This is an article from the fall 2016 issue of LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.

Imagine you’re a mid-size city-state in northeastern Greece 2,400 years ago. The Kingdom of Macedon is nearby, and they’re pretty tough, so sometimes you ally yourself with them. But the city-state of Athens is also powerful, so you ally yourself with them sometimes, too. In order to beef up your importance, you convince some nearby communities to join together and form a larger city-state—not nearly as big as Athens, but maybe big enough to defend yourself from one of those two behemoths if things get really hairy.

It’s a tightrope, of course, switching sides—a series of risky bets that you hope will somehow keep your city going.Until it doesn’t. 

Olynthos’s luck ran out in 348 BCE, when the Macedonians—led by Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II—decided that Olynthos lay on their path to glory and laid siege to it.

“Olynthos stood in the Macedonians’ way,” says Lisa Nevett, a professor of classical studies and the director of the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology. According to ancient texts, a handful of Olynthians betrayed the city, opening the gates to the Macedonian army, who razed it to the ground.

The city’s citizens were either murdered or enslaved according to the text, and the area was never significantly reinhabited: a rarity in a country as broadly populated as Greece.

“Olynthos as a classical city was never rebuilt, which is good for archaeologists,” Nevett says. “In Greece, it’s quite a full landscape, so you don’t always find a city like that. There’s often Roman material on top and you have to dig through it, or the Greek material may have been already destroyed by the time you get there. Olynthos was destroyed, but it was also preserved reasonably well.”

Can You Dig It?

In the 1920s and ’30s, an American archaeology team rediscovered Olynthos, but they were underwhelmed by what they found there. At the time, the most popular model of archaeology required researchers to look for temples and theaters and other relatively grand buildings. Olynthos didn’t have much grandness to it, though. All it seemed to have were houses.

“Finally, there’s a point where the archaeologists working there made a virtue out of necessity, and they began digging out the houses,” Nevett says. The team excavated about one hundred homes and worked out what they thought was a basic map of the city with two parts, the older part located on a small hill and a larger, newer portion of the city located on another hill nearby.


The current excavation at Olynthos consists of LSA faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates, as well as international partners from the Museum and Ephorate of Pella and the University of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture. 

“The texts mention a period of rapid growth in Olynthos, when people from separate areas came together to become a larger city-state for safety reasons,” Nevett says. “And people have surmised that the residences on this second hill come from that time when all these other communities moved in, and they laid out this huge new grid, a more planned-out part of the city.”

In hindsight, there were things that could have been done better, Nevett says. The team tended to keep pottery they found if it was whole—an entire jar or bowl or bathtub, all in one piece—and discard the rest. The team also misidentified the style of many of the ceramic pieces on site, assuming that they were made in Athens, when in actuality the process and materials originated locally. The team made maps based on suppositions about where houses were, but they didn’t verify their guesses.

“I’m actually really sympathetic to that original project, because it did so much more than other projects,” Nevett says. “They were eventually interested in domestic buildings, which most projects weren’t, and they did try to save some of the material.”

But 90 years of broadening perspectives and technical improvements mean that the archaeological team in Olynthos now, co-directed by Professor Nevett, is bringing a whole new toolset to bear on the mysteries of the city.

Upstairs, Downstairs

The Olynthos team consists of a mix of graduate students, undergraduate students, and faculty from partner institutions in the United Kingdom and Greece, as well as three U-M faculty: Kelsey Museum of Archaeology researcher David Stone, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Dimitrios Zekkos, and Nevett.


Professor Lisa Nevett (pictured above) is part of a multinational research group exploring Olynthos, a site originally excavated by archaeologist David Robinson. Robinson published a massive 14-volume series of books about the ruins of the city.

The excavation teams—which have received funding from the National Geographic Society, the British Academy, and the Loeb Classical Library Foundation—began investigating the site in 2014, which was the beginning of a five-year archaeology project. Many modern archaeological research projects involve either field walking—examining the ground for loose, easily available materials of ancient origin—or excavation. What differentiates Nevett’s project is that her team got permission to use both of these techniques and also use magnetic and electrical imaging of the underground portions of the site to get a better view of what Olynthos looks like now—which means a better view of what it looked like 2,000 years ago.

The work being done by Nevett’s team at Olynthos has already revealed many fresh details about Greek domestic life. They discovered the bones of animals that had been butchered in the house—cows, pigs, and either sheep or goat bones—as well as evidence that women had moved freely throughout the house, inhabiting all of the spaces and participating fully in the work done in the home.

“There is a classical text from Athens that talks about what happened upstairs and what happened downstairs in a Greek home,” Nevett says. “And the text claims that the women were kept upstairs so they didn’t get into trouble. I’ve already argued this based on other material, but it was hard to show detailed evidence before now.”

Lessons from the Past

One huge problem facing the excavation is that part of the town is on the private land of farmers who own the area next to the archaeological park. There’s no way to know how big the city was without getting a good look at the farmers’ land, and as deep plowing for olive trees occurs there, there’s no way to know how much ancient material and knowledge is being destroyed, maybe forever. What remains under the ground of those olive groves is just one of the unknowns that Nevett and her team are eager to uncover.

“There are a number of mysteries about this city,” Nevett says. “One of them is about what the old part of the city looked like and another is about how it affected the people already living here when all of a sudden all these new people came in. That’s a rather topical question, I think, in Greece today.

“We have this historical account that says there were these people in these different settlements who decided, due to the political threat of the southern Greek cities, that it would be better all to live in one city and then that city would be more powerful,” Nevett says. “But there’s a question about who held the balance of power. The newer houses are much bigger than a typical Greek home, more often with a fancy dining room with a mosaic floor and painted walls and a bath, which are not common things. So did the people in Olynthos have to build really nice houses in order to tempt people to come? It raises interesting questions about the kind of mechanics of that process.

“We have this attitude about culture that we’re always making progress, but actually, if we take a very long-term view, you see that actually progress is not unilinear,” Nevett says. “It goes up and down. And I think that knowledge perhaps makes us view our own position differently and realize how privileged we are to have what we have and to live in the time that we live in, and maybe that makes us more considerate of Syrian refugees, for example. I think studying the past is incredibly important for making people question some of their assumptions and their attitudes.” 

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Photos courtesy of Lisa Nevett