Ancient History & Civilisation

Section Six

Sparta as an Archaeological Site

    Sparta, by its nature as a society that largely avoided grand constructions, makes for an interesting conundrum of an archaeological site. On one hand, history indisputably records the power and might of ancient Sparta. Unlike other great societies, however, Sparta left comparatively little of itself behind to indicate this great power and the political influence that it once held over all of Greece. Indeed, were it not for the histories of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Pausanias and others, it may well be that modern archaeologists and historians would never quite arrive at the conclusion that Sparta was a massive power in ancient Greece.

  Despite this lack of the grandeur usually typical of other powerful societies, particularly among the Greek city-states, what does remain at Sparta can tell us much about its development. In its earliest period, Sparta appears to have actually been two separate settlements that were constructed close together sometime following 1000 BCE. During this earlier period, Sparta seems to have supported a thriving artistic tradition, as evidenced by finely decorated pottery and sculpted figurines. To some degree, this artistic tradition carries over into the Archaic and Classical Periods, leading some scholars to come to the conclusion that it was the free Perioeci, and not the Dorian Spartans themselves, who were responsible for these words of finer crafting. As the Perioeci were a free group within Spartan society and would likely have pursued different traditions that the Spartiates themselves, the conclusion is not an unreasonable one, though it has yet to be proven empirically and so should be treated as a tentative depiction of history.

  Over time, the two settlements are thought to have grown together to form the central city, or polis, of Sparta. Though the city was simplistic in its architecture, it was nevertheless a thoroughly well-developed city. Ruins of walls, theaters, temples and even a bridge that once spanned the Eurotas river have been found. Of these ruins, however, little dates back to the earliest days of Sparta that would allow modern historians to gain a more comprehensive view of the city's early years. Many of the buildings that have been found in Sparta either date to or were heavily restored in the late Classical Period or the early Roman era.

  Perhaps the most important site in the ancient city of Sparta itself is the temple of Athena, known from various histories to have been of key importance to the citizens of Sparta. Here, at least, parts of the descriptions that historians of earlier times gave of Spartan society are proven accurate, as the Spartans were noted as extremely devout to the gods. Several offerings found at this temple seem to confirm this view of Spartan religious life.

  Archaeological research at Sparta is often complicated by the uncertainty of the time period between the Mycenaean Period and the expansion of Sparta in the 8th century BCE. As was mentioned in our discussion of the origins of Sparta, new findings have confirmed that the Dorian city-state of Sparta was founded near the site of a much older Mycenaean population center. Another site, east of Sparta, may represent whatever continuity occurred between the Mycenaean Greeks and the migrating Dorians who would go on to become the Spartans. The site, called the Menalaion, was believed by the Spartans to have been the palace of Menelaus, the king of Sparta prominently featured in Homer's Iliad. This, however, is almost certainly false, as the structure only seems to date from the 8th century BCE, by which time the Dorians were already well-established in Sparta. Several other sites have been proposed for the center of Mycenaean Sparta, including Pellana, a site to the northwest of Dorian Sparta, and the new palace complexes found in 2015 (as discussed earlier).

  This uncertainty in Spartan archaeological research poses a historical problem, as it leaves modern historians reliant of the various written histories that have survived regarding Sparta. While each of these doubtlessly bears some truth, it is also very likely that exaggeration and misinformation has found its way into these histories. For this reason, saying anything with absolute certainty of Sparta is difficult. What we may be sure of, however, is that the general chronology of Spartan history that is accepted by the academic community of the modern era is, at least largely, accurate. Archaeological finds that bear out major battles and corroborating accounts from many different Greek sources make it reasonable to believe that the history of Sparta we know today is fairly reliable, though certainly not without its holes.

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