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Asine, Argolid (1922, 1924, 1926, 1930, 1970–1974, 1976–1978, 1985, 1989–1990)

Published: 15/05/2020

<p>Fig. 1: Map over the site of Asine and its surroundings (Basemap: Google maps satellite image).</p>

Fig. 1: Map over the site of Asine and its surroundings (Basemap: Google maps satellite image).

The site of Asine is located c. 8 km south-west of today’s city of Nauplio. The ancient remains here are spread out over the top and slopes of the 330 m long and 50 m tall acropolis cliff jutting out into the Argolis bay, as well as on the Barbouna hill just to the west. On both sides of the acropolis there are beaches, the western one providing an excellent harbour. Across from the acropolis the island of Romvi functions as a breakwater, protecting the landing.

Fig. 2: The harbour, with Romvi in the background left.

Fig. 2: The harbour, with Romvi in the background left.

There is more or less continuous habitation at Asine from the Neolithic period onwards. The site flourished throughout the Bronze Age and continued doing so after the destruction of the Mycenaean citadels and into the Early Iron Age. Not until c. 700 BC, when Argos destroyed Asine, do we see a decline in settlement. However, people continued living here and c. 300 BC there was a re-colonization. Of Asine’s later history we catch only glimpses. In the Late Roman period (c. 400–500 AD) at least one bath was built. Much later, in 1686, Morosini landed here on the eve of the capture of Nauplio. According to tradition, after the War of Independence Cretan fishermen attacked and destroyed an Ottoman village on the island of Romvi. These Cretans then settled on the shore opposite and founded the village of Tolo.

Throughout its existence Asine has been a site of strategic importance. This is reflected in the Hellenistic fortifications built by the Macedonians (probably under Demetrios Poliorketes) c. 300 BC as well as the trenches and guard towers built by the Italian army during the occupation of Greece in the Second World War.

Excavation history

In 1920 the Swedish Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf came to Asine during a private tour of Greece. One of the reasons for going to the country was his interest in archaeology. He had already participated in excavations in Sweden and believed that the nation should participate in the investigations of ancient Greek civilization. As a result, he initiated the Asine excavations, Sweden’s first large scale fieldwork in the Greece, which began in 1922.

Fig. 3: Excavations in the Lower City 1926 (Alvin 102633).

Fig. 3: Excavations in the Lower City 1926 (Alvin 102633).

For nearly two decades, until the outbreak of the Second World War, Swedish archaeologists worked extensively in the Argolid under the direction of Axel W. Persson. However, as Persson was a philologist, the Asine Committee appointed Otto Frödin, an experienced field archaeologist, to supervise the fieldwork at Asine together with Persson. When the first publication appeared in 1938 (Results of the Swedish excavation at Asine 1922–1930) it reflected the main interests of the two directors as well as the archaeological focus on prehistory dominant at the time. Extensive investigations were carried out on the acropolis and in the so-called Lower Town on its northern slopes. Further, on the Barbouna Hill two cemeteries were partly investigated: a Late Bronze Age one (c. 1600–1100 BC) on the eastern slopes and a Late Geometric one (8th century BC) on the south slopes.

In 1970 investigations at Asine were resumed by the Swedish Institute at Athens under director Carl-Gustaf Styrenius. The campaign was launched as a rescue excavation, provoked by plans to build a camping site on land to the east of the acropolis. Test trenches opened in the area by local archaeological authorities indicated extensive ancient remains and work continued there until 1974. In 1971 Robin Hägg joined the project, which he pursued until 1989. At this point the southern slopes of the Barbouna Hill were also included in the investigations. In 1985 Berit Wells investigated the Late Geometric walls on the northern slopes of the Barbouna Hill and in 1990 she examined the previously unexcavated corner north of the Hellenistic bastion.

Chronology and buildings

The first inhabitants at Asine lived at the foot of the Barbouna hill as early as the 6th millennium BC. At this point the later acropolis cliff was presumably still an island. Throughout the millennia erosion material first created a large lagoon and then slowly connected this island with the mainland.

During the Early Bronze Age (3rd millennium BC) an extensive settlement with well-built houses and burials was located in the area of the Lower City at the Acropolis and on its northern slope towards Barbouna Hill. Roof tiles from this period shows that several of the buildings were covered by flat-tiled roofs instead of more common thatched ones. During the excavations a wealth of pottery was found, including large storage jars, jugs with large beaks, vessels with characteristic sauce-boat spouts and a type of curious cups shaped in a way which makes it impossible to drink from them. Various tools of obsidian, horn, bone and terracotta, as well as a small number of bronze objects were identified and, importantly, the presence of seal-stones and seal-stone impressions suggests that there was some central organization at the site. Pottery from the Cyclades and Troy provides evidence of long-distance trade.

