A tour of Mycenaean Thebes

Stand containing seven jars with painted Linear B inscriptions in the foreground, with a restored fresco depicting a procession of women in the background
Banners on the wall of the Archaeological Museum of Thebes, showing finds including statues, a fresco, and the name Thebes in Linear B

Last (for now!) in my series of virtual tours of Mycenaean sites, following Tiryns and Mycenae in the north-east Peloponnese, is this tour of Thebes in Boeotia, north-west of Athens (Myceanean te-qa Thēgwai, classical Greek Θῆβαι Thēbai, modern Greek Θήβα Thiva).

This one is a bit different from the last two, because unlike most other Mycenaean palatial sites we know, the citadel of Thebes has been continuously occupied from the Bronze Age to the present day – so the central area of the Mycenaean site corresponds more or less exactly to the modern town centre. Evidently, this makes excavation a challenge; much of the work that’s been done has been rescue excavations before construction work, so relatively few of the excavated areas remain visible, and because excavations have taken place in lots of separate, mostly unconnected sites, it’s very hard to get a joined-up picture of the Mycenaean citadel as a whole. Below is a Google map of locations mentioned in this post; this interactive map, the product of Dr Anastasia Dakouri-Hild’s ‘Digital Thebes’ project’, is also handy for seeing where excavations have taken place even where the results are not visible (you can choose various layers to show finds from different time-periods, including plans of buildings which may be associated with the Mycenaean (Late Helladic) palace and findspots of ‘palatial’-type objects such as Linear B inscriptions, frescoes, and craft workshops).

Our first stop is the Archaeological Museum of Thebes, which reopened a few years ago after a long renovation and covers the history of Thebes from the Neolithic onwards. The large Mycenaean gallery is very nicely presented, with lots of wonderful finds from Thebes and nearby sites like Orchomenos. Some highlights for me: obviously, the Linear B tablets and inscribed stirrup jars; the frescoes, especially the procession of women from Thebes; and the clay larnakes (coffins) painted with mourning women.

Make sure to go downstairs to see the excavations underneath the museum, including a section of the Mycenaean fortfication wall and an Early Bronze Age house (destroyed c.2300-2200 BCE – i.e. about a thousand years earlier than the Mycenaean period). There are also plenty of very nice classical, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine finds – allow a couple of hours for the whole thing! The museum website also has lots of information and suggested walking routes to discover the archaeology of Thebes; and if you can’t get there in person, it’s worth checking out their virtual gallery tour.

Leaving the museum and walking a couple of blocks up Odos Pindarou (Pindar Street), you’ll reach the main visible excavated remains in Thebes – the so-called ‘Kadmeion’, or ‘Palace of Kadmos’. The best-preserved remains, directly in front of the information board, are actually medieval; the Mycenaean building is on the right of the exposed site, at a slight angle to and a bit higher up than the modern street. Excavated by archaeologist Antonios Keramopoulos between 1906 and 1929, this large, (at least) two-storey building was interpreted as the palace of Kadmos, the mythical founder of Thebes due to its impressive ashlar masonry and finds including frescos and precious materials like gold and ivory; much of the material in the museum labelled as coming from the ‘palace’ was found here. However, this building doesn’t have the classic architectural plan that we associate with a Mycenaean palace – generally a large structure containing a ‘megaron‘ complex, consisting of a throne-room with a central hearth surrounded by pillars, with a small ante-room and porch giving onto a courtyard; most likely it was an outlying building in which palatial authorities managed trade, storage, and craft production (similar to the Ivory Houses at Mycenae).

To the left of the medieval remains, the structure made of large, regular rectangular stones is the corner of a Classical building (possibly a temple of Demeter); the lower walls in the back corner may not look like much, but they’re the outside walls of a room known as the Treasury because of the many valuable finds made there – including a set of Near Eastern lapis lazuli seals, also on display in the museum – which may be part of the ‘palace’ proper: the current excavators, led by Vassilis Aravantinos, interpret this as the north-eastern corner of a palace complex, along with the adjacant ‘Room of Pithoi’ (mostly underneath Odos Antigonis/Antigone Street), and a series of three more long narrow storage rooms excavated on the far side of Antigonis (if you go round the corner from the Kadmeion signboard, you can see the excavation trenches on this site, but not much of the structure is visible). The rest of the palace, including the throne-room, may therefore still be under the city block where the central plateia is located.

