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Ayios Vasilios. A survey of the palatial site (INSTAP funding)

Reconstructing the urbanization of the Mycenaean town at Ayios Vasilios (NWO funding)
Corien Wiersma
Corien Wiersma

C. W. (Corien) Wiersma.


The Ayios Vasilios Survey is part of the Ayios Vasilios Project, directed by Mrs Adamantia Vasilogamvrou, Director Emerita of the Laconia Ephorate. It is carried out under the auspices of the Archaeological Society of Athens. The project is supervised by the Laconia Directorate of Antiquities. The survey is co-directed by Prof S. Voutsaki, Groningen Institute of Archaeology and Mrs Adamantia Vasilogamvrou, and Dr Corien Wiersma acts as the Field Director. The survey is funded by the Institute of Aegean Prehistory, The Michael Ventris Memorial Award, the Curtiss T. & Mary G. Brennan Foundation, the University of Groningen (the Netherlands), and the Netherlands Scientific Research Council (NWO).

Introduction: the site of Ayios Vasilios

Ayios Vasilios is located in Laconia, Greece, approximately 10 km south of Sparta. The settlement is located on a low hill range and has a commanding view over the plain. It was inhabited during most of the Bronze Age and during the Byzantine period. Previous explorations had suggested the presence of a large Bronze Age settlement, but the recent excavations have uncovered something much more important: the palace of Mycenaean Laconia. Indeed the site has been selected by the Shanghai Archaeology Forum as one of the 10 most important excavations in the entire world, and the only one from Europe.

Table of Chronology



Developments in southern Greece

Ayios Vasilios

Early Bronze Age I-II

3100-2200 BC

Period of growth, emergence of social differentiation

Evidence for occupation, but only unstratified finds

Early Bronze III – Middle Bronze II

2200-1800 BC

Period of crisis, depopulation, social regression


Middle Bronze Age III – Late Bronze (or Mycenaean) II

1800-1420 BC

Social change, emergence of regional centers, e.g. Mycenae, Tiryns, Pylos

Early cemetery in use. Settlement in use, but extent of occupation unknown.

Late Bronze Age (or Mycenaean) III

1420-1075 BC

Peak of Mycenaean palatial system

Peak of Ayios Vasilios palatial center

Historical periods

1075 BC-3rd/4th c. AD

Dark Ages to Late Antiquity

Sparse occupation? Only few, stray finds

Byzantine period

3rd/4th c. AD-1453 AD

Byzantine village

Recent research

All other known palatial settlements in Greece were primarily explored and excavated during the first half of the 20th century. The discovery of Ayios Vasilios therefore offers a unique opportunity to study a palatial settlement from a more modern approach and with help of the newest techniques. Systematic excavations carried out from 2009 onwards (financed by the Institute of Aegean Prehistory and other private foundations) have revealed remains of impressive buildings, many precious finds, as well as more than 40 Linear B tablets, and remains of an early cemetery (contemporary to the earliest –so far- phase of occupation of the palatial buildings). Various geophysical prospecting surveys carried out in the last years have revealed that the Ayios Vasilios hill was covered by a dense urban grid. The excavations have shown that this grid belongs largely to the Mycenaean period, and therefore the palatial complex was surrounded by a densely built town.

Research questions

The main aim of the survey project is to reconstruct the size and boundaries of the settlement through time. Use is made of two non-invasive research methods (geophysical prospection and field survey). This approach gives an important methodological aspect to the project, since these methods have barely been systematically used on Greek palatial settlements.

This research will increase our understanding of the emergence, development and urbanization process of Mycenaean palatial settlements. As such, the results will add to the world debate on the emergence of the state. The development of a synthetic strategy for the non-invasive investigation of urban prehistoric settlements by means of geophysical prospection and field survey will have applicability within the wider field of prehistoric archaeology.

There are several additional reasons why the survey is necessary: As interest for the site is growing, a management plan for the site needs to be drafted in order to eventually open it to the public. In addition, protection zones around the site need to be defined, because the area is under threat by modern day agricultural practices, such as mechanized ploughing and terracing. Finally, archaeological features around the site should be recorded as soon as possible, because there have been repeated clandestine excavations in the last few years. Therefore, the survey of the area is urgently needed not only for scientific purposes, but also for the rescue and the heritage management of the site.

Pilot survey 2015

A pilot field survey of the main center has been carried out in 2015. This campaign has been funded by the INSTAP (Post-doctoral fellowship), the Curtis T. and Mary G. Brennan Foundation, the Michael Ventris Memorial Award for Mycenaean Studies, and the Groningen Institute of Archaeology.

Part of the main center of the palatial town has been surveyed, as well as several areas further to the south. In this way, areas with high find densities and lower find densities could be sampled by means of different sampling strategies. Study of the different types of samples will help towards deciding on a suitable sampling technique to be used during subsequent survey campaigns for areas with high and lower find densities. Different methods were used during this survey: at the core of the settlement survey took place in 10 by 10 m. units, in which a total collection of finds was carried out in an area of 5 by 5 m. In the remainder of the unit potentially diagnostic finds were collected. This method was also used on areas further towards the south, were find densities also became lower, but it was alternated with survey in 20 by 20 m. units in which a total collection of finds was carried out in an area of 5 by 5 m. while in the remainder of the unit potentially diagnostic finds were collected.

The collected finds and data are currently under study. The results will help towards designing a suitable survey method for the remainder of the settlement. These surveys are planning to take place in 2016 and 2017. Additional geophysical research and the digging of test trenches will also be carried out to groundtruth the geophysical results and to clarify possible discrepancies between the survey data and geophysical data. The geophysical prospection will be financed by a Research Grant by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.

Last modified:17 March 2016 1.43 p.m.