The Middle Helladic is the period from 2000 to 1700 BC in Central Greece. During this period there is a marked retrogression vis-à-vis the Early Bronze Age, mainly in terms of the social organization system.
This realisation, especially when compared to the apogee of the Mycenaean civilization, helped to establish the idea of a protracted dark period, described by many scholars as the ‘Middle Ages of Prehistory’, with Central Greece being the ‘third world’ of the Bronze Age.
The existence of a pre-Hellenic language parallel to the fully developed Greek of the Mycenaean texts led earlier scholars to associate Middle Helladic with the arrival of the Indo-Europeans; this theory, however, was never supported by archaeological evidence. Today it is believed that Middle Helladic was a period of assimilating elements imported from the Aegean and the East into local traditions, forming a fertile cultural environment in which the Mycenaean culture took root and later blossomed.
In Boeotia, pre-existing Early Helladic settlements largely remain occupied, which suggests the earlier choices of settlement sites continued to cover the needs of Middle Helladic people and there were no circumstances necessitating population movements. In certain areas of mainland Greece, a population decrease is recorded and settlements are abandoned, but this phenomenon is apparently not attested in Boeotia. On the contrary, the number of settlements increased. Furthermore, we find no violent destruction or burn layers among the Early and Middle Helladic settlement strata. The archaeological horizons of this interim phase consist of thin deposit layers containing finds dating to both periods. What has become evident thus far in Boeotia is that deeper strata contain pottery finds in a fully developed Middle Helladic style, while very often its interim or very early elements are missing. Notwithstanding numerous chance finds in Boeotia, the number of systematically excavated sites has not increased in recent years. Evidence for the Middle Helladic period mainly comes from the settlements of Orchomenus, Eutresis and Thebes. Of these settlements, Thebes remains a steady source of new evidence on the Middle Bronze Age, because of the great number of rescue excavations conducted in the modern city.
The town plan of Middle Helladic settlements has been revealed in the rather extensive excavations at Orchomenus and Eutresis. On the basis of these sites, we could say that settlements were mainly established on hilltops and hillsides. Depending on their type, the structures were either freestanding or organized in building islets around communal spaces. Their orientation is not uniform, as buildings sometimes being arrayed in lines or radially arranged around courtyards. Contrary to the Early Helladic buildings, the Middle Helladic ones are identified as simple dwellings. Although some of them differ in terms of size and shape, no structures have been found that would suggest activities of a public or administrative character, as in the case of the Early Helladic ‘Corridor Houses’.
The extensively excavated settlements of Thebes and Eutresis suggest the coexistence of two distinct house designs, apsidal and rectangular; it is unclear whether rectangular houses always succeeded apsidal ones, or if both types coexisted. The presence of these two architectural models is also attested at Orchomenus, where rectangular houses clearly succeeded apsidal ones. The dwellings measure approximately 30 m2. Both types feature one or two separate indoor spaces, while hearths, escharai and even paved surfaces are often found in the rooms. The so-called apsidal houses do not preserve their complete outlines, thus it is impossible to infer whether their shape was truly apsidal or elliptical, as they were first termed in Orchomenus. The walls measure approximately 50 cm in thickness, and were built of rough blocks filled with smaller stones. Only the lower courses have been preserved; the superstructure was built of mud bricks which have not survived.
4. Material culture
Contrary to Early Helladic, the Middle Bronze Age has not yielded any artefacts pointing to a complex social structure (e.g. seals), rituals (e.g. figurines), or high-end technologies (e.g. metalworking tools), but only domestic artefacts and vessels, as well as domestic crafts implements. Finds such as the former are quite rare, like a signet cylinder found in the Boeotian Medeon, and were probably imported.
The most distinctive feature of Middle Helladic Boeotia is its unique pottery output. It has been termed ‘Minyan’ because such specimens were first unearthed at Orchomenus. This pottery is found in large quantities and varying quality in the Middle Helladic settlements of Boeotia, and is invariably locally produced in Boeotia, a fact that was recognized even in the first excavations. In fact, this pottery represents as much as 80% of all fine pottery finds at Orchomenus.
The technology required for the production of Minyan wares is rather advanced. Although hand-made vessels continue to be produced throughout the Middle Helladic, most were crafted by employing fast-spinning potter’s wheels, or a composite technique combining both methods. These vessels were fired in high temperatures and were burnished so as to create a hard and smooth surface which is responsible for their distinctive ‘soapy feel’. Reducing firing offered these wares a uniform gray colour, which combined with the delicate polishing, gave the vessels a metallic look. In oxidization conditions, a yellow and reddish variety of such wares was also produced. Notwithstanding the discovery of several high-quality examples in Boeotia, in this area too there are varying degrees of quality and several varieties that could arguably be attributed to different pottery workshops or stages of production.
