Lesson 9: Narrative

Middle Helladic Greece

  1. Chronology
  2. Settlement Pattern
  3. Architecture
  4. Pottery
  5. Stone
  6. Bone
  7. Metal
  8. Terracotta
  9. Burial Customs
  10. The Site of Kolonna on Aegina


Although the Middle Helladic (MH) period may be as much as 500 years long (ca. 2050/2000-1550 B.C.), no single system of subdividing it has yet been agreed upon. A threefold division will be employed here, as follows: MH I, ca. 2050/2000-1900 B.C. (Dickinson’s “Early Minyan”); MH II, ca. 1900-1700 B.C. (Dickinson’s “Decorated Minyan” and “Mature Minyan”); MH III, ca. 1700-1575/1550 B.C. (Dickinson’s “Late Phase”). Redating of the great explosion of the Santorini volcano from ca. 1500 to ca. 1625 B.C., if upheld, will require adjusting the end of the MH period to ca. 1700/1675 B.C. and shortening each of the above subperiods accordingly.

Settlement Pattern

The typical MH site is located on the top of a rocky hill or eminence. In contrast to the dispersed settlement pattern of the Korakou culture in the EH II period, that of the MH period seems to be a nucleated one with a relatively low overall site density. MH culture is at home throughout the Peloponnese and central Greece (including sites on the interior of Aetolia such as Thermon) as far north as the Spercheios River valley. MH ceramic imports are common in the northern Cyclades and in Thessaly, occasional in coastal Macedonia and Troy VI, and rare but present in the southern Cyclades and Crete. Malthi in Messenia is the only site to have been more or less completely excavated, but Lerna V will be the type site when it is fully published. Although the pottery from Kolonna VII-IX on Aegina consists overwhelmingly of standard MH types, the settlement there is sufficiently different from any known MH site on the Mainland in terms of its size and wealth that it should perhaps be considered in a special category, neither MH nor Middle Cycladic but rather intermediate between the two, much as Ayia Irini on Keos is during the EBA.



A fortification wall is certain at Malthi, Peristeria, and Pylos in Messenia and at Kiapha Thiti in Attica. Possible examples occur at Brauron and Thorikos. A wall at Plasi near Marathon in Attica, claimed as a fortification, is not well dated. Mainland fortifications of this period are nowhere near as imposing as those in the islands (e.g. Ayia Irini IV-V on Keos, Kolonna VII-IX on Aegina) or at Troy (VI).


The typical MH house is a freestanding megaron (sometimes described as a “longhouse”), either rectangular or apsidal in plan and consisting of two or three rooms separated by interior crosswalls. Construction is of mudbrick on a low stone socle. Half-timbering does not occur. The entrance to such a house is usually located axially in one of the short sides. The long walls often project on either side of the entrance wall to terminate in antae, thus creating a shallow porch at the front of the house. At Lerna, the MH I houses of early stratum V are characterized by precisely the same plans as are the EH III houses of stratum IV, but the construction of the later houses is somewhat more robust (higher stone socles, thicker walls) and their lifetime was therefore probably intended to be somewhat longer than was that of the flimsier structures of Lerna IV. A feature which becomes more common at Lerna in the middle and late stages of the MH period is the attachment of an enclosed rectangular yard with one or two small storerooms constructed in its corners to the basic megaroid house unit.


MH pottery falls into three major classes: a group of monochrome burnished wares conventionally referred to as “Minyan”; a series of pattern-painted wares decorated with one or more paints which lack luster altogether and which are therefore termed “Matt-painted”; and unpainted, dark-surfaced, and relatively coarse wares which may be lumped together under the general heading of “Cooking pottery”. The wheel, although first employed for pottery manufacture in the “Lefkandi I” and Tiryns cultures of the EH IIB and III periods, is not in common use until the MH period, throughout which many pots also continue to be handmade.


