The Pyramid of Hellinikon

Greetings history-lovers!

I hope your Summer has been brilliant thus far.

For myself, I returned from Greece a couple of weeks ago and I am well into my bout of Aegean Blues.

But that’s ok, because I have a couple thousand pictures to gaze at and rich memories of historical outings to keep me inspired.

I hope you enjoyed the pictures on Instagram – if you haven’t seen them, you can do so by CLICKING HERE. I will, of course, continue to post more of them as time goes on.

Today however, I want to share with you my experience visiting a site I’ve longed to see for some time – the Pyramid of Hellinikon.

I’ve mentioned this site before, but now that I have actually been to it I want to give you my impressions before the sound of cicadas fades from my ears, and the memory of intense heat upon my skin cools into Canadian autumn.

In short, this site exceeded my expectations and fired my imagination.

It also nearly fired my physical body as we had arrived in Greece on the tail end of a heat wave that saw temperatures soar into the mid-forties Celsius!

So, after a night of wine and food beneath the stars at the southern tip of the Argolid peninsula, we set out early(ish) over the high peak of Mt. Didyma, down toward ancient Epidaurus, and across to that beautiful jewel-of-a-city, Nauplion.

Now, I know my way around the area pretty well, but let’s just say that finding the Pyramid of Hellinikon was not easy, even with Google Maps.

Our car meandered around the curve of the Argolic Gulf to Nea Keos, then to the far side where we turned northwest.

You might think that with a map, and seeing it on a screen, the place would be easy to find. However, the routes we had to follow were the shape of a Greek Key at best.

And it was HOT!

There was also very little signage, so we had to stop and ask a man who was out watering his grass. As an aside, I think he is the only man in Greece with a large patch of manicured lawn!

Anyway, the fellow simply pointed up the mountain in the direction we were already headed, so we continued on our path, climbing up, turning, climbing again in the shadow of terraces where orange and olive trees grew on the side of the mountain.

We came around a corner and there it was. A pyramid!

The site is just adjacent to a church in the village of Hellinikon. The funny thing is that it stands out like a sore thumb compared with the village houses and church, but it blends almost completely with the ancient landscape itself. By rights, we should have seen it from the road along the gulf below, it stands in such a prominent position.

I pulled the car into the shade of a single tree (hoping it could cool off in thirty-seven degrees in the shade), and got out.

I had to stop and stare at this place, for no pictures had prepared me for the sheer size and antiquity of it. I didn’t feel the sun or heat anymore. I only saw the pyramid, and at the back of my mind the words of Pausanias crept in…

On the way from Argos to Epidauria there is on the right a building made very like a pyramid, and on it in relief are wrought shields of the Argive shape. Here took place a fight for the throne between Proetus and Acrisius; the contest, they say, ended in a draw, and a reconciliation resulted afterwards, as neither could gain a decisive victory. The story is that they and their hosts were armed with shields, which were first used in this battle. For those that fell on either side was built here a common tomb, as they were fellow citizens and kinsmen. (Pausanias; Description of Greece 2.25)

If what Pausanias, writing in the second century A.D., said was true, then I was standing before a pretty well-intact monument of the Greek Heroic Age.

Even now, it sends shivers down my spine…

According to Pausanias, who wrote many hundreds of years later, this pyramid was believed to be a tomb or monument to the fallen Argive soldiers in the opposing armies of Proetus and Acrisius.

Now, Proetus and Acrisius were brothers, sons of Abas and Aglaea, and mythical kings of Argos. Proetus was king first but after many battles with Acrisius, and subsequent losses, went into exile. Acrisius became King of Argos, and this is the same Acrisius who banished his own daughter, Danae, to the sea, along with her infant son – you guessed it! – Perseus.

Acrisius putting Danae and the baby Perseus into the box before throwing them into the sea

In truth, nobody is really certain of the age of this pyramid. There is no exact date for the battle between the legendary kings of Argos, Proetus and Acrisius. Another battle mentioned in the sources, in which a large number of Argive soldiers died, apparently took place in c.669 B.C.

It seems that as far as history and sources, the evidence is pretty misty. This is when archaeology and dating can help us a little.

From what I’ve read, the dating of the Hellinikon pyramid is highly controversial. On the one side we have the legend mentioned by Pausanias. Then, in 1937, excavations were undertaken by the American School at Athens in which they found pottery ranging from the proto-Helladic period to the Roman period. This shows the site was in use for some time, but what about dating?

A look at Thermoluminescence dating

There is a method of dating called thermoluminescence dating, and this was carried out on the pyramid of Hellinikon. Without going into too much detail about this, this method of dating measures the accumulated radiation in objects or sediment.

The team that carried this out, in addition to geophysical surveys, excavations, and a study of the masonry of the pyramid, dates the Hellinikon to the period of about 2000-2500 B.C.

That’s also about contemporary with the pyramids on the Giza plateau. It also falls more or less in the broad period of the Greek Heroic Age.

But this dating method has been highly criticized as inaccurate and sloppy, with one camp of academics taking shots at the group that undertook the study of the pyramid. Other groups believe the style of masonry sets the Hellinikon pyramid in the Classical period.

