrowheads dating to the archaic phases of the cult. Unfortunately, the exact stratigraphical context and dating of those finds is uncertain; in addition, their typology is hardly diagnostic. Some arrowheads have also been recovered from the area of the acropolis sanctuary of Athena, but their dating and typological analysis presents us with similar problems.

Another critical obstacle in establishing an early typology of weaponry in Thasos proper, is the fact that the archaic cemetery(-ies?) of the ancient polis has not yet been discovered. Some isolated 6th-century graves have been found during rescue excavations near the course of the classical fortification wall, but we have yet to confirm where the Thasians buried their dead during the early, almost 200-year-long period stretching from the establishment of the apoikia to the Persian wars. Burial contexts of this period have presented us with invaluable samples of weaponry, both in the rest of the Aegean and the island’s peraea;  but this source of evidence still remains untapped for Thasos itself.

–The Thasos fortification walls. They were possibly erected over the Archaic cemetery of the city.

The peraea

In contrast, the settlements of the peraea have received comparatively more attention. This is undoubtedly partly due to the fact that, unlike ancient Thasos, they do not lie under a modern settlement (with the notable exception of modern-day Kavala, which is built on the remains of ancient Neapolis). Weapons dating to post-apoikism phases have been discovered in two sites: the acropolis sanctuary of ancient Oisyme and the coastal cemetery of ancient Galepsos. Here, we will present a general overview of the finds; subsequent posts will enter into more detail, especially with regards to the provenance and social symbolism of specific weapons.

In Oisyme, the sanctuary provides us with few individual weapons; however, when studied in its entirety, the Oisyme corpus is illuminating. Several fragments of knives have been recovered from the archaic destruction layers; one of them is a long, thin dirk, or encheiridion. The same layers have also yielded a partially preserved iron-bar-like sword fragment and a 6th-century iron spearhead, preserved in almost its entirety, but in multiple fragments.

–Spearhead from Oisyme.

The same destruction layers have provided us with many fragments of bronze sheets, some completely unadorned, some bearing relief decoration. It is possible to tentatively identify parts of one or more bronze helmets, but the state of preservation of the finds in question leaves much to be desired. In contrast, there are two finds that can be identified with absolute certainty, and which provide exceptional insight into the characteristics of the local cult, but also the metallurgical trading networks and the links between the northern and southern Aegean.

The Oisyme shield(s)

I am referring to the partially preserved remains of ‘Argive’-type aspis shields in the sanctuary. These are the archetypal ‘hoplite’ round shields of the Archaic and Classical times, with a domed wooden core, a bronze sheet covering the face of the dome and the rim of the shield, and two points of fixing the shield to the left arm of the warrior: the porpax, i.e. a leather-and-bronze band near the centre, where the hoplite’s elbow was fastened; and the antilabe, a smaller grip near the rim, which the hoplite would hold to better support and control the shield.

Oisyme has provided us with fragments of a porpax. These bands are easily identifiable thanks to their exquisite metope-style decoration: a succession of near-square images that run the entire length of the band. The most extensive corpora of such shield-bands come from the Peloponnese (particularly the large Pan-Hellenic sanctuaries such as Olympia). They have been studied extensively in the past and a typological sequence has been established by Kunze and Bol. This sequence allows us to date the Oisyme example to around the mid-6th century BCE.

–The Oisyme shield-band. In the top metope, Zeus battles the demon Typhon; in the bottom metope, a winged deity runs / flies towards the left.

Perhaps more importantly, part of the bronze dome and rim of another ‘Argive’-type shield was discovered near the foundation of the Early Classical temple. As can be seen in excavation photographs, the building foundation had ‘cut’ through the earlier, Archaic layers containing the shield, thereby destroying a large part of it. What has been preserved was recently treated by Ms. Evangelia Gountakou, allowing us to observe and study its intricate relief decoration for the first time. Many parallels exist in the Peloponnesian corpora: this shield was either produced by a Peloponnesian artist, or a local smith who was familiar with and imitated the work of his Peloponnesian contemporaries. This shield part, too, can be dated to the mid-6th century, or the third quarter of the same.

–The intricately decorated Oisyme shield rim, after conservation. Note the bent bronze nail (top left), meant to affix the bronze sheet onto its wooden core.

These shield parts are by far the most significant weapons recovered from Oisyme and deserve a more in-depth discussion; we will address them in more detail in a subsequent blog post. For now, we move further west, to Galepsos.

The cemetery discovered on the coast near the foot of the Gaidourokastro hill dates from the 6th century onwards and has primarily yielded looted graves; the soil erosion near the sea has led to graves becoming exposed to the elements and to illegal excavations. Thankfully, some fragmentary weaponry has been recovered from the site. Specifically, graves II and XIII have yielded fragments of a sword blade, at least two knives / daggers and two bronze 6th-centuy arrowheads. This is particularly interesting, as it differs sharply from what has been observed in the Oisyme cemetery: the graves there have yielded no weaponry whatsoever.


More interestingly, even further west, in the Strymon river valley, the site of Tragilos (modern-day Aidonochori) provides us with a cemetery that is quite rich in weaponry. Male burials there are often accompanied by several weapons, ranging from small knives, to swords, to spearheads. One ‘set’ that is repeatedly encountered in the cemetery of ancient Tragilos consists of one to two knives and two spearheads, one long, broad and heavy and the other short and considerably lighter, placed next to each other, inside the same burial. This duo of heavy doru spearhead and lighter akontion javelin is also encountered in sites further to the west, such as Archontiko and Sindos.

–“Heavy” spearhead from the Tragilos cemetery

Tragilos has also provided us with a unique 6th-century ‘heroic’ burial: an inurned cremation in a large vessel, with a ‘killed’ sword bent around the vessel base and the rest of the deceased’s weapons placed among his ashes. No such burials have been discovered in the Kavala Gulf at the time of writing.

What could explain the differences between the Thasian peraea sites and the Strymon river plain? Is Tragilos truly a Greek apoikia, as has been suggested in the past, or is the evidence sufficient to identify a culturally distinct population element in the site? Can we establish links with the Thermaic gulf regions, or perhaps Thracian populations? These are questions that will be studied in-depth during the upcoming year – for now, we invite discussion and welcome any feedback!


Next time: The Oisyme Shield in more detail

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