The term “Minyan” was originally coined by Schliemann very early in the history of Aegean prehistoric archaeology and applied to a distinctive variety of dark-burnished pottery which he had found at Orchomenos, the home of the mythical king Minyas. The monochrome burnished pottery manufactured from moderately to extremely fine clays which is presently described as “{Minyan ware}” can occur in Gray, Black (or Argive), Red, and Yellow varieties. The most common shapes in all varieties of Minyan are open forms, for the most part goblets and kantharoi which are clearly recognizable as evolved forms of the Bass bowl and kantharos of the EH III Tiryns culture. The crisply articulated, angular forms of Gray Minyan vases in particular have given rise to the theory that they are copies of metallic prototypes, despite the fact that metal objects of any kind are relatively rare during the MH period and metal vessels are virtually non-existent. The angular profiles of Gray Minyan vases are in fact probably due simply to the common utilization of the fast wheel in their production. High, ribbed pedestal feet (“ring stems”) are particularly characteristic of MH II-III Gray Minyan in central Greece, although they are also attested on MH III Yellow Minyan goblets in the Argolid and Corinthia. In the final phase of the MH period in the northeastern Peloponnese, goblet feet become considerably lower and the ribs disappear in favor of shallowly incised rings. Decoration of Minyan during MH I usually takes the form of grooving on the upper shoulder of bowls and kantharoi. During MH II, incised parallel semicircles (“festoons”) and stamped concentric circles also become quite common, especially on Black/Argive Minyan. Gray Minyan is most common in central Greece, but is also frequent, especially in MH I-II, in the Peloponnese. Black/Argive Minyan is above all characteristic of the northern Peloponnese and is the variety of Minyan most commonly decorated with incised and stamped ornament. Red Minyan is most commonly found in Attica, Boeotia, Aegina, and the northern Cyclades. Yellow Minyan first appears in later MH II or in MH III. Because of its light surface color, this last variety is often decorated with dark, matt paint, in which case it is treated by archaeologists as Matt-painted rather than as Minyan.

Until about 1960, Gray Minyan was often identified as the pottery of northern invaders who destroyed EH civilization ca. 1900 B.C. and introduced MH material culture into the Greek peninsula. However, Caskey’s excavations at Lerna as well as more recently excavated sequences at several other sites have made it abundantly clear that Gray Minyan, rather than being new in the MH period, is the direct descendant of the fine gray burnished pottery of the EH III Tiryns culture. Moreover, it seems likely that the Black/Argive variety of Minyan is nothing other than an evolved version of the EH III “Dark slipped and burnished” class. Thus Minyan pottery, if it is to be associated with an intrusive population element at all, must be connected with an EH III “invasion” ca. 2200/2150 B.C. and not with a MH one ca. 1900 B.C. Furthermore, there is nothing particularly “northern” about the ancestry of the EH III progenitors of MH Minyan except that they almost certainly came to the northeastern Peloponnese from central Greece (i.e. from the north with respect to the Peloponnese). How they arrived, or alternatively developed indigenously, in central Greece is a question which has yet to be resolved.


The term “Matt-painted” describes the lack of luster of the paint which is used to produce dark-on-light patterns on a variety of light ground “wares” which differ considerably in terms of their surface treatments, fabric compositions, and even colors. Occasionally, a light matt paint is applied over a solid coating of dark matt paint to produce patterns in a light-on-dark style, but such treatment is very rare in comparison to the frequency of the dark-on-light style. Indeed, complete coatings or even broad expanses of solid paint are extremely rare in {Middle Helladic Matt-painted} pottery, possibly because the paint (or slip) in question was more difficult to acquire or prepare, hence more “expensive”, than the semilustrous paint/slip (“Urfirnis”) utilized in the preceding EH II-III periods. Most decorated MH closed forms, such as jars and jugs of various types, are Matt-painted, but this sort of pattern-painted decoration is also applied to a fairly wide range of cups and bowls. Large vessels tend to be produced in coarser fabrics than small ones for the simple reason that the bigger pots need more tempering material to serve as a clay binder. Regional variation is quite pronounced insofar as fabric and paint colors, as well as ranges of motifs, are concerned. In general, patterns are rectilinear and abstract until MH III when Cycladic and Minoan influences inspire imitations of a variety of curvilinear motifs, including some which are naturalistic. The appearance of bichrome or polychrome matt-painted wares used to be considered another phenomenon of the late MH period, but it now seems that the vast majority of such wares belong chronologically to the Late Helladic (LH) I period, although in most technical and stylistic respects they can hardly be differentiated from earlier MH matt-painted wares.

