The dry and dusty plains of Argolis, set above the sea in southeastern Greece, is filled with history and mythology. Mentioned in the Iliad as one of the nations that sent its ships to war against Troy led by its King Diomedes, this coastal region takes its name from the great and ancient city of Argos.
But some researchers and archaeologists believe that there are even older secrets hidden amidst the coarse thorny scrub and olive trees of the peninsula. Far outside the walls of the great city, there are the ruins of pyramids which some believe could have been constructed over five thousand years ago.
The great pyramids in Giza, the most recognizable and enduring legacy of the great Egyptian civilization, are believed to have been built from 2,500 BC. If the dating for these Greek ruins is correct however, the structures at Kambia, Elliniko, Ligourio, and Argolida are even older.
The best-preserved and most prominent of the four locations is the pyramid of Hellinikon. Little more than a ruin of the base of pyramid today, the structure is believed to be a remnant of the mysterious pyramids of the ancient Greek city of Ellinika.
Made a unpolished stone and much more primitive than the stunning Egyptian pyramids, these structures are nothing new. They were known in antiquity, although it seems the ancient historians were as unsure as us what they were for. Pausanius in the 2nd century AD characterizes them as tombs, but this feels like a best guess: the truth is their purpose is as mysterious as their origin.
Were the Greeks building pyramids before the mighty Egyptians? And if so, what for?
Ancient Greek Pyramids
First, nobody should be surprised at the existence of pyramids in ancient Greece. Pyramids appear everywhere and represent the earliest and easiest method of monolithic construction available to almost any culture. Simply put, if you want to build a giant stone structure but have only a basic understanding of construction, a pyramid is what you end up with.
Accordingly, there are a number of ancient pyramid-like buildings that exist in southern Greece. But among all the structures, the most impressive is the structure situated near the Hellinikon village in Argolis. Some of the buildings have experienced irreparable and major damage, but the traces remain.
The different ancient pyramids that exist in Greece are Ligourio in Epidaurus, Kambia in Nea Epidaurus, Amfio near Thebes, Sikyon in Corinthia, Dalamanara in Epidaurus, Viglafia in Neapoli, and Hellinikon in Hellinikon. While Hellinikon is the best-preserved pyramid, Kambia is also well preserved to some extent.
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However, only the bases of pyramids at Ligourio and Viglafia exist today. Even less of the structures at Sikyon and Dalamanara are to be found in the present times.
In addition to these structures, there are two other singular structures referred to as pyramid-like buildings. One is the Rock Pyramid that forms the peak of Mt. Taygete, a natural formation. Another one is the cone-like pyramid present in Chania, which is entirely different.
The pyramid of Hellinikon is situated at a distance of about 9 km (5.5 miles) from Argos. It is located towards the southwestern edge of the Argolid plain, near the wellspring of the Erasinos river and on the main arterial road which in the ancient past led from Argos to Tegea in the heartland of the southern Greek peninsula.
The pyramid is relatively small, with the rectangular building that surrounds the pyramid of Hellinikon being only 7 m by 9 m (23 feet by 30 feet). What is left of the external walls rise up to 3.5 m (11 feet) at 60 degrees angle. The whole monument is made up of grey limestone.
German and American archaeologists were the first ones to excavate the pyramid during the early 1900s to 1960s. Wiegand conducted the first excavation of the pyramid. Later, in the year 1937, the American School of Archaeology did more excavations at Athens under the leadership of L. Lord. During the excavations, the entrance door, a large pithos, parts of the wall, and floor of the long corridor were discovered.
It is important as well to note that the early dating of the pyramid is controversial, and other suggestions have been put forward which would date the pyramid to far later. Some believe the pyramid of Hellinikon to have been built during the late 4th century BC, which would still make the structure centuries old to Pausanius.
This has led to a great deal of controversy when it comes to the dating of the pyramid of Hellinikon. According to the American archaeological expedition conducted in the year 1938, the pyramid of Hellinikonis believed to have been built around 300 to 400 BC.
However, in the year 1991, a scientific team that was led by Professor Ioannis Liritzis made use of a new method in order to determine the age of the pyramid of Hellinikon. The new technique that was used was thermo-luminescence dating, similar to carbon dating but for crystalline structures such as stone.
According to the findings, the pyramid was built around 3,000 BC. Later, as per the research conducted by the University of Edinburgh and the Academy of Athens, the date of construction of the pyramid was changed to 2,720 BCE. The method that was used is scientifically correct. However, it is yet to be corroborated and cross-checked with other existing methods.
If these dates are correct, then the pyramid of Hellinikon older than Egypt’s pyramid of Zoser. Zoser is known as the oldest pyramid in Egypt, older even than the great pyramids of Giza.
Purpose of the Hellinikon
Pausanius’s guess aside, the actual purpose or use of the pyramid of Hellinikon is not known. No clues remain which definitively explain why such structures were built out here on the plains.
However, there are a number of theories relating to the potential use of the pyramid in Greece. According to one of the theories, the pyramid of Hellinikon is believed to have been a military base, or marks the site at which a battle took place once, a monument for those who died.
Various other archaeologists also suggest that the pyramid of Hellinikon could be a memorial of sorts, but differ as to what is being memorialized. On a more practical level, it could also be an observation-communication tower that was used for controlling the surrounding area. Some others even believe that the pyramid was used for sending smoke signals.
Yet another possibility of the use of the pyramid was as a ritual center for worshipping the warriors as well as heroes of ancient times. This would align the closest with Pausanius who believed the pyramid of Hellinikon was mainly used as a common tomb for soldiers.
The pyramid of Hellinikon is certainly unique and has sparked a great deal of debate. Little remains but what does intrigues. Whether older than the pyramids or “merely” built in antiquity, the structures are an enduring mystery.
However, despite being a great discovery and having immense significance, the excavation of the pyramid of Hellinikon has currently been completely abandoned. Whatever secrets the site holds, they will remain for now.
Top Image: The remains of the Hellinikon today. Source: Schuppi / CC BY-SA 4.0.
By Bipin Dimri