Sunday, January 26, 2020

What does 'site aspect' mean? Reviewing a paper by Malaperdas and Zacharias

I’ve been looking at Malaperdas and Zacharias’ paper from 2018 and using the Site Aspect pages to check some of their figures.[1]  This very interesting paper examines 18 Mycenaean sites in Messenia from the geophysiological viewpoint. The authors examine site aspect, slopes, water resources, and site geology in an attempt to derive clues to explain why the Mycenaeans established settlements where they did.

The concept of site aspect is a complex one. First there’s the problem of determining what aspect actually is. I take this word to mean the direction of the largest slope. Aspect can change radically as one gets further away from the site. I’m not aware that there is an agreed distance at which the slopes for determining aspect should be calculated.

In the Mycenaean Atlas Project each site elevation is matched to eight other elevations. These ‘sample’ elevations are taken at 150 m and 300 m in each cardinal direction (N, S, E, and W). That means there are two slopes calculable for each site in each of the four directions, one at 150 m and one at 300 m.   For each site the direction with largest slope at 150 m and direction with the largest slope at 300 m are used to determine ‘Site Aspect’. There are ten possible results: N, E, S, W, NW, NE, SW, SE, NS, and EW. For each site the aspects at 150 m and at 300 m may very well differ.

Site Aspect Map for Messenia. Blue arrows indicate aspect.  Clicking on
an arrow brings up an info-box for that site.  Mousing over the arrow
gives you the name of that site.

More than the problem of determining aspect mathematically there is the consideration that many sites are large and complex. It is quite reasonable to associate different parts of a site with different aspects. I do not generally take this factor into account in the Mycenaean Atlas.

Sites with very low slopes (< 3º) in every direction have no meaningful aspect in my opinion.

Malaperdas and Zacharias [2018] are not explicit about how site aspect was determined. I compared my site aspect results to theirs. (All numbers in the form Cnnn or Cnnnn are references to the Mycenaean Atlas Project at

1. Ano Englianos (C219). This large and complex site lies on both sides of a ridge that runs approximately NE-SW. Nestor’s Palace itself actually sits on a part of that ridge that runs more directly EW. Malaperdas and Zacharias [2018] give its aspect as ‘South’. In fact, its real aspect is North-West-South, that is, orthogonally away from its ridge in both directions (NS) and with a clear view of the ocean (W).

2. Koryfasio-Beylerbey (C238). This little site sits on top of a tiny plateau (elev. 31 m. a.s.l.) and has very little slope in any direction. Only to the N and W at 150 m. does its slope amount to ‘slight’. Malaperdas and Zacharias have its aspect as ‘Southeast’. A better value would be NW but, in fact, aspect has little meaning for this site.

3. Iklaina (C223). I have taken our authors to mean ‘Ikaina-Traganes’ which is the major site on the Iklaina plateau. Iklaina is located near the S edge of a large plateau which falls away precipitously to the S and W but that’s not enough to give the site a south-westerly aspect. In fact C223 has no more or less aspect than any other site on that plateau which is essentially flat.

4. Koukounara (C421). Koukounara is part of an enormous complex of BA sites (mostly tombs) each of which differs from the others. It has never, to my knowledge, been adequately mapped.[2] The first task is to try and figure out what Malaperdas and Zacharias mean when they say ‘Koukounara’. The Potamou tou Arapi is a rema or gully (as we say in America) that runs roughly N-S. At one point two separate remas come together and create a southwest-facing promontory and the little settlement (C421) sits on that promontory facing S. I have its aspect as West at 150 m and South at 300 m. so I make its aspect to be predominantly S and W. Malaperdas et al. make this aspect to be S and E.

5. Yialova: Palaiochori (C249). For the exact location of this settlement see McDonald and Simpson [1961].[3] It sits on the west end of a ridge running EW. We are explicitly told that the site sits on the summit of the westernmost bump on that ridge.[4] As a result it has aspect to the N, W, and S. Malaperdas’ suggested value of ‘Southeast’ is not adequate.

