Lesson 8: Narrative

The “Lefkandi I” and Tiryns Cultures of the Early Hellaadic IIB and Early Helladic III Periods

  1. Introduction
  2. The “Lefkandi I” Culture of the  EH IIB Period (ca. 2450/2400-2200/2150 B.C.)
  3. The Tiryns Culture of the EH III Period (ca. 2200/2150-2050/2000 B.C.)


The end of the Early Bronze Age (EBA) on the Greek Mainland, as in the islands (see handout on the EC Period), witnessed a dramatic series of changes in material culture, the precise nature and sequence of which are still the subject of considerable debate among specialists. A major impediment to progress in this area has been the failure on the part of excavators to publish their material promptly. Of the half-dozen most important sites of the period on the mainland (Lerna, Pefkakia, Thebes, Tiryns) or immediately adjacent islands such as Aegina (Kolonna) and Euboea (Lefkandi, Manika), only Pefkakia has so far been published fully with respect to the critical periods in question. The following summary is therefore necessarily sketchy and may well require radical revision as more of the crucial sites are gradually published in greater detail.

The “Lefkandi I” Culture of the EH IIB Period (ca. 2450/2400-2200/2150 B.C.)

Distribution: This assemblage is the Mainland equivalent of Renfrew’s “Kastri Group” (Barber’s and MacGillivray’s “EC IIIA”) in the Cyclades. Common to both is a series of distinctive red- and black-burnished ceramic forms clearly derived from Western Anatolian prototypes. Although Rutter’s proposal to refer to both the Mainland and the Cycladic manifestations of this “Anatolianizing” culture with the same label, “Lefkandi I”, has yet to be universally accepted, there is general agreement that the widespread appearances of these Western Anatolian ceramic types in the central Aegean and along the central portion of the eastern Greek seaboard are all to be viewed as parts of a single phenomenon. The distribution of “Lefkandi I” ceramic types on the Mainland (including the islands of Aegina and Euboea) is a restricted one and includes only coastal Thessaly (Pefkakia), Euboea (Lefkandi, Manika, etc.), eastern Attica (Raphina), Boeotia (Eutresis, Orchomenos, Thebes), and Aegina (Kolonna). On Aegina and in eastern Attica, such pottery occurs in small (Kolonna) or moderate (Raphina) amounts together with pottery typical of the Korakou culture of EH IIA, while at Pefkakia in Thessaly the “Lefkandi I” pottery occurs as only a small element in a ceramic assemblage dominated by Early Thessalian types. At Lefkandi and in the tombs at Manika, however, contexts containing such “Lefkandi I” pottery include little or no EH IIA pottery. The situation in Boeotia is unclear, but the slim amount of evidence so far available from Thebes and Orchomenos suggests that “Lefkandi I” pottery and completely typical Korakou culture pottery do not co-exist, although some Korakou culture types survive into “Lefkandi I” levels. Clearly, the percentage of “Lefkandi I” ceramic types varies enormously from site to site. Significant is the fact that no such material has yet been positively identified in the Peloponnese nor anywhere on the interior of the Mainland except in Boeotia.

Architecture: The basal level (I) at Lefkandi has been exposed only in a small area within a deep sounding, with the result that the excavated architecture of this phase at that site is insubstantial. However, the fact that no less than five distinct architectural phases could be assigned to this lowermost stratum, during which some development in the ceramic assemblage is said to be detectable, shows that the period represented can hardly have lasted less than half-a-century and may well have been considerably longer. At Thebes, parts of two large apsidal “longhouses”/megara belonging to this phase have been cleared, a significant discovery in that buildings of this type are unattested prior to this in central or southern Greece but become the standard type in the following EH III and MH periods. Like the associated pottery, this novel form of domestic architecture may be viewed as “Anatolianizing”. A similar “longhouse”, but rectangular rather than apsidal in plan, occurs at Pefkakia in the levels containing “Lefkandi I” pottery. At Orchomenos, a series of D-shaped buildings similar in plan to small apsidal structures found on Mt. Kynthos (Delos) in the Cyclades are possibly to be assigned to this phase.