We can at least get a sense of the possible scale of this (potential) palace building by walking to the two sites where the largest collections of Linear B tablets have been found. The first of these, on the corner of Odos Epaminonda and Odos Dimokritou (Epaminondas and Dimokritos Streets), is just a block or so from the Treasury: it’s a three-room, single storey building (walls of two of the rooms are visible, when the vegetation has been cut back…) which produced 16 Linear B tablets dealing with the issue of wool to workers, mostly groups of women, as part of the palace’s textile production industry; the building was probably therefore used for collecting, storing, and distributing this wool.

Crossing the plateia and heading to Odos Pelopidou (Pelops Street), we reach a large excavated area in which, again, you may not be able to see much (the photo below was taken several years ago in December; on my recent visit in summer this was nearly all overgrown), but you’ll have seen weapons and horse-trappings from this building in the museum, hence its name of the Arsenal. The Linear B tablets from this site are often interpreted as recording armour (including in the museum), but in fact we’re not entirely sure what the items they record (denoted only by the abbrevation O) are. Just next to the Arsenal, under the road, is where the largest group of Theban Linear B tablets was found – sewage works in the 1990s led to the discovery of two storerooms containing c.250 tablets, many of which record the issue of grain and wine to recipients who are probably participants in a festival (though their status, and particularly whether any/all of them are deities receiving offerings rather than humans receiving festival rations, is debated).

Like the Kadmeion, all these sites seem to be administrative and storage buildings, located on either side of the (putative) central palace complex. Although we can see various different types of administrative activity associated with the palace, we don’t know exactly how these buildings all relate to each other – they may well date to two or three different time-periods, rather than all being contemporary, but that’s also hard to pin down as a lot of the excavated material has not been properly published. You can probably see by now why Thebes is much less well-understood as a site than Mycenae, Tiryns, or Pylos!

We’ll finish off the tour by walking outside the citadel via Odos Oidipodos (Oedipus Street), the site of one of the Mycenaean gates, where a large collection of sealings – small pieces of clay with a seal impression and a short Linear B inscription, which accompanied goods into the citadel and were discarded here at the gate, presumably after their contents had been recorded in another form. Walking down the hill and then turning left along the path through the ‘biopark’, you’re walking along the outside of where the Mycenaean fortification would have been located on the slope of the hill, though very little survives – you can see a tiny bit at the corner of Odos Vourdoumpa (Voudourba Street). Before that, though, heading slightly to the right from the biopark path will bring you to Kastelli hill, site of one of the Mycenaean cemeteries. Head up the steps on the right of the road and follow the path to see the largest of the chamber tombs cut into the rock of this hill – made by combining two separate tombs, hence the two adjacent entrance passages, this was elaborately decorated with wall-paintings and so has been interpreted as a royal tomb, the equivalent of the tholos tombs at other sites.

Entrance to a large chamber cut in the side of a rocky hill, with signpost reading "Mycenaean Chamber Tomb" in English and Greek
Kastelli chamber tomb

Finally, it’s time to head back to the plateia for a well-deserved cold drink!

Practical information

Getting there: trains from Athens leave Larisis Station every 2 hours and take approx. 1 hour; from the train station to the museum is c.850m (uphill). The museum has a small car park. Buses from Athens leave the Kifisos bus station every 1-2 hours on weekdays, every 2-3 hours on weekends, and take c.1hr; from the bus station to the museum is c.950m. Driving from Athens also takes c.1-1.5 hrs; the museum has a small car park. For opening hours, prices, etc, see the museum website.

Access: The main route through the museum involves two changes of level via a few steps or a wheelchair lift; the excavations under the museum are accessed by a staircase or chairlift. Part of one room in the Byzantine section is accessible only via a couple of steps. The museum has an accessible toilet. Most sites described are viewable only from the street. The complete tour described in this post is c.2km in length; many parts of the route feature narrow and/or uneven pavements, and the chamber tomb is accessed via a few steps and across a gravel path.

Facilities: the museum cafe did not appear to be operational when I visited, but there is a kiosk for drinks and snacks next to the museum car park, and plenty of shops and cafes along Odos Pindarou and around the central plateia.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 885977.

Author: Anna P. Judson

Researcher of Linear B, currently in Athens

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