6. Metaxada-Kalopsana (C203). This little site lies at the bottom of a valley which runs N-S. We would expect, by inspection, that its aspects would be N-S. But it also lies on a small ridge running E-W in that valley and so it has a non-negligible westerly slope. Nevertheless, I make its aspect to be South at both distances. Malaperdas et al. make the aspect here to be Southeast. I do not see how that is possible.

7. Rizomylos-Nichoria (C159). Nichoria is situated on a ridge that runs nearly perfectly E-W. (260º). A road ran through the settlement and parallel to the ridge. It is completely open on all sides and, while a little valley does open to the south, the idea of aspect is nearly meaningless with respect to this site. Its site would not, for example, shelter it from the north wind.

8. Thouria-Ellinika (C403). I take Malaperdas et al. to be referring to a site which, in the Mycenaean Atlas, I call C403. This is the same as the ‘Myc. Site’ on Richard Hope Simpson’s map in his article from 1966 [5] This little settlement sits directly on top of the Thouria ridge and just to the south of the chamber tomb complex dug into that ridge. Mathematically its aspect is East and West and inspection confirms this. Its slope to the south is slight (4.29 and 4.76 at 150m and 300m respectively).

9. Pidma – Agios Ioannis (C113). This site is open to the N, W, and S. It backs against those cliffs which bound the Pamisos valley on the east. We would expect its dominant aspect to be away from the cliffs and to the W. This is so but the slopes to the three cardinal directions are so slight that it can hardly be said to have aspect at all.

10. Kalamata Kastro (C111). The Kastro sits on top of a small plateau and is open to the sky in all directions. Even though there is strong slope in all directions at 150m this is purely an artifact of the plateau edge and cannot figure into any calculation of aspect. The concept of aspect at this site does not apply.

11. Kardamyli Kastro (C103). The location of the Kastro of Kardamyle is given in Simpson [1957] 234-6. It is the high plateau (+110 m) that stretches out about 800 m to the NW of the modern town. Simpson provides an excellent map.[6] Malaverdas et al. seem to have picked a different place. To judge by their reported elevation they apparently chose the little height about 400 m to the southwest. But this is not the Kastro of Kardamyle. Simpson reports activities on both sides of this high acropolis. Indeed, activities on the south side have southern aspect and activities on the north side have northern aspect. The acropolis itself, however, is flat and has both N, W, and S aspect. It has, for example, shelter only from the east. Otherwise none.

12. Leuktra: Stoupa (C447) Southeast of the little town of Stoupa a volcanic plug rises suddenly out of the plain to a height of about 50 m. (72 m a.s.l.) above the surrounding level. The top of this plug is relatively flat and it measures ca. 118 m. northeast to southwest, and as much as 35 m. northwest-southeast at its widest point. In the LH a Mycenaean site of little consequence was placed here – sherds have been found. Again, as in previous examples, this site has no aspect. It is completely open in every direction. The Mycenaean Atlas reports strong slope in every direction but that is not enough to establish any directional aspect.

13. Kato Melpia: Krebeni (C121). You can see Kato Melpia in Google Street View at the location 37.328513°, 21.933230° and looking directly N. Kato Melpia is not the high peaks but the shelf lying about half-way down. It has some shelter from the N and I make its aspect to be south and west. In this I agree with Malaperdas et al.

14. Malthi-Gouves (C149) The site selected by Malaperdas et al. Is not Malthi-Gouves. Judging by their reported elevation they seem to have selected the primary tholos at the bottom of the Malthi hill (C1207), and not the actual settlement which is at the top of the hill about 125 m. above it. The settlement itself covers the top of the hill and is unsheltered in every direction. The concept of aspect really does not apply to it although inspection of the photographs here() show a slight incline towards the south. The site seems, however, to have been chosen purely for the sake of the visibility it affords over the central Soulima valley. The site selected by Malaperdas as ‘Malthi’ is a large tholos tomb, not badly preserved, but which is tucked into the Malthi ridge at its base on the West side. They give it an aspect of southeast but I do not see what relevance aspect has in this context.[7]

15. Dorio-Kontra (C126). The little settlement of Dorio sits on the top of a conical hill more than 100 m above the surrounding valley of Stenyklaros. As such it has no aspect. The nearest hills to the N are about 3 km distant. It seems clear that this site was chosen for the visibility it has over its surrounds.