Burial Customs: The only site at which burials assignable to this culture have been excavated is Manika on Euboea. Here, the method of burial, multiple inhumation in rock-cut chamber tombs, is identical to that practised during the preceding Korakou culture phase at the same site. Thus at Manika, as at Chalandriani on Syros (although in that case a different form of tomb is involved), the burial customs of the preceding phase survive locally into the “Lefkandi I” phase.

Pottery: As in the corresponding cultural assemblage in the Cyclades, the most distinctive wares are red- and black-burnished, while the favorite shapes include plates (often wheelmade), bowls with incurving rims, one-handled tankards, two-handled cups, depa amphikypella (at Orchomenos and Pefkakia only), and rare beaked jugs and incised spherical pyxides (most commonly found in the tombs at Manika). Virtually all these new shapes are derived from Western Anatolian prototypes of late Troy II or Troy III date, as is presumably also the use of the fast wheel. In Boeotia, a few additional shapes such as the petal-rimmed (or crinkle-mouthed) tankard, the Bass bowl (a shoulder-handled bowl with everted lip), and the “Trompettenkanne” (a round-mouthed jug usually having an angular body profile) occur. Of these, the Bass bowl has a long local history going back to the EH I period, while the other two appear to be local developments in this phase which may have been at least partially inspired by the Anatolian influence evident in much of the “Lefkandi I” ceramic assemblage.

Stone, Metal, Bone, etc.: None of these categories can be meaningfully assessed until the sites at which significant deposits of this phase have been found are adequately published.

Source: This culture of the late EH II central Greek Mainland is perhaps best viewed as the result of a trans-Aegean population movement from Western Anatolia through the northern Cyclades (attested there by the EC IIB or EC IIIA “Kastri Group” of Naxos, Delos, Syros, and Keos) and Sporades (at the site of Palamari on Skyros) to the eastern seaboard of central Greece (Euboea, Raphina, Pefkakia). Although the “Lefkandi I” culture penetrates westward into the interior of Boeotia (Thebes, Eutresis, Orchomenos), it does not appear to have extended southwards into the Peloponnese, although traces of its influence are found as far south as Aegina in the middle of the Saronic Gulf and at Phylakopi on Melos. This westward movement across the Aegean is not marked by violence at any known site. Indeed, there is considerable continuity from the EH/EC IIA to IIB periods at sites such as Chalandriani (Syros), Ayia Irini (Keos), Raphina (Attica), and Thebes and Eutresis (Boeotia). Although it is at first difficult to imagine such a dramatic change in ceramics, and in some cases seemingly in architecture as well, having taken place without the introduction of new people(s), some authorities (e.g. Davis) have suggested trade rather than migration as a preferable interpretative scenario. In this view, the widespread distribution of western Anatolian pottery types, which always occur in relatively small quantities and in many cases stick out as clear imports at their sites of discovery, would be explained as reflecting a fairly intense exchange in “high-tech” table wares (wheelmade. sliiped and burnished vessels that often imitate metallic prototypes) employed principally in the context of drinking (cups, tankards, and jugs), probably of alcoholic beverages by adult males. While this assessment of the purely ceramic changes taking place makes perfectly good sense, however, it does not explain the radical changes in settlement pattern and the production of marble vessels and figurines that follow this phase in the islands, nor the equally dramatic changes in settlement architecture and burial customs that follow this phase on the Greek mainland.

The Relative Date of the “Lefkandi I” Culture

In the debate between Barber and MacGillivray on the one hand and Rutter on the other as to the sequence of events at the end of the EBA in the Cyclades (see handout on EC Period), one of the more significant points at issue is the relative chronological position of the “Lefkandi I” culture. MacGillivray, considering this assemblage to be contemporary with the earlier part of the EH III period on the Greek Mainland, views it as running parallel with the Tiryns culture, which explains at least in part his choice of “EC IIIA” as a descriptive label for the Cycladic version of it. Rutter, considering the “Lefkandi I” assemblage to be contemporary with the end of the EH II period on the grounds of its stratigraphic associations at sites such as Raphina and Kolonna, views it as ancestral to the Tiryns culture, hence his preference for the term “EC IIB” as opposed to MacGillivray’s “EC IIIA”. The terminological issue is trivial, but the question of the ancestry of the Tiryns culture is not. It is unclear from MacGillivray’s publications on the subject how he would account for the development and distribution of the Tiryns culture on the Greek Mainland during the EH III period.

