The Pyramid of Hellinikon
The existence of pyramids, or pyramidal structures, in Greece is not widely known. Their story is both peculiar and fascinating given that these buildings still constitute an obscure aspect of the huge archaeological heritage of Greece.
The pyramids of Greece are the only recognised instances of pyramidal architecture in the broader region of Europe.
There are several ancient pyramid-like buildings in southern Greece, the most impressive and best-preserved of which is the one near the village Hellinikon, near Argos, in the eastern Peloponnese ; it is also the only Greek pyramid for which we have both archaeological as well as literary evidence.
This impressive and rather mysterious monument is built entirely of gray limestone quarried in the region, with large blocks in a trapezoidal and partially polygonal system.The pyramid’s external sides slope and surround a rectangular area of total dimensions 7.03 by 9.07 m. These external walls, which rise with a gradient of 60 degrees to a height of 3.50 metres become vertical to in order to support the upper platform of the building, which was probably used as a surveillance spot . The main entrance of the monument is situated at its eastern side, which overlooks the gulf of the Argolid. From inside this gate a narrow corridor leads to a smaller entrance, on the southern wall and to a square room with sides about 7 m long.
Location and Function
The pyramid of Hellinikon is located at the southwestern edge of the plain of Argolid, near the springs of the Erasinos river (nowadays Kefalari) and on the main arterial road which in antiquity led from Argos to Tegea, Arcadia and Kynouria.
There in no clear evidence as to the use of the pyramid of Hellinikon. Archaeologists believe that it was either a memorial or observation-communication towers (phryctoriae) but there are several other theories, including their being small-garrison fortifications to astronomical observatories. It is only for the pyramid at Hellinikon that there is a reference by Pausanias as to its possible purpose as a tomb to fallen soldiers (please see below).
Although these structures are of great interest, written references are rather scarce and they are not mentioned in ancient sources. Pausanias (2nd century AD) mentions two buildings resembling pyramids, one, twelve miles southwest of the still standing structure at Hellinikon:
On the way from Argos to Epidauria there is on the right a building made very like a pyramid, and on it in relief are wrought shields of the Argive shape. Here took place a fight for the throne between Proetus and Acrisius; the contest, they say, ended in a draw, and a reconciliation resulted afterwards, as neither could gain a decisive victory. The story is that they and their hosts were armed with shields, which were first used in this battle. For those that fell on either side was built here a common tomb, as they were fellow citizens and kinsmen.
Several schools of thought as to the dating of the pyramid exist. Some archaeologists believe that the monument dates to the Mycenaean era (1600 BC-1100 BC), whilst others indicate the 6th century BC as the most probable time. The most common belief is that the structure was from the early Hellenistic era, more specifically in the late-4th century BC.
The Academy of Athens published results of the dating of samples taken from the Hellinikon pyramid (9-2-1995). The measurements were performed by the Laboratory of Archaeometry at Democritus Research Institute in Athens and by the Nuclear Dating Laboratory of the department of Physics at the University of Edinburgh. This new and experimental method of optical thermoluminescence was used and this methodology indicated that the dated samples had been quarried in about 2720 B.C.± 580 years. The method used, while scientifically sound, has yet to be cross-checked and corroborated by other methods. Furthermore, astronomical orientation of the long entrance corridor was found related to the rise of Orion’s belt occurring in c. 2000-2400 BC. This time frame would place construction at a time overlapping the construction of the pyramids in Egypt. These results, suggestive of an exceedingly early dates of construction, have not been widely accepted by the archaeological community. In the absence of a full excavation, consensus as to the dating of the structure will remain pending.
Please also refer to the article on the Pyramids of the Peloponnese by our Eric Cauchi, published in Current World Archaeology Magazine, issue 80 (November 2016).
As a closing note, Pausanias mentions that in the battle for the dead of which this pyramid was built, shields were employed for the first time. This is indicative of the possibly great antiquity of the structure, as estimated by him and his contemporaries and thus the jury is still out as to the date this mysterious pyramid was built.