In contrast to the Minyan wares, Matt-painted wares represent a fairly sharp break with the traditions of pattern-painted pottery current in the EH III Tiryns culture, whether in central Greece or in the Peloponnese. What seems to be at issue here is the switch from an iron-based paint which is easily mottled and hence cannot be fired as a single color without truly expert control over the firing process to a manganese-based paint which simply does not mottle, no matter how it is fired. Why uniformity in the color of the paint used for dark-on-light patterns should all of a sudden have become a concern at the end of the EH III period is unknown.

Cooking Pottery

All forms of MH cooking pottery represent straightforward developments from types current in the EH III Tiryns culture. Perhaps most distinctive is a wide-mouthed jar or deep bowl with a single high-swung vertical strap handle springing from the rim. Commonly decorated with coarsely incised ornament, rim-handled jars of this kind are often referred to as “{Adriatic ware}”, for no good reason other than that Valmin, the Swedish excavator of Malthi, so christened them as part of a misguided effort to stress the western connections of the material he had recovered from that site.

Imported Pottery

Found in some quantity from the very beginning of the MH period at coastal sites in the eastern Peloponnese, from Ayios Stephanos and Pavlopetri in Laconia to Lerna, Asine, and Kandia in the Argolid, are wares decorated with either solid coatings or dark-on-light patterns executed in a lustrous, iron-based paint ranging in color from black through brown to red. Frequently added over a solid coating of this dark, iron-based paint are bands or patterns in either a matt white or a matt purple paint or both. The fabric of these wares varies from fine (for small open and closed shapes) to medium coarse (for larger shapes, mostly closed) but the vast majority of such Lustrous Decorated (the generic term for such wares) vases are produced in just two fabrics, one fine and one medium coarse, which are likely to represent only a single production center. In their shapes and much of their decoration, these {Lustrous Decorated} wares are usually closely imitative of, and sometimes actually indistinguishable from, Middle Minoan light-on-dark and polychrome-painted wares. Indeed, at least some of these pieces are genuine MM imports, but the bulk of such pottery is made neither at any known Cretan center nor at the Peloponnesian sites where it has been found. On balance, it seems likely that most Lustrous Decorated pottery was produced either at the Minoan colony of Kastri on Kythera (definitely a permanent Minoan settlement from the MM IA period onwards) or at some site on the eastern Peloponnesian coast where a markedly Minoanizing ceramic industry had been established as early as MM IA. At least two other important problems associated with this Lustrous Decorated pottery, aside from its place of manufacture, have yet to be solved. First, what were the Mainlanders exchanging for this pottery? Second, why is it that this imported pottery, produced in non-native shapes and decorated in non-native styles with non-native motifs, provoked virtually nothing in the way of local imitations for centuries and yet, at the end of the MH period, local imitations of both Cycladic and Minoan ceramic models suddenly became so common at coastal sites throughout the Peloponnese that a distinctively new ceramic tradition, which we call “Mycenaean”, developed within a generation or two?