The Tiryns Culture of the EH III Period (ca. 2200/2150-2050/2000 B.C.)

Distribution: At Lerna and Tiryns in the Argolid, this cultural assemblage is found stratified directly above settlements of the Korakou (EH IIA) culture which had been destroyed by fire. Here and elsewhere in the Argolid and Corinthia, there is no intervening “Lefkandi I” (EH IIB) cultural stage. In Laconia and Messenia in the southern Peloponnese, there is no evidence for either the “Lefkandi I” or the Tiryns cultures (except for a very late EH III assemblage recently published from the basal levels at Nichoria and from the Deriziotis Aloni site near Ano Englianos), despite the fact that these areas have been quite thoroughly explored. Rather, an early Middle Helladic cultural assemblage appears to succeed the Korakou culture either directly or after a period of abandonment of undetermined duration at sites such as Ayios Stephanos (Laconia) and Voïdhokoilia (Messenia). At Kolonna on Aegina, remains of the Tiryns culture are stratified immediately above a late phase of the EH II period whose architecture is comparable to that of Lerna III of the Korakou culture (a probably fortified settlement within which is the “White House”, a 20 x 9 m. version of the “Corridor House” type best represented by the House of the Tiles at Lerna) but whose pottery includes a few pieces typical of the “Lefkandi I” assemblage of central Greece alongside a mass of vases characteristic of the EH IIA Korakou culture. In central Greece at the sites of Thebes, Eutresis, Orchomenos, and Lefkandi, strata of the Tiryns culture overlie those of the “Lefkandi I” culture. Not enough evidence is available from Attica to determine the course of events in this area. The full distribution of the Tiryns culture thus includes: Argolid, Achaea, Arcadia, Elis (i.e. the northern Peloponnese); Boeotia, Phocis, Locris, Euboea (i.e. central Greece south of Thessaly); the Ionian islands (Ithaca and possibly Lefkas).

Pottery: The best known pottery consists of two classes of pattern-painted ceramics: (1) “Patterned ware”: a dark-on-light class, at home primarily in the Peloponnese, whose ornament is geometric and almost exclusively rectilinear, exhibiting a preference for hatched, cross-hatched, and fringed motifs, especially triangles; (2) “Ayia Marina ware”: a light-on-dark class, at home primarily in central Greece, whose ornament and shape range are similar to, and yet at the same time consistently somewhat different from, those characteristic of “Patterned ware”. The dark paint on both wares is moderately lustrous and appears to be descended directly from the “Urfirnis” paint of the EH II period. Favorite pattern-painted shapes common to both classes include tankards (usually two-handled), rim-handled cups, Bass (= shoulder-handled) bowls, large jars, and askoi. Jugs and pyxides, the latter with spherical bodies and cylindrical necks, are peculiar to the dark-on-light “Patterned ware”, as are the distinctive cylindrical tumblers known as ouzo cups, which are usually decorated only with bands rather than with geometric patterns. A good deal of EH III pottery is just solidly painted with the same dark paint/slip used in “Patterned ware”. The smaller open shapes (drinking and eating vessels such as cups, Bass bowls, and tankards) are subsequently burnished (= Caskey’s “Dark slipped and burnished ware”), but the larger shapes, both open and closed (large bowls, water jars, jugs, and askoi), are not and the characteristically sloppy painting on many of these large vases led Caskey to christen this unburnished class “Smear ware”. One other distinctive ceramic class of this culture consists of fine gray burnished vases, almost invariably kantharoi, Bass bowls, and tankards. This gray ware is the EH III ancestor of the characteristic Middle Helladic ware known as “Gray Minyan”. At Lerna, Lefkandi, and Tsoungiza/Nemea, a good deal of this EH III fine gray burnished pottery is wheelmade, whereas almost all of the rest of the pottery of this period is handmade. The cooking pottery of the EH III period is also distinctive, very often being decorated with knob-like projections on the shoulder or at the body’s point of maximum diameter (= Caskey’s “Knobbed ware”). All in all, the pottery of the Tiryns culture is quite different from that of the Korakou culture of the EH IIA period. Many of the new EH III shapes seem to be inspired by forms of the EH IIB “Lefkandi I” culture (e.g. tankards, kantharoi) and such “Lefkandi I” influence may also be detected in the wheelmade manufacture of EH III fine gray burnished ware and in the EH III fondness for burnished vessel surfaces. On the other hand, the popularity of pattern-painted pottery in the Tiryns culture seems to owe nothing to the “Lefkandi I” assemblage, but rather may stem from the tradition of dark-on-light pattern-painted pottery at home in the EC IIA Keros-Syros culture of the Cyclades, an approach to ceramic decoration which was sometimes imitated on the Greek Mainland during the EH IIA period in the Argolid, the Corinthia, and eastern Attica. Moreover, it is likely that the light-on-dark motifs of central Greek “Ayia Marina ware”, as well as many of the dark-on-light motifs of Peloponnesian “Patterned ware”, are probably derived from a tradition of incised decoration within which incised motifs on a dark-burnished ground were filled with white coloring matter. Such incised pottery occurs in small quantities among the earliest EH III pottery from Lerna IV, is quite common in early EH III deposits at Olympia (Elis), and also occurs in small quantities on jugs, pyxides, and teapots of the “Lefkandi I” culture in both central Greece and the Cyclades.