16. Filiatra – Ayios Christoforos (C188). This site is located on a plateau. Ayios Christoforos is where it is probably because it affords a view of the entire coast to the west. Immediately to its N is a large hill which shelters it from the N. Its aspect is S and W.

17. Myron-Peristeria (C183). This is a complex site with multiple aspects. Aside from the several tholoi (placed, I am convinced, for maximum visibility), C183 is a building occupying a position which Simpson and Dickinson [1979] 167 call an ‘acropolis’. Like Malthi (C149), it overlooks the Soulima valley to the north and its measurable aspect is N and W.

18. Mouriatadha-Elliniko (C180). This site occupies a northwest-southeast ridge in the center of a valley running EW. It sits on the top and south of this little ridge but immediately to its south is another and larger ridge running east-west. To the extent that this settlement has any aspect at all it is east-west.


If there are any lessons to be learned from looking at settlement site aspect they are these:

1. Sites near the sea usually face the sea.

2. Whichever way the slope faces the site faces the same direction. That is if a ridge slopes down to the N then sites on that slope face N, etc. There are about as many sites on N-facing slopes as S-facing.

3. Sites on top of a ridge or on saddles have aspect in opposite directions orthogonally away from the direction in which the ridge runs.

4. Aspect is much less meaningful for sites on peaks or in valleys (or located on plateaus) and for sites on ground where the slope is less than 0.05 (2.86°) in any direction.

These are general ideas only and can be heavily affected by local conditions: access to water, tillable fields, etc.


[1] Malaperdas and Zacharias [2018].

[2] See Zavadil, Monumenta [2012] 454-455 for remarks about this.   Also definitely this.

[3] McDonald and Simpson [1961] 242, '58. Palaiochori (Gialova)'. And for more see Mycenaean Atlas Project website at for C249.

[4] Idem.

[5] Simpson [1966] 122, fig. 6 ‘Ancient Thouria’. And see this.

[6] Simpson [1957] 234-6. Simpson gives a textual description on p. 234 and an unmistakable map on 235.

[7] Photos and discussion of this tholos (C1207) are here.  There are photos of the actual settlement (C149) here.


Malaperdas and Zacharias [2018]: Malaperdas, George and Nikolaos Zacharias. “A Geospatial Analysis of Mycenaean Habitation Sites Using a Geocumulative versus Habitation Approach”, Journal of Geoscience and Environment Protection (6) 111-131. 2018. Online here.

McDonald and Simpson [1961]: McDonald, William A. and Richard Hope Simpson. ‘Prehistoric Habitation in Southwestern Peloponnese’, American Journal of Archaeology. (65:3) 221-260.  Online here.

Simpson [1957] : Simpson, Richard Hope. ‘Identifying a Mycenaean State’, The Annual of the British School at Athens (52) 231-259. Online here.

Simpson [1966]: Simpson, Richard Hope. ‘The Seven Cities Offered by Agamemnon to Achilles’, The Annual of the British School at Athens (61) 113-131. Online here.

Simpson and Dickinson [1979]: Simpson, Richard Hope and O.T.P.K. Dickinson. A Gazetteer of Aegean Civilization in the Bronze Age, Vol. I: The Mainland and the Islands. Paul Åströms Förlag, Goteborg. 1979., 'D 200 Mirou: Peristeria', pg. 167.  Online here.

Zavadil [2012]: Zavadil, Michaela, Monumenta: Studien zu mittel- und späthelladischen Gräbern in Messenien, Wien:Osterreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften Philosophisch-Historische Klasse Denkschriften. 2012. Online here