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Ancient Greek 'backwater' actually a bustling metropolis, research shows

The discovery of a street grid and various cultural objects could shift the historical narrative of Thessaly.

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A fragment of red-figure pottery from the late 6th century BC, possibly by Attic painter Paseas.

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In Thessaly, the unassuming ruins at Vlochós can be found settled among sprawling plains. Perhaps drawing from the rustic beauty of the Greek countryside, academics long assumed that this region was dotted by simple rural dwellings in the days of antiquity. But when archaeologists finally explored Vlochós, they found something entirely different: evidence of a sophisticated city.

The ruins, which were discovered at least 200 years ago, bear a modest face. The site encompasses about 100 acres of rocky terrain, studded only with the scattered remains of walls, towers, and gates. But when researchers from the Vlochós Archaeological Project (VLAP) mapped the site with ground-penetrating radar in September, they found a city – complete with a street grid, town square, various coins, and pottery – buried beneath the surface.

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These preliminary results represent a considerable shift in the historical narrative of ancient Thessaly – from “backwater” rags to cultural riches. In doing so, they may also provide some insight into an inclination to underestimate the sophistication of ancient people.

There can be a certain arrogance that comes with modernity. As computers become increasingly powerful and portable, it becomes harder to imagine a world in which we navigated by stars and hand-drawn maps, rather than GPS.

The History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens,” for example, attributes humanity’s most notable historical achievements to benevolent extraterrestrials. This show is compelling, despite its absurdity, because it’s predicated on a common disbelief: that humans simply couldn’t have done it alone.

“It’s true that we tend to underestimate the incredible mobility of people in the past,” Stephen Scully, a professor of classical studies at Boston University, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “Long before Marco Polo, contacts between the East and West were being made through trade routes. Villages weren’t always so isolated and static. It was a very vast world, much broader than we tend to think.”

“In Homer, you find references to people like the Laestrygonians," he adds. "They live half the year in light, and the other half in darkness, harboring their ships in narrow channels between cliffs. It sounds very much like an exaggerated description of a fjord. Did Homer visit them? No, but these stories are somehow transmitted.”

So too was Vlochós overlooked. Greek authorities were long familiar with the Thessalian ruins, but inaccessible terrain and a lack of literary references to the region deterred serious exploration. When archaeologists from the local Ephorate, the University of Gothenburg, and the University of Bournemouth decided to examine the area, there had been no previous systematic surveys performed on the site.

“Thessaly is rarely mentioned in ancient literary sources, which has lead to the erroneous conclusion by some that it was unimportant or ‘backwards,’” lead researcher Robin Rönnlund, a PhD student in archaeology at the University of Gothenburg, tells the Monitor in an email. “Any scholar studying this wonderful region would tell you the same thing: it was not a backwater, but an important and influential part of the ancient world.”

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Though the oldest objects discovered on site were from about 500 BC, the city apparently flourished in the late fourth and third centuries of that era. It was abandoned some time later, perhaps due to the Roman conquest of the area, but a vibrant culture appears to have sprung up around the time of Alexander the Great, who ruled from nearby Macedonia.

“That things in Thessaly would be expanding under Alexander makes some sense,” Scully says. “Alexander spread his influence all over the Mediterranean and all the way to India, but there was always a base in Macedonia.”

The discovery of a city at Vlochós may provide further evidence that the region as a whole, which was once thought to be sparsely populated, was a cultural center despite its relatively remote location.

“The preliminary results strengthens the notion that the region was a rich and prosperous one in antiquity, with proper cities benefiting from the fertile plains surrounding them,” Rönnlund says.

VLAP has chosen not to remove artifacts or physically excavate the site. A few surface finds, such as stray coins, will be housed at the Archaeological Museum of Karditsa. The international team plans to return to Vlochós in 2017 for further research.

“One of the great splendors of archaeology is that the past is continually being discovered,” Scully says. “As new technologies are developed and archaeological discoveries are made, we can reconstruct how we imagine the past.”


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