There was no break in habitation between the Early and Middle Bronze Age in Asine at the end of the 3rd millennium BC. This is notable because at this point the climate rapidly became drier (i.e., the so-called 4.2k event), a shift that has been connected to the collapse of many societies both in Greece and around the world. During the Middle Bronze Age, Asine features a large settlement, stretching from the north slope of the Acropolis to the south slope of Barbouna. Cist tombs under earthen mounds datable this period have also been found, suggesting social stratification as some members of society had the means to construct more impressive burials than others.

In contrast to its predecessor, the Late Bronze Age settlement was less impressive, lacking both the large houses and palaces found at contemporary sites in the region. Instead, the most notable finds are chamber tombs on the east side of the Barbouna. Towards the very end of the Bronze Age, during the 12th century BC, the site flourished again. Of special interests is a find from a house in the area of the Lower Town on the north slope of the Acropolis: an assemblage of cult paraphernalia, which included the famous so-called Lord of Asine, a statuette now known to depict a woman. Moreover, Homer mentions in the Iliad that Asine sent ships to Troy (Hom. Il. 560), perhaps referring back to this time.

After the Bronze Age Asine is important as it is one of few sites with settlement continuity into the Iron Age. During this period the settlement was located east of the Acropolis, and the houses were apsidal in shape with stone foundations and walls of mud-brick or wattle-and-daub. Around 750 BC a sanctuary of Apollo Pythaios was founded on the Barbouna hill. In the earliest period the sacred precinct, the temenos, contained a simple apsidal building (called building B) on a narrow stone socket, with walls of pisé (rammed earth) or mudbrick with a thatched roof. This building was destroyed by fire around 720 BC. Towards the end of the 8th century BC the destroyed structure was replaced by one slightly further to the east, the so-called Building A (4.30×9.60 m). Throughout its long use Building A was reconstructed a number of times, as shown by the finds of later architectural elements, such as a 6th century BC sima, the upturned edge of a roof which acts as a gutter.

In the later part of the 8th century BC the Argives conquered Asine, razing the city to the ground and annexing its territory. At this point, it is said that the inhabitants of the city fled to Messenia where they founded a new town (Paus. 2.36.4–5). However, the Argives spared the sanctuary of Apollo and votives continued to be deposited there. The last literary evidence that presumably refers to the cult is from 419 BC when the Argives attacked Epidauros on the pretext that the latter had not performed their religious duties at the sanctuary (Thuc. 5.53). Following this, the lack of both literary and archaeological evidence suggests that the cult declined rapidly. In the 2nd century AD Pausanias notes that the temple was “still visible”; this wording has suggested to scholars that it was in fact a ruin at this point.

It has now been shown that the city of Asine was not completely abandoned after the Argive conquest, as stated in early publications. Yet, it did not recover its former size and importance until the site was re-colonized, presumably by the Macedonians under Demetrios Poliorketes c. 300 BC. At this point impressive fortifications were constructed, including bastions for catapults. While little is known about Asine during the Hellenistic period, finds suggests that a fairly large settlement existed on the site, in particular during the 2nd century BC. Remains of several houses have been found both in the Lower City and on the Acropolis. These feature cisterns, pressing installations and fishing implements, suggesting that the community was based on local agriculture and fishing. Presumably this new, and probably modest, prosperity ended with the Roman subjugation of Greece in 146 BC, after which the fortifications fell into disrepair.

Fig. 4: The walls of Asine towards the harbour.

Fig. 4: The walls of Asine towards the harbour.

Fig. 5: Bastion on the east side of the Acropolis.

Fig. 5: Bastion on the east side of the Acropolis.

In the early 1st century AD Strabo (8.6.11) called Asine a village (κώμῃ) and in the 2nd century AD Pausanias (2.36.4) noted that the city was in ruins. Despite this, a Roman bath clearly attests to activity at Asine during the 5th–6th century AD. Built in the area of the Lower Town, it destroyed earlier remains, including part of a monumental staircase leading to the city gate. The bath was of a type where the rooms are laid out in a line. In the north it had a changing room (apodyterium). This was followed by a room with a cold pool (frigidarium), one with a tepid pool (tepidarium), an intermediate room (room I) and finally a room with a warm pool (caldarium). The last two of these were equipped with a heating system (hypocaust), and part of the bath was furnished with marble slabs in order to give a luxurious appearance. In addition to the bath, Late Antique tombs testify to life at the site. In eight tombs, the dead were buried with their heads oriented towards the west, suggesting that Christian customs had now taken root at Asine.

Fig. 6. The Roman bath, built over the earlier Lower City.

Fig. 6. The Roman bath, built over the earlier Lower City.

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