A second major group of ceramic imports at MH sites is characterized by a highly distinctive form of mineral temper which includes platelets of gold-colored mica (probably biotite). Although such temper, even if it all proves to come from one locale, could in theory have been imported as temper to a wide variety of different sites, each of which then produced its own range of gold-mica-tempered pottery, the MH pottery which features the gold-mica temper is in fact so uniform stylistically over such a long period of time that it must have been the product of a single site or region, one near or in which the distinctive temper in question was locally available. Moreover, scientific analyses of these “gold-mica” fabrics, both mineralogical studies employing petrographic analysis and trace-element studies based on such techniques as instrumental neutron activation analysis (INAA), have thus far confirmed that they are all very similar both mineralogically and chemically. The region of production is presently thought to be the volcanic island of Aegina; the dominant site on this island is the large fortified coastal center on the northwest coast which goes by the name of Kolonna, from the single surviving column of a much later Archaic temple to Apollo which is its most prominent visible feature. The easily recognized and widely exported pottery which has come to be known as “{Aeginetan}” was produced principally in three quite distinct classes: red-slipped-and-burnished bowls and goblets; medium coarse to coarse one-handled and handleless ccoking pots; and a wide assortment of matt-painted tableware (bowls, jugs, kantharoi, etc.) and storage vessels (barrel jars, narrow-necked jars, hydrias, amphoras, etc.). Aside from a similarly tempered fabric, these vases have in common the extensive employment of “potters’ marks”, usually in the form of signs incised or impressed on or near the base but on some cooking pots in the form of one or two applied clay pellets on the shoulder or next to the lower handle attachment.

Like Lustrous Decorated pottery, Aeginetan gold-mica-tempered vases make their first appearance outside their immediate area of production right at the beginning of the MH period. The distributions of these two major groupings of export wares overlap at coastal sites in the Argolid, but the Aeginetan classes are found chiefly around the Saronic Gulf and in central Greece (Boeotia, Attica, Euboea) and do not occur in the southern Peloponnese until the early Mycenaean period. Moreover, unlike Lustrous Decorated pots, Aeginetan vessels are found in quantity at inland sites as well as coastal ones, and are common at least as late as LH IIA at Tsoungiza, whereas Lustrous Decorated vases disappear after LH I, perhaps being supplanted by decorated Mycenaean wares produced at Argive centers. The scale of Aeginetan ceramic production is fully as impressive as the architecture preserved at the site of Kolonna (the most impressive prehistoric site on the island of Aegina; see further below) and reinforces the notion that the political entity which such finds represent may have been just as complex as any contemporary Minoan palatial polity.


Chert seems to be more commonly used than obsidian for chipped stone tools. Typical MH forms are leaf-shaped arrowheads and saw-toothed sickle elements (“{denticulate}s”). Polished stone tools include shaft-hole hammer-axes, maceheads, and grinders or pestles of various sorts. Sandstone whetstones are fairly common, as are circular discs of schist with central perforations which might have been used in the preparation of standardized thicknesses of cane for basketwork.


Tools or implements made of bone include awls, punches, knob- or groove-headed pins, worked boars’ tusks, and antlers for hafting celts, picks, and hammers. The first bones of equus caballus, the true horse, occur rarely in Lerna V, at more or less the same time as evidence for the same species of equid first appears in Troy VI. The domesticated fowl, or chicken, also makes its first appearance in Lerna V.


Copper and bronze oocur in the form of knives, chisels, flat-axes, daggers, spearheads, tweezers, earrings, hair-coils, bracelets, pins, rings, and beads. There are no swords as yet from Mainland sites, although several date from the Middle Bronze II era from sites on both Crete (especially Mallia, and probably also the Arkalochori Cave) and some western Aegean islands (e.g. Kolonna on Aegina). Gold, silver, and electrum are rare and occur only as jewelry. Lead clamps are used for mending pots. Overall, many fewer metal artifacts are known from the MH period than from the considerably earlier EH II period, although the two are roughly equivalent in duration.


Spools and spindle whorls are fairly common, the latter occasionally decorated with incisions. There are no figurines.

