The north Aegean island of Lemnos had only recently been freed from rule by the Ottoman Empire. Inhabited long before Greeks arrived, Lemnos was associated by the Greeks with Hephaistos, the god of fire, iron, blacksmiths and artisans, because the earth around the volcanic island emits smoke and vapours. A sanctuary for the northern Aegean mystery cult of the Kabeiroi, twin sons of Hephaistos, likely reflects the original Thracian inhabitants of the island. Nearby was the port of Palaiopolis, ancient Hephaistia, long the capital of Lemnos. The Italians spent several days systematically exploring the west, centre and east for possible excavation sites.
The Director of the Italian School, Alessandro Della Seta, had his own reasons for wanting to excavate on the island. Before taking over as Director in Athens, he had been an inspector at the Villa Giulia Museum in Rome, famous for its collection of Etruscan bronzes and sarcophagi. Contemporary with the classical Greeks, the Etruscans lived in separate city-states north of Rome centuries before Rome ruled all of Italy. The colourful wall paintings in their tombs have intrigued art historians for generations, and their language remains enigmatic, isolated from all other known families of languages. A debate has raged since antiquity about the Etruscans’ origins, whether they emigrated from Lydia in Anatolia, as Herodotus wrote, or evolved purely on Italian soil, as Dionysios of Halikarnassos wrote, a notion particularly popular in Italy of the 1920s. In 1885 a stone stele had been discovered on Lemnos with an inscription which resembled Etruscan and seemed to support the idea that the Etruscans had stopped there on their way from Anatolia to Italy. Della Seta then was keen to discover any other archaeological evidence for a datable Etruscan presence on the island, i.e., anything non-Greek.
The most extensive remains on Lemnos were at Palaiopolis, but they appeared Roman and Byzantine. In the middle of the island, Mudros Bay had been used by the Allies during the war as the base of their failed naval operations against Gallipoli. It was on board the Agamemnon in Mudros Bay that the Ottoman Empire had signed an armistice with the Allies. “The Allied occupation seems to have left it pretty much as it found it. The only traces to be seen are dumps of empty tins & petrol cans.” (Friday, 18 May 1923)
Soon after the Italians’ visit, the Greek Archaeological Service infuriated della Seta by refusing to allow him to excavate on Lemnos, on the grounds that they had not looked at the island yet themselves since its recent acquisition from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. Years later, the site of Poliochni on the east coast of Lemnos would become the major excavation of della Seta’s career, with four superimposed settlements from the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age periods. This lacked evidence, however, for any Etruscan presence there.
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