Architecture: At Lerna (stratum IV), a tumulus was raised over the ruins of the EH IIA House of the Tiles and for some time no new buildings encroached upon this mound. The houses of Lerna IV are usually apsidal, but occasionally rectangular, “longhouses”/megara. That is, they are regularly free-standing units of two to three rooms with narrow alleyways running between them, with an axially located entrance in the (or a) short side, and normally with a shallow porch in front of this axial entrance. The earliest such building from Lerna IV is crudely built of wattle and daub laid over a timber framework, but thereafter these houses are constructed of mudbrick laid on a rubble stone socle. In places, as many as seven building levels are stratified one over the other within Lerna IV. These buildings, though occasionally quite large (12 x 7 m.), are usually flimsy and must have had short “lifetimes” of not much more than a generation at most. Characteristic of stratum IV at Lerna are the large numbers of “bothroi”, most of them evidently serving as rubbish pits in their final use, though many may have been dug originally for the purposes of storage. Similar bothroi are typical of EH III sites elsewhere in the Argolid and the Corinthia. At Olympia, several free-standing apsidal “longhouses” comparable to those of Lerna IV are datable to an early phase of EH III. At Kolonna on Aegina, Cities V and VI belong to the EH III period. Both were fortified, unlike any other settlement of the Tiryns culture presently known. Domestic architecture has so far been published only from City V, within which blocks of houses incorporating megaroid units seem to have been standard. Such blocks invite comparison with the similarly designed “insulae” of late Troy II and Poliochni V (Yellow) and once again represent a significant departure from the architectural traditions typical of the Korakou culture at this site.

Burial Customs: Very little is known about the burial practices of this culture. At Lerna, nine infant burials were found within the settlement (seven in simple pits, one in a jar, and one in what may have been a poorly constructed cist; two pits and the possible cist were furnished with stone cover slabs). There were no grave offerings in any of these tombs. Adults must have been buried in extramural cemeteries, if they were buried at all. At Olympia, three children were found individually buried in pithoi furnished with lids consisting of stone slabs. These tombs likewise were located within the settlement area, and two of the three contained one or two pots as grave offerings.

Stone: Distinctive EH III ground stone tools include shaft-hole hammer axes and so-called “arrow-straighteners”. The latter may actually have been used in the production of bone tools, which are themselves now considerably more common than in EH II levels. Stone pestles/rubbers and Cycladic marble figurines do not occur in EH III contexts.