Burial Customs

Intramural burials have been found in most excavated MH settlements. Extramural cemeteries of cist and pit graves also exist, but all of these are of MH III date at the earliest (Sesklo, Eleusis, Mycenae, and Zygouries), some of those routinely dated to the MH period being in fact of LH I date (e.g. Prosymna). A special kind of extramural “cemetery” is the tumulus. A low wall, circular in plan, supports a low mound of earth into which cist and pithos burials are sunk. Such tumuli used to be considered rare, but substantial numbers of them were found in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. They are particularly common in Elis and Messenia in the western Peloponnese (Voïdhokoilia, Kaminia, Koukounara, Routsi, Peristeria, Papoulia, Samikon, Makrysia) and Attica (Aphidna, Vrana, Thorikos, possibly the north slope of the Athenian Acropolis) but also occur in the Corinthia (Corinth), the Argolid (Argos, Asine, Dendra), Locris (Marmara), and Phocis (Elateia). By no means all of them are of MH III date, although some certainly are (e.g. Asine, Corinth). The tumulus at Aphidna, for example, is at least as early as early MH II and that at Voïdhokoilia is probably MH I. There may well be some connection between such early MH tumuli and the considerably earlier EH II tumuli at Nidhri on Lefkas.

Grave goods are quite rare in any form of tomb in the early MH period, but become more numerous as the period progresses and culminate in the stupendously rich tombs of the Grave Circles at Mycenae. Likewise, the size of individual graves increases with time, and more and more burials are extended rather than contracted. All these developments appear to be signs of increasing affluence. The most common types of MH burials are cists and simple pit burials. Until the end of the MH period, most burials are single inhumations. Multiple burial, though not normal, does occur, whether in the form of two or three bodies in a single cist or pit (mother and child or children; husband and wife) or several burials within a single tumulus.

The Site of  Kolonna on Aegina

Remains of the late Middle Bronze Age (MBA) and Mycenaean settlements at this site have not survived in situ, having been displaced by building activities of the Archaic, Classical, and later Roman periods. However, the surviving fortifications of the earlier MBA at Kolonna are the most impressive in the Aegean area after those at Troy. Furthermore, a cut poros block built into the Late Roman fortification wall at the site appears to exhibit many of the features of a Neopalatial Minoan ashlar block and may represent a piece of late MH or early Mycenaean masonry re-used in an architectural context almost two thousand years later in date.

A striking and relatively recent find at Kolonna is a “shaft grave” containing the partially flexed skeleton of a young adult male accompanied by a bronze sword, a shoe-socketed bronze spearhead, several bronze daggers, a handful of obsidian arowheads, large numbers of perforated plates made from boars’ tusks that once covered a leather cap and transformed it into a helmet, gold diadems, and a rich array of fine imported pottery from both Crete and a northern Cycladic center (possibly Ayia Irini). This extraordinarily wealthy assemblage, particularly inasmuch as it is all to be associated with a single individual, dates from MH II and is thus appreciably earlier than the contents of the earliest shaft graves from the Argolid. Located directly outside of the later Mycenaean fortification wall ringing Kolonna, this richly furnished “warrior burial” invites comparison in terms of its architecture and placement with built chamber tombs in the western Cyclades, such as those located outside the main gate into the fortified Middle and Late Bronze Age town of Ayia Irini on Keos. The emphasis on showy military equipment (sword, boars’-tusk helmet, shoe-socketed spearhead, daggers, arrowheads), gold (in the form of diadems and also of gold fittings on some of the weaponry), and exotic imported pottery is remarkably reminiscent of the finds from the later MH III through LH IIA shaft graves at Mycenae. It is difficult to avoid concluding that this MH II built grave at Kolonna served as a model that the later “princes” of Mycenae were imitating, and the prominent placement, sheer wealth, and attention devoted to weaponry further suggest that this is the burial not merely of a warrior but of a political and/or military leader as well.

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