In terms of shapes, Minyan wares exhibit a preference for intensely angular shapes and open drinking vessels. The most characteristic shape is that of the wide-necked kylix, which is similar to today’s fruit bowls; it features upright handles and a foot usually decorated with successive relief rings. A smaller version of it features a narrower leg and basket-shaped handles vertically affixed to the rim. Kantharoi, the second most prominent shape, are medium-sized, wide-necked vessels with two handles. Closed shapes, like amphoriskoi and jugs, appear towards the end of the period.
Matt-painted pottery, which is more prevalent in Argolis and Aegina, is found here in smaller quantities, and perhaps some of such vessels were influenced or directly imported from these areas. We also find few pottery vessels in a bright red coating. Local matt-painted pottery appears to have been a kind of painted Minyan pottery, originally monochrome and later featuring two-colour ornamentation over a yellow or reddish background. Contrary to the particularities of fine pottery production, which allow more precise dating, crude pottery is no different from that of the Early Helladic period. Storage jars are decorated with relief rope patterns and less commonly with matt-painted ornaments. Smaller vessels sometimes feature incised fishbone pattern decoration.
Apart from the local production, the repertoire of the Middle Helladic includes categories of wares which were produced or were more widely spread in other areas. These imports are more pronounced in coastal settlements and settlements with access to the sea; they testify to the commercial exchanges between Boeotian settlements and other areas. Contacts with Aegina, Argolis, and the Cyclades were more intense; we also have evidence for exchanges with more remote areas, as indicated by a Middle Minoan IA sherd unearthed at Orchomenus.
Middle Helladic tools do not differ greatly from those of the Early Bronze Age. Implements made up of obsidian remained in use, and this material was employed to craft blades, while we also have the appearance of a serrated type of sickle made up of flint. Quite common are also spindle-whorls and loom weights. Large clay beads that have been unearthed in residential complexes at Orchomenus and Eutresis have yet to be interpreted adequately.
5. Burial customs
An unusual feature of Middle Helladic is the placement of inhumations within residential areas. This allows us to examine contemporary burial customs in much greater detail vis-à-vis earlier periods, when the deceased were buried in cemeteries away from settlements. The overall picture is that graves were dug inside dwellings, in the floors of the houses, or even inside walls. It is not possible, however, to ascertain in every instance whether the graves were dug while the structures were occupied, or after they were destroyed or abandoned. At Eutresis almost all the adult graves are found over buildings, while child burials have been discovered inside walls. At Orchomenus it appears the graves were dug after the last Middle Helladic buildings had been abandoned. At Thebes, where earlier excavations have revealed inhumations inside building complexes, three distinct areas containing organized Middle Helladic cemeteries have been identified inside the acropolis of Kadmeia, as well as scattered clusters of graves and individual inhumations.
Middle Helladic graves do not exhibit any specific orientation. In terms of their construction they vary greatly. Some were cist-shaped, lined with large flat slabs; others were made up of smaller stones, while others were simple pits. These were usually covered with large covering slabs, although a number of uncovered graves have been found as well. The practice of pithos burials (including burials in large vessel sherds) was also widespread. Their common elements are their rather small size and the position of the deceased, who were placed in a flexed position on their sides. While the practice of placing males on their right side and women on their left has been observed in other areas, it is unclear whether this was also true for Boeotian inhumations, for special skeletal remains studies have not been carried out so far. In most cases, the graves did not contain burial gifts or included only one or two vessels. As in other areas of mainland Greece, these vessels were combined in a specific manner, revealing something about the period’s burial customs. The most common combination is a jug accompanied by a small drinking vessel. Vessels have also been found outside the grave, which might indicate that the deceased continued to receive ritual offerings even after the burial.
Dramatic changes in burial customs are detected towards the end of the Middle Helladic period, during the so-called "shaft-grave period". Graves became larger and the deceased were placed in a less contracted or even a supine position. Grave goods became more abundant and, in certain cases, apart from pottery they included jewellery and other precious materials. This phenomenon seems to reflect increased concentration of surpluses and perhaps a more marked social stratification, while it hints at upheavals that will eventually lead to the emergence of the Mycenaean society. A particularly interesting category is that of the so-called "warrior-graves" at Thebes. The deceased in were buried accompanied by abundant burial gifts, including pottery vessels and military equipment, like boar’s tusk helmets, swords and spearheads. Although contextual finds suggest that some of these graves should be dated to the shaft-graves period, a similar but earlier grave discovered at Aegina reveals that the practice of placing weapons in the graves of a prominent social group probably begun during the middle of the Middle Bronze Age. The warrior graves provide substantial evidence of a gradually rising social class who employed their wealth and adopted monumental burial customs to assert and propagate the symbols of a heroic era.
Although the reasons behind the Boeotian Middle Helladic society’s abandonment of Early Bronze Age technologies and modes of social organization remain vague, by adducing evidence that suggest an increase of population density, steady growth and the ultimate genesis of social strata, the Middle Helladic period is studied today as a period of dynamic growth, not retrogression, and is no longer considered a gloomy prelude to the coming Mycenaean civilization.