Road remnants remain from ancient times, show skill

CORINTHIA, Greece – The Dutch hiker that led the way across a rugged path in the mountains and traced one of the ancient Mycenaean highways, stopped to point out the tracks left by chariots.

“Mycenaean highways were of a sophisticated-type of construction, designed especially for use by light and relatively fast vehicles, like chariots,” historical researcher Patricia van der Wal told New Europe. The purpose was to provide the easiest possible gradients and maintain a smooth and also soft road surface, “because we have no indication that Mycenaean horses were shod,” she added.

The composition of the roadway consisted of an understructure made up of a fill of stones and earth of varying depth, which depended on the steepness of the slope, she said. A layer of earth with small stones was, in turn, supported by a pavement of well-packed earth, pebbles, and sand. In order to keep the roadway’s material on the slopes, engineers constructed retaining walls that kept much of the same solid structure designs as the fortification walls in Mycenae and Tiryns, van der Wal explained.

These walls were built of local limestone and cut roughly into blocks of Cyclopean dimensions and can sometimes be one to three metres tall.

Cyclopean masonry was typically built with massive limestone boulders and was given the name by Classical Greeks who believed that only the  mythical Cyclopes had the strength to move the enormous boulders

Mycenaean engineers took pre-emptive measures against erosion and included drainage holes and channels that were built in lintel fashion to ensure stability. These channels were spaced irregularly according to need and some of the channels were fitted with terracotta outlets.

Reaching Lykotroupi Bridge, the best-preserved Mycenaean bridge on Mycenaean Highway 1, van der Wal noted that the larger bridges on Mycenaean highways used the technique of the corbelled arch, which was used to support the superstructure of a building’s roof and was used on many structures in the citadels of Mycenae and Tiryns.

Standing on top of the hill, overlooking ancient Mycenae, van der Wal recalled that in the Illiad, the epic story of the war between the Ancient Greeks and Trojans, Homer used many epithets to describe Agamemnon’s kingdom, the most famous being of course “Mycenae, rich in gold,” van der Wal said.  “But there is also another epithet he used, which has been largely ignored and this is the epithet ‘broad-wayed Mycenae’.”

The passage hints at the famous highways constructed by Mycenaean engineers. The remains of these highways are still preserved today in the upland plains northeast of the citadel (in Mycenae),” van der Wal explained.

The Mycenae-Argos region is one of the longest-known inhabited parts in Greece, with evidence of Neolithic settlements that date back to before 3000 BCE, but it is the Bronze Age period from around 1650 BCE to 1200 BCE that Mycenaean civilisation flourished. A militaristic society surrounded by enemies, their heavily fortified cities stood on an easy-to-defend hills that were ideally situated for trade by both sea and land.

Nineteenth century German topographer Bernhard Steffen, who compiled the first geographical data of the region of Mycenae on behalf of the Archaeological Institute of the German Empire, first mentioned the network of Mycenaean highways in the region in 1884. Steffen managed to trace the remains of four major highways that were built for wheeled traffic, three of which lead to the Corinthia through three main mountain passes and one that seems to have connected Mycenae with Tiryns and the eastern half of the Argolis, the Peloponnesian region where both Mycenae and Tiryns are located.

Recent archaeological research has added that the tracks of branch roads to that network and it seems that this network of highways served the larger region of Corinthia and the Argolis. The highways were part of a defensive network that enabled the Mycenaeans to move troops quickly from one area to another. They were designed and constructed to accommodate Mycenaean chariots, the light and fast vehicles that played a leading role in late Bronze Age war machinery.

The chariots were drawn by two horses and were used as both mobile fighting platforms as well as a mean of transportation to and from the battlefield.

“We know that the Mycenaean’s were preoccupied with defense and one of the highways has been dated to the late 13th-century BCE, a time when exceptional security measures were taken in all Mycenaean palace centers. Despite these precautions, as we know, widespread destruction occurred, which was followed by a system collapse,” van der Wal said. “We may never fully know the causes of this collapse, but we have ample evidence that the Mycenaeans knew about the nature of the danger and that they possessed enough wealth to necessitate drastic defence measures,” she added.

In combination with the fortifications, the network of highways was also part of the Mycenaean defence infrastructure as it allowed Mycenaean generals to rapidly deploy military forces, most likely officers and elite warriors, wherever they were needed to reinforce key-defensive positions such as the Isthmian Wall, near Mycenae’s northern-most boundaries.

“If the enemy were to overrun the Isthmian Wall and Corinthia, they could still be stopped at the (mountain) passes that lead into the Argolis. Mt. Profitis Ilias, where the Mycenaeans had their main early warning lookout, overlooks the area to the immediate south of all these passes. The highways allowed for the rapid deployment of forces, or reinforcements, to block the exits from these passes and any other ways of entry from the north,” van der Wal said.

During peace time, the highways would have been used for the administration and control of the provinces of the Mycenaean state. The rulers of Mycenae controlled their vast territory that included Corinthia and at least the Northern part of the Argolis through a strict social hierarchy and a highly sophisticated bureaucratic system. The management and protection of wheat and barley, as well as the sheep that supplied the raw material for the manufacturing of Mycenae’s famous woolen textiles, and on which the Mycenaean economy relied, required officials and a road network for their movements.

“We know that Military Officials known as ‘followers’ served as links between the provinces and the centre. These officials were hereditary nobles, like knights, who were landholders and were mounted on chariots,” said van der Wal.

Van der Wal noted that while the Romans have been largely regarded as the pioneers of road construction, the Ancient Greeks constructed a complete and complex road network 1,300 years before Rome emerged to rule the ancient world.

The densest part of the Ancient Greeks’ road network is located in the Peloponnese, which was the work of Ancient Sparta. The Spartans had inherited their road construction know-how from the Mycenaeans, who had established a similar network in the Bronze Age.

Back in the mountainous village of Stephanion, van der Wal, who is the daughter of a Dutch astronomer and Greek mother from the village of Stefanion, noted that promoting awareness about the existence of the Mycenaean highways “has renewed our small village’s confidence in its future.”

“Our latest venture has been the successful organisation for three consecutive years of the Ancient Mycenaean Trail Run, a 23-kilometre run between the ancient cities of Mycenae and Tenea that attracts trail runners from all over Greece and enjoys also the active support and participation of many members of Greek Archeologist Elena Korka’s team Tenea Project,” noted van der Wal, who is the Secretary of the Cultural Association of Stephanion.

The run starts from the Lion’s Gate at the archaeological site of Mycenae, and follows the tracks of one of the highways through the mountains up to the village of Stephanion before descending to the plain of ancient Tenea.

“Without any doubt the people in Tenea were definitely inspired by Mycenae,” Korka told New Europe on the same Mycenaean Highway path.

Van der Wal said the association also organises hiking tours in the area of Stephanion and is also renowned for their annual Cultural Gathering in August, a week with several cultural events, including astronomy nights.

Another project of the association, in collaboration with the municipality of Corinth, is the refurbishment of the Stephanion Observatory, a once leading astronomical institution for the photoelectrical observation of flare stars.

Speaking about the next project, van der Wal said the association would like to see the observatory turned into a public space dedicated to science education and public outreach in the field of astronomy.