By Dina Kyriakidou
Salamina, Greece - On a deserted green hill above the Aegean Sea, archaeologists have unearthed what may be the palace of Ajax, one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology.
From a rocky outcrop among the tranquil ruins, it is easy to imagine the warrior-king of Homer's Iliad setting sail from the island for Troy more than 3 300 years ago, as crowds lined the pine-covered slopes to wave farewell.
The idyllic location on Salamina island perfectly matches historical references, a fact which led archaeologists to wonder whether the scattered stones here might have formed one the most famous kingdoms of pre-historic Greece.
"I had early indications but I wasn't certain I had discovered a palace until we found the twin ceremonial halls," said Yannos Lolos, the Ioannina University archaeologist heading the excavation. "It's one of very few cases where a Mycenaean palace can be linked to a top hero of the Homeric poems."
Across the sea from Salamina lies the coast of northeastern Peloponnese, the peninsula of the kingdoms of Agamemnon's Mycenae and Nestor's Pylos.
The Iliad is the epic story of Greek cities joining forces to wage war on Troy and recover Helen, the kidnapped queen of Sparta. Ajax, son of Telamon, is described as a massive man and a great warrior, second only to his cousin Achilles.
An icon of strength and dignity, he is mentioned by several writers of the ancient world. He appears among the early suitors of Helen, "the face that launched a thousand ships". In fact, the Greeks gathered 1 186 ships, including 12 offered by Ajax.
In Homer's Odyssey, the long-wandering hero Odysseus finds Ajax dead in the underworld but still angry he was not awarded the armour of the dead Achilles. One version of his death has him so offended at the snub that he goes mad and commits suicide.
Six years of excavations at the site of Kanakia, on the south-western tip of Salamina island, have revealed a maze of stone walls making up at least two major palatial complexes, the settlement around them stretching down to the natural port.
The building with the two great halls - or megara - covers 750 square metres and has 33 rooms on four levels. Unlike Mycenae, Salamina is not surrounded by great walls but is built with defence in mind, with narrow, guarded entrances.
Among the finds are tools, Cypriot pottery and bronzes, proof of relations with the eastern Mediterranean. But the most stunning discovery is a single bronze scale from an armour breastplate that bears the stamp of a famous Egyptian pharaoh.
Translated by professors Jacke Phillips and John Ray at Cambridge, it is the name of Ramesses II who ruled Egypt during the 13th century BC. Lolos said it was possible that Salamina men had fought as mercenaries in the army of Ramesses.
"The piece is... unique," Phillips said. "I know of no other armour scale with a hieroglyphic inscription."
With few tangible historical finds to prove the existence of the great Mycenaean kings, the discovery on Salamina is sure to fire up yet another academic debate about Homer, Lolos said.
The blind poet, believed to have lived in the 8th century BC, wrote down oral stories about a war thought to have happened around 1 200 BC.
Many doubt he recounted real facts and some do not believe he even existed. Others say some of the greatest archaeological discoveries, including Troy, owe a debt to Homer's descriptions.
Lolos said 450 years is too short a time in oral tradition to forget such great kings as Agamemnon, Nestor or Ajax.
"I don't think Greeks went crazy and started inventing the names," he said. "In fact, I think others will now resort to Homer's list of ships for clues on where to dig. I have already received calls from some who are looking for Odysseus's palace."
Lolos said finds so far match the general profile of the legendary Ajax, who owned ships and got involved in piracy in the eastern Mediterranean. The discoveries offer new clues about Mycenaean traditions.
"This verifies the existence of small kingdoms," said archaeologist Christina Marabea, who works on the site. "We must begin to view differently the structure of royal power, which we now know had various levels."
One myth recounts that after Ajax's suicide his half-brother Teucrus, who also fought at Troy, was disowned by his father and emigrated to Cyprus where he founded a new city of Salamina.
Lolos said the ruins of Ajax's Salamina show that the city was abandoned around 1,200 BC, when the Trojan war ended, but there were no signs of violence or haste.
"Why it was abandoned is a great mystery ... Ajax was the last king; maybe after his death the system collapsed," he said.
At Salamina in Cyprus, evidence has been found of a wave of settlement from mainland Greece. Is it possible that Ajax's people left and set up a new home there?
"We had the tradition. Now, we have evidence of the exodus. Maybe," Lolos said.
By classical times a new city linked to Athens had been built on the other side of the Greek island of Salamina, today dominated by a large naval base. The old city was forgotten but not its king - Ajax is the name of the island's soccer team.