Research in Real Life: Hearths in the Northwest Complex

By Mira Harvey

Over the past year, from September to May, I worked on an independent research project supported by a Jamie Cassels Undergraduate Research Award (JCURA) that focused on ancient Eleon. Specifically, I looked at the (many) hearths in the Northwest Complex, a household that primarily dates to the post-palatial period (1200-1050 BCE). I did this having never seen the hearths in-person, relying solely on archival documentation (e.g., photos and excavation journals). It has been amazing to be able to see and touch them over the past couple weeks!

Figure 1: Cleaning hearths in Room 5 of the Northwest Complex after lifting the tarps that have protected the site since 2019 (Courtesy of the Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project).

I was very excited to step onto site for the first time. Before I got to see the hearths, however, we had to de-tarp the site. These huge tarps keep Eleon preserved while the EBAP team is away. Once uncovered, we started cleaning the trenches, which meant clearing eroded soil and creating a nice edge of scarp again. Cleaning around the hearths in the Northwest Complex was a delicate project (Fig. 1). We used soft brushes to remove only the loosest soil from the tops and sides to prevent further erosion from the crumbly hearths.

I was very happy to see how they were constructed in real life. I knew that most of the hearths in the Northwest Complex were built on a bed of sherds, which were then covered with a layer of clay. But now, I can see exactly what kind of sherds: big roof tiles, smaller pieces of broken cookware, even a very large jug handle lodged in the Room 6 hearth. In the photos, each hearth looks raised, but they would have been mostly level with the floor while in use. Over time inhabitants would re-pave, clean, or just pack over the hearth. In Room 5, probably the “kitchen,” hearths were frequently moved and packed in with new floor levels. The hearths are also often near column bases, which would have held up the roof and/or created a space to ventilate smoke. These installations influenced the architecture and layout of a household, and also structured daily life as places of warmth, lighting, cooking and crafting.

Working from home on the hearths, I sometimes struggled to get a sense of the people who lived in the Northwest Complex. The site was a series of pictures and maps and words, not a place. But here, I can walk through the doorway to the Northwest Complex, and walk in the same footsteps that people in the Bronze Age did. While cleaning the hearths in the Boeotian sun, we talked about how hot it would have been, to be cooking food over the fires in the small Room 5. I thought about that while writing in the past year, but to actually feel how hot it gets in summer… that gave me a new understanding of what it would have felt like to live here, thousands and thousands of years ago. I wanted to study hearths in the first place because I felt they could connect me to ancient people’s daily lives. That goal definitely feels realized now.


By Maggie Easton

In my final term at the University of Victoria, I had the exciting opportunity to research previously unexamined fragments of painted plaster found during excavation at the site of ancient Eleon as part of GRS 482A. These fragments offer small glimpses of the wall paintings that likely decorated the walls of a predecessor to the Northwest Complex in LH IIIB1 and provide insight into the social status of Mycenaeans living at ancient Eleon in the 14th century BCE. In this post, I will give a brief background on the significance of Mycenaean frescoes and describe the fragments found at Eleon that I worked on throughout the spring semester. When studied with their associated finds, these fragments provide evidence that the local elites of Eleon maintained close ties with Mycenaean Thebes and participated in a shared elite Mycenaean culture of architectural adornment documented across central and southern Greece during LH IIIB.

In the palatial period of Late Bronze Age Greece, frescoes became a staple of the Mycenaean cultural koine. Fresco is a technical term, referring to paint applied al fresco to wet plaster. Although the technique of the fragments found at Eleon is not yet known, the term fresco is used throughout this piece as a non-technical term encompassing all wall paintings.

Figure 1: Procession Fresco from the so-called House of Kadmos at Thebes on display in the Archaeological Museum of Thebes (orientalizing/Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The majority of known frescoes come from palatial contexts, where iconographical similarities between centers can be seen in hunting scenes at Mycenae, Tiryns, Orchomenos, and Pylos, and in the religious procession scenes at Knossos, Thebes (Figure 1), Pylos, and Tiryns. Many frescoes have been suggested to be religious in nature, perhaps depicting the actions that were expected of palatial visitors during religious festivals and ceremonies. Other pieces, particularly in the Cyclades, depict ornate natural scenes with a variety of identifiable plants and animals.

A smaller number of non-palatial sites have also produced remnants of frescoes. On the island of Thera, Akrotiri is well-known for its distinctive and extensive fresco program in a variety of structures, some apparently domestic in character. In mainland Greece, frescoes have been found at the non-palatial sites of Iklaina in Messenia and Gla in Boeotia. Though frescoes are canonically a piece of palatial decoration, they are certainly not unprecedented in other contexts. In almost all cases, however, frescoes are associated with the Mycenaean elite – buildings which produce frescoes during excavation are typically wealthy and also produce a number of other prestige goods. The frescoes found at Gla are one of very few exceptions to this, which will be explained below.

At the site of ancient Eleon, two pieces of painted plaster that may be fresco remnants were found in the Northwest Sector (Figure 2). Both fragments are small: one preserves monochrome blue decoration with possible overpainting in black while the other is white and yellow. Based on mendable pottery found in the same stratigraphy, the fragments all appear to date to LH IIIB1. The stratigraphy suggests that they may have been part of a fill consisting of levelled destruction debris.

Figure 2: Details of fresco fragments from Eleon showing preserved colours (Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project).

Although the iconography of the frescoes which these fragments belonged to remains a mystery, it is worth pointing out that monochrome blue is a frequent background colour in Mycenaean frescoes, as seen in the Bull-Leaping Fresco from Knossos. This scene also includes sections of yellow and white separated by a straight line. Besides backgrounds, blue and yellow often appear alongside each other in clothing or wall borders, exemplified by the Procession Fresco from Thebes (Figure 1). It is impossible to guess at iconography of the wall paintings from Eleon, but the colours of these fragments certainly reflect the larger Mycenaean tradition within Boeotia.

The exact mineralogical composition of the plaster material or pigments is unknown. Further investigations might include non-destructive microscopy and reflected light microscopy to better understand the general composition and state of the plaster and pigments as well as their application technique. X-ray diffraction methods could be used for mineralogical identification. These methods have been used on Theban fresco fragments to determine that blue pigment is frequently composed of calcite and cuprorivaite (Egyptian Blue), and yellow pigment of calcite and goethite in combination with either quartz or dolomite. White pigment at Thebes is always composed of calcite, the basic mineral component of lime plaster. Replicating these investigations for the fragments discussed here could be used to compare the composition of wall paintings at Eleon to those elsewhere in the Mycenaean, Minoan, and Cycladic worlds.

Besides the fragments, the LH IIIB1 layer contained much fragmented pottery, blue glass artifacts, and even a stone jewelry mold. This mold shows a close relationship between Thebes and Eleon, which likely produced luxury goods for Theban consumption during LH IIIB. The presence of all of these goods in the NW Sector suggests the presence of palatial agents at Mycenaean Eleon, perhaps overseeing craft production. This aligns with what is known about frescoes as indicators of social standing in Mycenaean Greece and supports the idea that the LH IIIB predecessor to the NW Complex was an elite space decorated with frescoes.

Researching these small fresco fragments has been an exciting and challenging opportunity to engage directly with material culture. I have certainly gained a new appreciation for the creativity and resourcefulness that scholars must employ when considering newly excavated material, especially when, as in the case of these fragments, only a small part of the deposit has been excavated. Working on previously uninvestigated material has been very rewarding though and I hope further work can be done on the frescoes from Eleon in the future to further our understanding of the lives and social roles of the inhabitants of Mycenaean Eleon.