Where is Mycenaean Sparta?
In the Homeric poems, Sparta plays a major role. It was the home of Helen, the wife of the King Menelaus and it was the rape of Helen that caused the Trojan War. But where was the site of Mycenaean Sparta?
In modern and indeed classical Sparta itself, there are no traces of Mycenaean material. However there is an important Mycenaean site known as the Menelaion which lies some distance outside Sparta on the other side of the river on the eastern side, the opposite side to Mount Taygetus. Indeed most of the dramatic photos of Sparta with Taygetus in the background are taken from the Menelaion.
The most dramatic part of the Menelaion is a rectangular foundation that was a heroon, that is a shrine to a hero, in this case Menelaus, the King of Sparta. It was originally constructed in the eighth century BC that is probably five centuries after the presumed date of the Trojan War. Numerous lead placards have been found there, many of them dedicated to Menelaus which gives proof that it was indeed a shrine dedicated to the hero Menelaus. In its present form it is a rebuild of the fifth century BC, constructed of fine ashlar masonry. Recently a number of trees have been planted around it, but the photos show well in the position of Taygetus in the background.
And here below is a picture taken from the top of the Menelaion looking out over the fertile valley in which Sparta lies. Modern Sparta is off to the right: this is looking southwards. Across the bottom right is the River Eurotas, still full with water, but covered with greenery. But whereas the classical site – one hesitates to call it a town – is set in a lush fertile valley, the Mycenean palace was set on a bleak and windy hilltop
However behind the Menelaion are the rebuilt foundations of the Mycenaean palace. It is set on the tip of a fairly narrow ridge, though probably much of it may have been eroded away.
This is sometimes called a Mycenaean house, because it is rather smaller than the typical Mycenaean Palace. Excavations have revealed the three separate phases, the first in the 15th century BC and the third and last in the 13th century BC, that is slightly earlier than the majority of the Mycenaean palaces. But this is surely the place where the hero lived: is this the place that launched a thousand ships?
On to Archaic Sparta