Volos: Archaeology and myth in Thessaly

Looking for somewhere off the beaten track to explore in Greece? Martin Davies is our guide to the rich prehistoric heritage of Volos.

Early in 1982, my mother announced that a proposed trip to Athens had been cancelled by a friend. Rashly, I said I would take her as a birthday present, but in autumn so as to avoid the heat. So it was that a little over 40 years ago, in October 1982, we set out for distant Athens. Little did I expect to catch, on my first evening in Greece, that most contagious of travel diseases, Hellenophilia. (My mum had already succumbed to the condition, and went on to make her final visit aged 91). As the 40th anniversary of that first trip approached, I pondered how best to mark it. It had to be another visit to Greece, of course – my 38th! And I wanted it to be somewhere with engrossing archaeology, but sufficiently off the beaten track that I had not previously visited it.

Volos, a major port in Thessaly, lies on the flanks of Mount Pelion. Despite being often overlooked by tourists in search of Greece’s past, the city and its environs have plenty to offer. Image: © Bruce Whittingham | Dreamstime.com

Unsung archaeology

Volos presented itself as the ideal candidate. This major port in Thessaly lies at the head of the Pagasetic Gulf, which is bounded by the peninsula of Mount Pelion on one side, low mountains to the west, and the broad plain of Thessaly to the north. In ancient mythology, this region is famous for being the site of Iolkos, the city where Jason grew up before being sent on his quest for the Golden Fleece. As we will see, debate rumbles on about the precise location of Jason’s Iolkos, but it was presumably one of the important prehistoric sites known to exist in the area. Mount Pelion, meanwhile, was home to Jason’s tutor Chiron, a wise centaur. Judging by the warlike and wild character of that strange race, as depicted on a metope from the Parthenon, the noble and nurturing Chiron must have been a phenomenal one-off.

A rare glimpse of Classical Greece in Volos: portions of columns reused in a balustrade around a church in Palaia. Image: Martin Davies

So what does Volos have to offer the quizzical visitor? First, a note of warning. If you are hoping for forests of bleached white columns set against an azure sky, you will be disappointed. In fact, the only visible remnants of Classical Greece in the area are fragments of stonework and a few columns that can be seen in Palaia (Old Volos), where they have been reused as a balustrade around a church perched on a hill (largely a prehistoric mound). This church, like all the churches in Volos, is very recent. It is a consequence of earthquakes in the 1950s, which destroyed the city, and are the main reason why Volos is now a smart modern town. Glimpses of antiquity can still be found amid this modernity, though, including the excavated remains of possible Byzantine buildings at the port end of Old Volos, and the ruins of a basilica beside the church. The dedicated visitor will find, tucked beneath the north side of the hill, five enormous information panels detailing the results of investigations into prehistoric Volos. In terms of actual traces, however, there are only two inaccessible covered pits to behold.

Above and below: The Archaeological Museum in Volos, which includes an early Christian bath building that remains in situ after having been discovered during construction work. Images: Martin Davies

Against this backdrop, it is the Archaeological Museum in Volos, easily found next to the main hospital at the eastern end of the city, that presents the most satisfying starting point. It is a classic Greek regional museum: modern ideas about display are in evidence, but it retains an absolute focus on showcasing remarkable finds and putting them in the context of the region and each site. Many of the larger information panels are in Greek only, but almost all of the artefacts and displays have small English labels as well.

Perhaps the most memorable – and certainly the most unusual – exhibit is the early Christian bath building in the museum basement. This structure is displayed in situ after having been found when construction of the building began in 1909. Among the great wealth of material in the museum are two tablets, one in an obscure ancient local script known as Thessalian, and another inscribed with musical notation (there is a further example of the latter in the museum at Delphi). There is also a considerable collection of Mycenaean grave goods, including finds from an inaccessible Mycenaean tholos (‘beehive’) tomb in Volos itself.

Another gallery – sadly closed at present – contains a fine set of 3rd-century BC painted grave stelae (markers) from Demetrias. A selection is, though, currently on display in the basement. Demetrias was a vast planned city, founded by Demetrius Poliorcetes – one of Alexander’s generals – and built mainly in the 3rd century BC on the site of Bronze Age Pagasae, which was the port of Iolkos (and has lent its name to the Pagasetic Gulf). I suspect a trip to the city is only for specialist visitors: the scattered remains are spread either side of a main road over a wide area populated with olive groves, smallholdings, and undergrowth, making any coherent tour difficult. However, some features are visible across fences and indicated by signs. The largest and most easily found is the theatre, which – although not well preserved – is impressive in scale and clearly indicates the ambition of the place. Beside the theatre, the road is straddled by piers for an aqueduct that once served the city.