The types of chipped stone tools and knapping techniques change very little between EH II and EH III at Lerna. The numbers of imported, ready-made blades of chert, however, as well as the numbers of locally produced blades made from imported obsidian decline markedly, suggesting that a flourishing inter-site network of exchanges in chipped stone tools during the EH II period may have gradually collapsed, or perhaps been more suddenly disrupted, before the beginning of the EH III phase. Support for the notion that Lerna was forced to become more self-sufficient with respect to tools of flaked stone exists in the increased production of tools, and an expanded utilization of flakes, in locally available chert. The greater relative frequency of stone tools within the overall chipped stone assemblage during the EH III period at Lerna has furthermore suggested that stone implements may increasingly have been used in situations in which metal tools would have been employed during the preceding EH II period.

Bone: A bossed bone plaque from Lerna IV has good parallels in the western Mediterranean and similar plaques were imported further east into Troy II. Bones of an equid, larger than an ass but smaller than a true horse, first appear in Lerna IV. Evidence for true horses has been found in EH III levels at Tiryns and is also claimed in contemporary Thebes.

Metal: A dagger, a nail, a pin, and a stone mould for a dagger come from Lerna IV. A hoard consisting of a hammer axe, two flat axes, two chisels, and two punches comes from Thebes, while a knife is known from Eutresis. The Thebes hoard contains types similar to those found in the ensuing Middle Helladic period. From City IV at Kolonna comes a complexly constructed furnace built within the filled-in rooms of the “White House” of City III. This construction, the only significant piece of architecture which can presently be assigned to “City IV” (the earliest phase of the EH III period so far recognized at the site) has been identified as a smelting furnace for the production of copper metal from ore, but there is considerable doubt as to whether it functioned in this way rather than simply as a melting furnace for processing scrap metal. At the site of Thorikos in eastern Attica, a substantial deposit of EH IIB and EH III pottery from a mine that also produced evidence of use in late Mycenaean as well as historic times is welcome direct confirmation for the exploitation of metallic ore sources in the Laurion area before the end of the EH II period. Unfortunately, the extensive later working of this mine has effectively obliterated any detailed information about the nature and extent of the EB 2 mining operation.

Terracotta: At Lerna, new types such as cone-shaped figurines and “anchors” are known at other sites already in contexts of the EH IIA Korakou culture. No animal figurines of EH IIA types continue anywhere, however, nor do terracotta fire-dogs, spoons, or ladles. A pattern-painted dark-on-light schematic human figurine from Lerna IV is unique.


As it is presently understood, the Tiryns culture of the EH III period appears to be the result of a process of “cultural fusion” between the Korakou and “Lefkandi I” cultures, one which sometimes appears to have been achieved through violence (e.g. at sites in the Argolid) but which elsewhere took place peacefully (e.g. in central Greece, where the “fusion process” may be said to have been initiated a good deal earlier, well before the end of the EH II period). Significantly, this process of fusion did not extend all over Mainland Greece. In Messenia, Laconia, and the interior of west-central Greece (Aetolia, Acarnania), the Korakou culture may have continued while the Tiryns culture flourished elsewhere. The evidence for external contacts of the Tiryns culture is relatively sparse. Fragments of “Patterned ware” have been found in Thessaly (Argissa, Pefkakia), Macedonia (Kritsana), and Troy (probably Troy IV), but notably not in Crete, nor on Kythera nor in the Cyclades. Imports to Lerna from outside the Peloponnese at this time include a wing-handled jar of Troy IV type from the eastern Aegean, a few probable Cycladic or Aeginetan vases, and a few from Euboea and central Greece, but nothing from Crete.

In a very real sense, the Tiryns culture may be viewed as “transitional” between the Korakou culture of the EH II period and Middle Helladic culture. Another significant feature of the Tiryns culture, aside from its relative brevity and its transitional character, is the fact that it assumes, at least ceramically, easily identifiable regional forms (e.g. Olympia/northwest Peloponnesian vs. northeast Peloponnesian vs. central Greek), something which is not so readily detectable in the Korakou culture but which is a pronounced feature of Middle Helladic and early Mycenaean culture.

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