When I arrived at the site, however, I wasn’t so much concerned with academic theories or arguments. I was just captivated.

In Greece, history and mythology have a way of coming to life unlike anywhere else I’ve been. Perhaps it’s the remoteness of the sites, the landscape that has changed little since ancient times, or the fact that sites such as this are not encased, guarded or protected (for better or worse).

As I stood before the slanted cyclopean walls of this ancient structure I wondered not about the age of the structure, but more of its use. There are a very few pyramids in this part of Greece, and this one is the best preserved.

But what was it for?

I remembered reading that it was either a tomb or monument, as Pausanias suggests, or a sort of guardhouse.

Plain of Argos toward the Argolic Gulf as seen from the Pyramid

I opened the gate of the rusty fence surrounding the pyramid and approached, scanning the rocks and shrubs for any snakes or scorpions before pressing on.

Maybe it was my overactive writer’s imagination, but this place seemed to be pervaded by a deep thrumming, as if an ancient drum were being beaten in the earth below. I wondered if the shades of the fallen Argive soldiers might still dwell in that place. Had their ashes been placed within?

I wandered around to the back which faced the plain of Argos far below and found that there was a doorway, an arched gallery leading into the pyramid, not unlike the galleria at ancient Tyrins.

First I decided to explore the outside, to get a better feel of the place before heading in.

It hit me as I turned around to see the view from the pyramid…

The entire plain of Argos was clearly visible from the pyramid! You could see every approach – from the South along the sea, from between the mountains to the southwest, from the North toward Argos itself, from the mound of ancient Tyrins to the East, and from the other side of the Argolic Gulf and Nauplio to the southeast.

Then I thought of the other use of this place as a guardhouse. It was perfect. The pyramid blended perfectly into the landscape when ‘seen’ from far below, and it provided a perfect view of the surrounding area, a place from which to spot any threat to Argos itself. Also, I wondered if the shape was better suited to that high and no doubt lonely, windswept place in Winter.

In truth, I can’t be sure either way. Was it a tomb or monument, or was it a guardhouse? Both uses have merits.

After looking around, I turned and went in.

From the rubble strewn about, and the discolouration of the stone around the entrance, it did seem like the pyramid had been sealed at one point, otherwise, one of the corners would have been flat.

I pictured a procession of priests or warriors carrying the urns containing the remains of their fallen comrades into the pyramid beneath the peaked gallery, or a soldier finishing his shift on watch outside and heading back into the pyramid to sleep or eat while another took over outside to watch the valley.

Door frame between the gallery and main chamber of the pyramid

There was a high step at the end of the gallery, and then a door frame with grooves for hinges. I stood on this and looked down into a large square room.

This inner room of the pyramid was in good condition, and free of litter left by modern visitors. There were no stone shelves upon the cyclopean walls, just cracks and the odd, occasional circle cut into the stone. Below the door, there appeared to be a sort of broken basin or drain, but it was difficult to tell.

Standing inside the main chamber of the Hellinikon Pyramid

I stood in the middle of the room and turned around, noticing that it was much cooler and quieter inside the stone walls even though the roof is gone and it’s open to the sky.

After looking around and taking more photos, I made my way back outside to look at those wonderful walls once more and take in the view from that commanding position.

I stood there beneath the full heat of Helios’ orb in the heavens, the cicadas having reached fever pitch now, and lizards skittering away at my footfalls to hide in the shadowy cracks of rubble from the pyramid.

I had never been to a place like this before, and I doubt that I will again, for the Pyramid of Hellinikon is truly unique. True, it’s nowhere near as grand as other pyramids, but it made me feel directly linked to that ancient land and the events that had (or may have) taken place there.

As I took one last look from the wall of the pyramid to the valley, the roads disappeared far below and the air was filled with the sounds of battle, of warriors in bronze and leather, the charge of horses and cry of eagles.

You can’t help but see the past through romantic lenses in a place like this, and that’s ok. It makes it exciting.

I didn’t know if the shades of dead Argives were standing beside me then, but I do know that while at the Pyramid of Hellinikon, I did not feel alone.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour of the Pyramid of Hellinikon. If you ever find yourself near Argos or Nauplio, you should definitely check it out.

If you want to see the rough video clips I took on the site, I’ve put them all together below in a short YouTube video…

In the comments below, be sure to share your thoughts on this pyramid. Was it a guardhouse, a tomb or war memorial, or was it something else?

Thank you for reading!

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End of a Summer Odyssey

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Greetings readers and fellow history-lovers.

Well, I’m back from my adventures across the sea, and I had an amazing, blessed time.

I tried to keep you all up-to-date via the Instagram feed, but my Peloponnesian connectivity was a bit dodgy.

Needless to say, I’ve got a tonne of pictures and some video which I’ll be sharing with you over the coming months.

The ancient theatre of Epidaurus

The ancient theatre of Epidaurus

I didn’t get to all the sites I wanted to see, but I did manage to visit the ancient theatre and agora of Argos, which I’ve wanted to see for years. I also made return visits to the theatre of Epidaurus, as well as the Sanctuary of Asclepios there. In Athens, I made a return visit to the Acropolis, and the new museum which was amazing.