Those flying in to Volos airport have an advantage when it comes to taking in the visible parts of Demetrias: they lie on the main road from the airport. Also visible a little nearer the airport along the same road are a multitude of columns from no fewer than nine 4th- to 6th-century Byzantine basilicas at Nea Anchialos, the site of the ancient city of Pyrasos, which gets a passing mention in Homer’s Iliad.

The ruins of Demetrias include a theatre that admirably testifies  to the ambition of the city in its heyday (above) and the piers of an aqueduct that once served the settlement (below). Images: Martin Davies

Myth and stone

Indeed, the most fascinating sites in the region are prehistoric ones that attracted myths and legends that can now be compared with a growing body of archaeological evidence. The most visited are Dimini and Sesklo, which are well signposted from the centre of Volos. Both sites are near villages on secondary roads off the main highway towards Larissa, and have exemplary information panels in both Greek and English. If you are interested in the eras that preceded the glories of Classical Greece, then these two sites are among the most important in the whole country.

I would recommend starting at Sesklo, which was discovered in the 19th century and has given its name to a major and precociously early Neolithic culture in northern Greece. The site is situated on the hill of Kastraki (‘little fort’), whose precipitous sides offer obvious protection from any assault. The main site is the acropolis, which is a compact complex containing the remains of various buildings, including a modest megaron (great hall), surviving as lines of neat slate walls. These structures, and comparable ones at Dimini, bear a striking resemblance to prehistoric houses on Orkney. Apparently, the missing superstructure was wooden, with both parts designed to resist earthquakes: an ever-present peril in Greece. Adjacent to the citadel lay a settlement that has also been excavated, but now presents scanty remains of what was apparently only a small collection of Neolithic dwellings.

Sesklo, where the remains of Neolithic structures survive as lines of neat slate walls on the hill of Kastraki. Image: Martin Davies

The heyday of Sesklo stretched from the pre-pottery Neolithic through to the Middle Neolithic (before 3900 BC), when it was destroyed by an earthquake. After a hiatus, there was some reoccupation, but only on the acropolis.

By contrast, Dimini enjoyed a much longer occupation, stretching from the Neolithic through to the end of the Bronze Age at the close of the Mycenaean period. Dimini’s current claim to fame is that recent discoveries have propelled it to frontrunner status among many archaeologists for the site of Jason’s Iolkos; indeed, the title of the well-illustrated booklet that I was given at the museum even calls it ‘Dimini-Iolkos’.

The large Neolithic megaron at Dimini. Image: Martin Davies

The main site features the same kind of structures as Sesklo. Here, though, the extreme fragility of the slate walls – there are shards from them littering the ground – means that vital consolidation work is being undertaken using mortar. The Neolithic megaron is larger than its counterpart at Sesklo and occupied the most prominent plot at the summit of the hill. There are also two magnificent Mycenaean tholos tombs, which date to a much later phase of occupation. One of these structures lies within the main site and was built into the side of the Neolithic mound. This – inevitably – did not provide the necessary stability, leading to the chamber roof collapsing. The other tomb, next to the road and outside the main site, is intact. I wonder what the contrast tells us about the builders’ knowledge or attitude to their Neolithic predecessors?

As at Sesklo, Dimini was home to a settlement that stretched far beyond the citadel. In this case, though, the lower town was Mycenaean in date, and both more extensive and more recently excavated. It is the scale of this portion of the site that has encouraged the view that Dimini was once Iolkos. Large modern protective roofs have been constructed over these remains, but those who wish to follow in the mythical footsteps of Jason will have to wait a little longer, as the site is not yet open to visitors.

A magnificent tholos tomb, which was built into an earlier Neolithic mound at Dimini. Image: Martin Davies

Beyond Volos

What else does the Volos region have to offer? Further afield, I would recommend the Neolithic and Bronze Age ‘palace’ called the House of Tiles at Lerna near Nafplio in the Peloponnese. There is also the opportunity to see an influential piece of architecture: the ancestor of all Greek temples. This is the Iron Age ‘Heroon’ at Lefkandi on the island of Evvia (Euboea), which can be easily reached from the main north–south National Road.

As we have seen, the key archaeological sites are for the enthusiast, but there is plenty more for visitors to enjoy, such as the mountain scenery of Mount Pelion and sandy beaches on the far side. Those wishing to explore the slopes where legend has it that Chiron once galloped might enjoy travelling on the surviving stretch of a once-extensive narrow-gauge railway: this climbs the mountainside from the village of Ano Lekhonia at weekends during the season.

Not far to the south of Volos, the National Road crosses the evocative site of Thermopylae. Its name means ‘hot gates’ after the hot springs there, which were believed to mark one of the entrances to Hades. It is the site of a key pass, too, that has been periodically fought over for millennia, most famously during the Greco-Persian wars in 480 BC. Further to the north lie such renowned sites as Dion, at Mount Olympus, and Vergina, home to the apparent tomb of Philip II of Macedon. With so much to explore, I have already planned a return to Volos, to take in some of the lesser sites on the road to Vergina.