Glas – a prehistoric feat of engineering

The acropolis at Glas, built on a low hill

Gla (or Glas) is a vast 3,300-year-old fortress built on top of a 38-metre high limestone outcrop. The site, north-west of Athens, is also one of the most amazing engineering feats in prehistory. For most of its history the hill was surrounded by a lake and swamp and in fact the area was only finally drained in 1931. For a brief period in the 13th century BC, however, local rulers built huge dikes to convert the lake into thousands of acres of rich farmland for growing food. And then, only a few decades later, the area was abandoned.

Location of Glas, northwest of Athens in the south of Greece ©Google Maps

The acropolis, with its three-kilometer fortification walls, is the biggest of its era in Greece. The fortress was built and occupied by the Mycenaean civilization which dominated much of Greece from around 1600-1100 B.C. This civilization functioned through a series of regional administrative centres, usually with a palace surrounded by workshops and storerooms.

The walls surrounding Gla were about 3 m thick, and 2.8 km long, enclosing about 235,000 square meters of land. It had four gates with elaborate ramps leading to them. It was initially thought that the walls surrounded a palatial complex, but recent evidence has pointed more in the direction of an administrative or military establishment with barracks and large areas of storage space.

Earlier excavations had already uncovered a large L-shaped structure (once thought to be a palace) but is more likely to have been the administrative centre. Now, in an ongoing project, a team from the Archaeological Society at Athens has uncovered six 2,600-square-foot buildings, each with precisely the same dimensions and broken up into three equal sections. Lead excavator Elena Kountouri told Associated Press (Nov 2019) that some appear to have been built for storage, while others seem to have been workshops. “They look as if they would have housed a large number of people, but why and to what purpose we can’t say yet.”

It is suggested that the farmland surrounding, and dominated by, the citadel served as the “bread basket” of the Mycenaean world. This would account for the massive drainage project which transformed the lake and swamp into farmland. The feat involved changing the course of one river and containing another within huge dikes, creating thousands of acres of rich farmland. “It was an unprecedented project … It shows a very advanced knowledge of architecture and hydraulic engineering.” Said Kountouri, adding that the strong fortifications and large buildings show that Glas was clearly an “extremely important” site.

A pottery water jar found in the citadel of Glas © Greek Culture Ministry via AP

And yet the site was abandoned no more than 70-80 years later and the surrounding fields gradually reverted to wetlands. The hill was never resettled. The inhabitants “took all their belongings and left” said Kountouri. “This could be connected with a period of long drought, maybe they couldn’t grow their crops, were left with no food and departed.”

Even the citadel’s name was forgotten. Glas is a comparatively recent name given to the site a few centuries ago, probably derived from an Albanian word for a fortified position.

Aerial photo showing the outlines of recently discovered buildings at Glas. © Greek Culture Ministry

Text     Alun Harvey



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