Feeling good after lunch by the sea

Feeling good after lunch by the sea

Normally, I would have taken in many more sites, but this trip was more about family and friends for me. That said, just driving across the landscape in Greece, or swimming in the turquoise sea, is not only inspiring, it’s also a form of research. This ancient landscape, especially in the Peloponnese, remains relatively unchanged, from the incredible light and colour, to the flocks of goats and sheep bounding up mountainsides, to the whirring of cicadas in the dry, pine-scented heat. You step back in time in rural Greece.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, as seen from the Acropolis

The Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, as seen from the Acropolis

 

I’ll share my experiences of the sites and more with you in future blog posts.

As for the book I had planned on finishing, well… let’s just say that the goal I had set myself was unrealistic. I managed to finish about a third of Heart of Fire, and I’m happy with that. Here’s why:

For the first half of the trip, I was getting up at about 7 am every morning to write outside for a couple of hours, but, as the ‘schedule’ began to fill with visits from dear friends and family I hadn’t seen in a long time, it became harder to squeeze in the writing time. Worse, I began to stress about getting that writing time!

Theatre and agora of ancient Argos

Theatre and agora of ancient Argos

That’s when I had an epiphany.

I realized that my vacation was slipping by, and that I was wasting my precious time worrying and not relaxing. After all, isn’t that what vacations are for?

I also remembered that, in the past, I wasn’t trying to squeeze in writing while on vacation. I was always absorbing the history, the sights, the smells, and the feel of the world around me.

The Wine-Dark Sea

The Wine-Dark Sea

The writing was always something that came afterward, when I was missing the places I had been to, reviewing my mental tapes of the entire odyssey. I forgot that I would have an acute case of the ‘Aegean Blues’ after my trip, and that this would be something I could use well after the fact.

So, about half-way through my trip, I stopped worrying and began to absorb and enjoy much more. I wrote when I could, but I just let it go if the day was not conducive to it – plenty of time to write afterward.

Detail of the Erectheion on the Acropolis of Athens

Detail of the Erectheion on the Acropolis of Athens

I’m happy with what I’ve written of Heart of Fire so far, though as often happens when writing historical fiction, there are a few research gaps I need to fill in. That’s fine, as it keeps me immersed in the period.

This was a wonderful holiday and it reminded me what a lovely country Greece is, the land, the sea, the history, the people. I miss it already, and I can’t wait to go back.

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Sunset in the Olive Grove

I’m struggling now, back in my cubicle. Honestly, who wouldn’t? But I’m writing full speed ahead.

On Friday, I finished the first draft of an Eagles and Dragons series prequel novel which I have kept secret till now (more on that to come!). It’s called A Dragon among the Eagles.

Now, I’m going to stay put in the year 396 B.C. and Heart of Fire, until the story is completed.

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That’s the update for now.

Thanks for following along, and thank you for reading!

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Ancient Everyday – Mirror Mirror

Woman using mirror

I thought I would try a new series of blog posts looking briefly at everyday items in the ancient world.

Historical fiction is often about great battles, political events, and large-than-life characters.

However, one of the things that anchors these stories more firmly in the past are the everyday items that decorate the homes of the characters around whom the stories revolve, or the tools they use without a passing thought.

We might not notice these items ourselves, as readers, but trust me, if they were missing you would get the impression that the story was not quite authentic, or that it was lacking something you couldn’t put your finger on.

I was going through some photos I had taken the other day and saw this one of some Etruscan mirrors in the display cabinet at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Roman and Etruscan polished bronze mirrors at the Royal Ontario Museum

Etruscan polished bronze mirrors at the Royal Ontario Museum

Today, mirrors are things that we definitely take for granted, though I bet we all glance in them a few times a day.

The first mirrors were probably calm pools of water into which people could gaze at their reflections, or crude vessels filled with water. These are primitive, but they are still mirrors.

Polished stone mirror

Polished stone mirror

The earliest man-made mirrors appear to have been made of volcanic glass, or obsidian, and examples of these have been found in Anatolia which date to about 6000 B.C.

Obsidian Mirror from Anatolia

Obsidian Mirror from Anatolia

Polished copper mirrors have been found in Mesopotamia which date to about 4000 B.C., and some in Egypt which date to roughly 3000 B.C.

Egyptian Mirror

Egyptian Mirror

Dating to around 2000 B.C. there are examples of polished stone mirrors from Central and South America, and bronze mirrors from China dating to the same period.

During the ancient Greek and Roman period, polished bronze mirrors such as those pictured above seem to have been the norm, though these were not something that would have been possessed by the lower classes. Mirrors were probably more of a luxury item, especially the ornate ones. There is also mention of metal-coated mirrors, or glass mirrors backed with gold during the Roman period.

Ancient Greek Mirror

Ancient Greek Mirror

Mirrors such as these have been found among grave goods, indicating that they were, in some cases, prized possessions of the deceased.

When I see these more or less unassuming artifacts, it always makes me wonder who held this mirror, and what did they see, or think, or feel when they saw their own image staring back at them.

This is one of the things I love about archaeology and storytelling.

Every artifact has a human story behind it.

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