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ancient terracotta head from Aiani in Greece

On our tours of Macedonia in northern Greece, we venture into Western Macedonia, the area known as Upper Macedonia in antiquity, because it is hill and mountain country, as opposed to the foothills and the large plain that define Central or Lower Macedonia.

This wildly scenic region is in itself a heartland, as many long-established routes of communication and contact have been passing through it since time immemorial, linking the scattered communities in the fertile valleys separated by uplands, and further linking Epirus with Macedonia, Central Greece with Northern Greece, and also Northern Greece with the more continental Balkans and eventually the Danube Valley.

One of the key ancient sites we visit in the region is Aiani, a spectacular, but little-known and little-visited archaeological site, blessed with a superb site museum, is in many ways a microcosm of Upper Macedonia. The site, set in the heart of one of the small agricultural plains that define the region, and overlooking the river Aliakmon, was a centre of activity since prehistory. There are thirty or more Neolithic settlements in the surroundings, and there is an important Bronze Age cemetery that demonstrated profound links with 'Mycenaean' southern Greece already in the second millennium BC.

During the Iron Age, when Upper Macedonia became dominated by tribal 'petty kingdoms', Aiani was the core of one of those. By the fifth century BC, it was dominated by a hilltop site with some quasi-monumental architecture, apparently serving as the 'agora' (meeting place) and 'acropolis' (hilltop shrine) for a scattered community. It also developed a 'royal' or 'noble' cemetery of elite graves, its contents revealing the same kind of warrior aristocracy we see elsewhere in Macedonia, for example at Archontiko, during the Archaic and Classical eras, especially in the fifth century BC.

What is striking about the graves at Aiani, is how they indicate close cultural contact with the South of Greece, and especially Athens, throughout the fifth century BC. We don't really understand why, but it appears to be the case that the nobles buried at Aiani valued Attic products, especially painted vases used for the symposion, the wine-drinking party that was the core of social life for the males in the Greek city-states of the south, but also for the warriors of tribal Macedon.

We have written before about the warrior graves of Aiani, so here we show you a very small object, a tiny terracotta head of a lady, found in a grave from before 500 BC. It is locally made, but it reflects an Athenian influence. It depicts a woman, wearing rouge on her cheeks and perhaps some kind of lipstick. The symbols painted on her neck may be a version of the Greek letter Phi (Φ), but if so, we have no idea what that means. They could also indicate some kind of personal ornament, even a tattoo. The small piercing at the top probably indicates that the head was suspended from something, but again, we don't know what.

To visit Aiani with expert guides, do join us on our Exploring Macedonia tour.

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