The Archaeology of Complex Societies: A project presented by the graduate students of The Ohio State University Department of Anthropology


The city of Athens, Greece has been inhabited continuously for 7000 years, since about 1550 BCE. It was founded in the Bronze Age when ancient heroes like Achilles and Odysseus walked the earth. The city persevered through the Dark Ages and on through the Iron Age. It came into its own with the advent of Archaic Age and flourished during the Classical period, also known as the Golden Age of Athens. This is the period in which Athens could be considered an empire, and it is also the period on which archaeologists, historians, and philosophers tend to place the most focus. Athens has received a great deal of archaeological attention due to its rich cultural wealth and its lasting impact on the politics, art, architecture, and philosophy of present day societies. Along with Rome, Athens is considered one of the cradles of western civilization. However, there is a great deal more to Athens than just its Golden Age - the city has a long and interesting history of human habitation.

Athens is set in an inlet to the Aegean Sea and is surrounded by mountains and hills. Two rivers run through the area, the Kifisos and the Illisos. Both are relatively dry and trickle through the area. The climate is benign, sunny and dry in the summer and wet in the winter, with moderate rainfall. One could be outdoors all year round.

The soil in Athens is not suitable for large-scale agriculture, but the area is able to produce barley, wine-grapes, and olives. All of these were staple crops in Athenian civilization. The Athenians domesticated pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens; cattle and horses were hard to pasture on the steep landscape surrounding Athens. Near the city's center are stone quarries, from which marble, metal ores including silver, and clay were extracted. Athens' location on the Aegean has allowed for trade to flourish into modernity.


Being a port city, Athens was a large manufacturer of ships, specifically battleships called triremes. Athens was also a major center for sculpture, architecture, ceramics (such as amphorae, which were used to ship olive oil and wine), and theatrical productions. Philosophy flourished in Athens, as did the introduction of modern medicine.

Social Organization

The city arose from Mycenaean civilization, an early culture which flourished throughout the Bronze Age in the southern peninsula of Greece. This civilization is characterized by central palaces that stored and redistributed wealth under the rule of aristocrats or monarchs. Mycenaean civilization began to decline around 1200 BCE. Greek Civilization languished in a period when all known writing disappeared and wealth declined, as evidenced by a decline in burial good quality from golden wealth to a few simple pots. This time period is considered the Dark Age. The Iron Age, beginning at 1000-900 BCE, shows a revival of economic prosperity and a revival of hierarchy. During this time Athenian social structure was shaped by the aristocracy, which was determined by wealth, public conduct, descent, association, or acquisition of control over some aspect of production.

During the Archaic Age in the 8th century BCE, Athens became a major hub for economy and wealth. An influx of population spurred on expansion and political rearrangement. Athens became a city-state, or polis. Citizenship became an important aspect of Athenian social structure, one that was granted to those who lived in the hub of Athens as well as to those in outside villages. Foreigners and slaves provided labor in the production of crafts as well as in trade opportunities. While both Athenian men and women were granted citizenship, only men were given rights to political participation. While in theory Athens practiced a system of legal equality, tyranny and aristocratic influence remained in vogue until around the end of the 6th century BCE. This era brought about the emergence of democracy and political restructuring, including the commissioning of public works, the formation of subsidies for agriculture production, and the breaking up of the city into units of political organization called demes to allow for equal voting and administration.

The 5th century BCE is known as the Golden Age of Athens, as it was a period in which art, architecture, literature, economy, and politics flourished. The Athenians established an empire of Greek city states, which controlled trade and forged political alliances. The 5th century BCE included political and social turmoil, with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 460 BCE. However, Athens remained strong until around the 4th century BCE, when it was beset upon by invasions of the Macedon and the Ottoman Empire.

All levels of Athenian society are heavily tied to ideology. The city is named after a Greek deity, the goddess Athena, and is linked the mythical figure, Theseus, who was a great traveler, conquerer of the mythical best the Minotaur, founder of the city, and its first king. The official currency of Athens included Athena’s likeness as well as her symbol, an owl.  Communal activities were organized around religious feasts and festivals, which included an early form of the Olympic games called the Panatheniac games. All citizens would gather and participate in these feasts and festivals.

The city center in Athens is the Acropolis, which contains many temples and worship centers, all of which were elaborately decorated. The meeting houses where administrations were carried out are also located near the Acropolis, as is the Agora, or the main marketplace of Athens. Material wealth in Athens was heavily influenced by ideology, and usually contained images of mythic stories or practices associated with gods and goddesses, such as the symposium often associated with the god of wine and revelry, Dionysus.


Discussions of complexity are often tied to food production and subsistence strategies. Do you think the economic situation in Athens (trade, production of goods) influenced their social systems and ideology? Why or why not? It is also quite clear that the city underwent significant changes during its existence. Athens may have become a more complex city over time, but does this actually support the idea of cultural evolution?

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