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Archaeologists reconstruct ancient Greek urge to build

An enormous number of monumental buildings, such as burial tombs, appeared in Mycenaean Greece after 1600 BC. Why did this urge to build come to an abrupt end 400 years later? Archaeologist Ann Brysbaert investigates the possible causes thanks to her ERC Consolidator Grant.

Heyday of Mycenaean civilisation

It must have been anything but dull for people living in the Pelopennese, Greece's largest peninsula, between 1600 and 1200 BC. This was the heyday of Mycenaean civilisation, whose rulers were keen to show their power by constructing monumental buildings, such as burial tombs, strong defence works and new roads and bridges. After 1200 BC, the Mycenaean empire collapsed.

Holistic approach

Until relatively recently, researchers took a narrow approach to the reasons for this collapse, Leiden archaeologist Ann Brysbaert explains. They talked about climatic changes, wars, natural disasters or the disintegration of trade routes. 'We take a more holistic approach.' Her international team studies food supplies, changes in the landscape, cultural characteristics and the burial culture of the ancient Greeks.  

Reconstructing the building process

Some team members carry out fieldwork to determine how many people and resources are needed to complete these major constructions. This information says a lot about the influence of the building works on the politics, economy and organisation of society. The reconstruction is done using the most up-to-date 3D modelling techniques. For each building the researchers analysed how many blocks were used, what they weighed (often thousands of kilos) and how they were transported from the stone quarry to the construction site. These calculations can then be used to estimate how many building workers and animals were needed. 

Who were the building workers?

At that time society was mainly dependent on agriculture. Physically strong building workers were taken away from their farming work, which must have had an impact on the local community, Brysbaert comments. 'It's not clear whether slaves were used because, even though they are mentioned on linear B tablets, the oldest known Greek script, slave labour is not necessarily associated with building work.'


After 18 months' work (the project runs until 2020), it is already clear that this method of combining different approaches gives a lot of insights into the organisation of Mycenaean society and how people dealt with periods of crisis. Moreover, the Greek government can also use the information from the fieldwork for other purposes. One of the burial tombs investigated is close to a busy traffic route above Athens and has suffered serious damage from the traffic racing past. The restorers are using the Leiden 3-D model to stabilise the construction.