I have been studying (or trying to) ancient roof tiles for the past 20 years and, despite what many say, I find them fascinating. But I’ve never come across a roof tile that tells a story quite like this one.
Fragments of terracotta roof tiles are found by the thousands in excavations and surface surveys all around Greece, which offer invaluable information for the past.
However, a Greek roof tile bearing the depiction of an oriental warrior (wearing a round head cover and holding what must be a spear), accompanied by an inscription in a non-Greek alphabet is indeed something rare. And while every other visitor of the Museum of Thessaloniki may be dazzled by the golden treasures in display, I find myself drawn to this little gem:
This fragment (of a Laconian type pan tile, to be precise) was found in the area of Thessaloniki, in Macedonia, northern Greece. It is dated in the early 5th century BCE and was unearthed in the excavations of Toumba, the site of a settlement established in the Bronze Age and inhabited until the early Hellenistic period (about 2,000 – 300 BCE). The site comprises a conical hill (known as a tell) formed by the successive habitation levels of the Bronze and Iron Ages, as well as a surrounding lower mound with levels spanning the period from the 11th century to the 4th century BCE. Several outlying smaller sites and a cemetery have also been excavated (you may read more about it here).
The settlement, which has been identified as the ancient city of Therme, is located on the eastern coast of the Thermaic Gulf and it was one of the 26 cities and settlements which jointly formed the city of Thessaloniki, established in 315 BCE by king Kassander of Macedonia, one of Alexander the Great’s successors.
This find is evidence: it proves, beyond doubt, that a person from the Middle East was, sometime during the early 5th century BCE, in what today is a quarter of Greece’s second largest city.
He was not alone, as another graffiti, this one on a potsherd, proves:
But how did these oriental warriors come to be there, so far from their homelands?
The historic event
In the spring of 480 BCE, the grand army of the Persian Empire, led by king Xerxes himself, marched against Greece. This multinational host (numbering 5.283.220 men, according to ancient historian Herodotus, or a “mere” 180.000 according to modern scholars) crossed over from Asia into Europe supported by a navy of 1207 warships.
By late July, the invading forces had reached the region of Macedonia; they regrouped in the area of Therme. They stayed there for an entire week before continuing southwards, towards central Greece and their goal, Athens.
The archaeologists who found the graffiti on this roof tile and potsherd believe they were engraved by members of this huge army during their pause on the coastal plain around the area of Therme.
A personal approach
For me, this broken roof tile is something more than a piece of evidence proving the presence of the Persian army in the area. It brings us a little closer, just a tiny bit closer, to the men of that army.
Looking at it, I can imagine the person who handled it 2,500 years ago. I cannot read what he wanted to say, I don’t even know if he was Persian, Mede, Libyan or Phoenician (although some of the symbols resemble the Phoenician alphabet). But he was literate and he wanted to express himself.
I can picture him resting against his pack, trying to kill time while the huge army waited, for their commander in chief (who was reconnoitering the area further down the coast) to decide which route to follow for his invasion.
I can almost see him idly picking up a piece of broken pottery and then scratching the image of himself or one of his fellow warriors (the resemblance of the figure with the Medean warriors of the Persepolis relief is striking):
By engraving that graffiti, I believe that this long-gone warrior did what many other soldiers have done throughout the ages. Like the Civil War soldiers, like the famous Kilroy was here of WW II, like Greek soldiers, who still write their names on the walls of sentry boxes, he tried to leave his mark or a comment on his situation.
But who was he?
Was he an officer, or one of the rank and file?
Was he a non-combatant, perhaps a scribe in the king’s retinue?
Was he an infantry man or serving with the fleet?
Was he bragging about his skills, or cursing an officer (perhaps even the King)?
Was he confident that the mighty army, of which he was part, would conquest everything in its path, or was he concerned about his fate in that remote western land?
We will probably never know, but one thing is certain: when finally Xerxes made up his mind about which course to follow, our friend would have gotten his kit and marched (or sailed) towards the south, to Thermopylae.