Whether as a result of barbaric invasion, or famine, during this period (1200-800BC), the citadels of the Mycenaeans were destroyed, people lived in fewer and smaller settlements, trade ceased, writing was abandoned, the great craftsmen vanished. Dark Age pottery was marked by simple geometric designs rather than the figurative decoration of the Mycenaeans.
But how dark were the Dark Ages? And how sudden was the renaissance that followed and paved the way for the golden age of classical Greece?
The Greek renaissance is taken to begin around 800BC. This is the age of Homer, who began Western literature in the Iliad with a word variously translated as rage, or wrath, or anger: "Anger - sing Goddess, the anger of Achilles, son of Peleus, that accursed anger, which brought the Greeks endless sufferings and sent the mighty souls of many warriors to Hades, leaving their bodies as carrion for the dogs and a feast for the birds ..."
From the Mycenaean and earlier Minoan periods, we have the Linear A and Linear B tablets, lists and inventories which the British scholar, Michael Ventris, deciphered between 1951 and 1953 and proved was an early form of Greek. But between the Mycenaeans and Homer, a cultural darkness.
A few weeks ago, however, German archeologists digging in a sanctuary at Kalapodi (ancient Phokis) under the direction of Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier unearthed a small temple from the 8th century BC. The temple, in what is believed to have been the oracle sanctuary of Apollon of Abai, had been destroyed by an earthquake, its mud bricks sealing its contents for the next 2800 years. The find was archeological dynamite.
What was revealed, says Niemeier, who is in Australia on a lecture tour, was a complete sequence of ritual activity stretching back through the Dark Ages, a period of Greek history once deemed unworthy of archeological interest, to at least the Mycenaean period (1600-1200BC).
His voice ripples with excitement. "When we removed those mud bricks, we didn't believe our eyes," he says.
On a burned black clay floor, they found hundreds of votives, just as they had been placed and just as they have been found in other Mycenaean sanctuaries: jewellery, amulets, bronzes, pins, fibulas, personal ornaments, figurines of animals and birds and a big iron sword. It suggested continuous use from at least the 14th century BC.
To Niemeier, it was further evidence that the Mycenaean age did not end completely and abruptly, but continued for another 150 years in diminished form, and that the Greek renaissance was not a sudden cultural shift, but emerged gradually from the Dark Ages.
"I am convinced now, also from the evidence of my excavations, that it is not such a sudden development but it stands at the end of a development which starts in the so-called Dark Age, which gets lighter and lighter,"
he says. "This was a period of crisis, of course, after the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces, but also a period of renewal and
many foundations for the later developments I am convinced were laid in the Dark Ages."
Niemeier is lecturing in Australia at the invitation of the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens.
He has always been a "lucky excavator", he says. Never more so than five years ago when his team unearthed the incomplete, but beautiful Kouros of the Sacred Gate at Kerameikos, the cemetery and famed potters' quarter of ancient Athens, which the German Archaeological Institute at Athens has been excavating since 1913, with the exception of the world wars.
The discovery of the marble kouros (an idealised Greek youth), was "a complete surprise", Niemeier says. The German team had been dating channels carrying water from the Eridanos River beneath the Sacred Way (Iera Odos) when a Greek worker, Tassos Boudroukas, felt the left shoulder of a marble kouros lying face down. It dated from about 600BC and was lying under a road surface built during the construction of a city wall by Themistocles between the autumn of 479BC and the spring of 478BC after Athens was retaken from the Persians.
The discovery of this "masterpiece of early Greek sculpture", emerging in rubble and roadfill from the time of lyric poet Sappho and philosopher Thales, was greeted with "incredible emotion", Niemeier says. It stood at the beginning of Attic marble sculpture, which culminated, 150 years later, in the Parthenon sculptures. "In the canal, we saw his hair from the back and his shoulders," Niemeier recalls. "I had been already in a team when another kouros had been found, about 20 years earlier, in '82, on the island of Samos in the sanctuary of Hera ... and I never believed that I would have the same experience once more in my life.
"Of course, it was a great feeling. We realised immediately, because we could see the hairstyle and also the style of the carving of the sculpture, that it was one of the earliest marble sculptures of Athens, around 600BC. We were overwhelmed. Such a find hadn't been (made) in Athens for 100 years."
Niemeier felt immediately the Kouros of the Sacred Gate was the work of the unknown Dipylon sculptor, who created the so-called Dipylon Head, found nearby in 1916, which is in the National Archaeological Museum in Greece. He noted the similarities in the shape and dimensions of the face, the same expression and almond-shaped eyes. The German team also quickly realised "he was not alone down there".
Lying in a row with the kouros was a sphinx dating from 560BC, two marble lions, and fragments of two marble pillars, one with a Doric capital and one with an Ionic capital, all retaining traces of the wheeled traffic that had once run over them.
The head of the kouros was lying next to the head of the sphinx. "They gave the impression of being an ancient pair," Niemeier says. "It was hard for us to separate them after such a long time, being the one next to the other."
Niemeier believes the Kouros of the Sacred Gate, originally a grave sculpture for an Athenian aristocrat and representing youth in perpetuity, is more dynamic and energetic than a related kouros at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. It also suffered from none of the doubts attached to a kouros purchased from a "private Swiss collection" by the J. Paul Getty Museum in California in 1983 for between $9 million and $12 million which was widely denounced as a fraud by art historians and archeologists and which was forced to carry the inscription: "Greek, 530BC or modern forgery."
Explaining the significance of the Kouros of the Sacred Gate, which has become a jewel in the Museum of the Kerameikos in Athens, Niemeier says: "We have now a masterpiece of one of the first great Athenian sculptors, who we call the Dipylon master. We have really the beginning of Athenian, or Attic, marble sculpture, which 150 years later had its apogee with the Parthenon sculptures. This is the very beginning. They give us a picture."
Comparing the discovery with one of the most exciting moments of Greek archeology - in 1886 when Panagiotis Kavvadias and Georg Kawerau discovered 14 archaic koroi buried in the Persian debris of the Acropolis - Niemeier says he could never have imagined being involved in a similarly spectacular find 116 years later.
"My collaborators and I will never forget the exciting events during the spring of 2002," he says. The days, he says, were filled with the sound of workmen shouting "allo marmaro edo (here is more marble)" and the nights were filled with wine and Greek dancing.
A specialist in the Aegean Bronze Age, Niemeier has excavated extensively in Crete, as well as on the Greek mainland, in southern Italy, Israel and Turkey. He is director of the German Archaeological Institute excavations at Miletus (Turkey), the Athenian Kerameikos (Greece), Kalapodi (Greece) and the Samos Heraion (Greece).
As the 2007 AAIA visiting professor, he is lecturing in Sydney, Armidale, Newcastle, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne and Hobart until September 12.