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Dig unearths Argonaut mystery

DIMINI, Greece -- Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece has been told as a mythical epic since ancient times, but excavations may uncover some truth behind the tale.

Archaeologists have uncovered a Mycenaean city and palace complex they believe may have provided the inspiration for one of the most enduring Greek fables: the adventures of Jason and his Argonauts.

The myth has been retold in countless books and films and used as the foundation for Euripides' drama "The Medea."

Legend has it Jason's uncle unlawfully withheld his kingdom after the young man's coming-of-age, but agrees to return it in exchange for the legendary Golden Fleece -- the woolly hide from a magical ram. Jason gradually acquires skilled teammates (including the demi-god Hercules), sets sail, and succeeds.

The palace could be part of ancient Iolkos, where myth says King Pelias promised Jason his rightful kingdom if he returned with the fleece, archaeologists say.

The ruins fit the mythical description and historical period of Iolkos -- a Mycenaean centre near Mount Pelion that reached its glory in the Late Bronze Age, or about 1200 B.C.

Vasso Adrimi, who has directed the excavation since it started in 1975, told The Associated Press: "Since we know the whole myth refers to a Mycenaean king who lived in this area ... it is natural that our thinking goes there."

Adrimi has said there is no solid evidence linking the ruins with Jason "and we may never have it."

The finds could bolster theories that the legend of Jason and his Argonauts came from a composite picture of common Mycenaean traders.

The excavations in Dimini, about 170 kilometres (105 miles) northwest of Athens, show evidence it was a major trading centre for the Aegean and Black Sea regions, according to AP.

Greeks later set up trading centres in Colchis, where Jason searched for the Golden Fleece, to trade for gold, precious metals and gems.

"Maybe this myth of the Argonaut campaign ... is a memory of these quests to bring back raw materials, to bring back metals," said Adrimi.

Even the obviously mythical Golden Fleece could have some grounding in reality, she added.

Some scholars have interpreted the Golden Fleece as either a text on how to acquire gold or a description about how natives of the Colchis region used sheepskins placed in streams to trap gold dust.

Still, other experts are sceptical about drawing theories from the finds unearthed so far in Dimini.

Peter Ian Kuniholm, an expert at tree-ring dating at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, told AP: "Unless you find a piece of paper, scrap or something which says `Jason lived here,' we won't know that for sure. But, at any rate, it helps flesh out the myth."

Kuniholm plans to visit the site soon to collect pieces of charcoal preserved in the soil after one part of the palace was devastated by fire. The analysis could give a clearer picture of when the area thrived.

Adrimi plans to expand the digs to ancient burial sites in hopes of strengthening the connections between the tale of Jason and the realities of the time.

"It is impossible to not correlate the two in our minds," Adrimi said.

• Jason and The Argonauts

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