The story of the Erechtheion was one of constant change. Built to replace the Old Temple of Athena, though not atop its foundations, it accommodated several cults in the same space. The building’s namesake was the hero and foster-child of Athena, Erechtheus. The temple was also dedicated to Athena, Poseidon, Hephaistos, and the hero Boutes – all worshiped in the same space.
If you have been counting along, that is now three temples to Athena on the Acropolis. This temple offers an interesting glimpse at what was going on in Athens as it was building an empire. Pericles and other elites of Athensbrought together a mixture of local spaces routed heavily in the foundation mythology of the city and it’s heroes, and built up expensive, impressive buildings around them. The temple is on a slope (as you can see above) which sees the west and north side three metreslower than the southeast portion of the temple.The building size was reduced as a result of the shortage in funds during the Peloponnesian War, and the Caryatids placement hid the change in design.
The architectural features of the building are really quite unique, in beauty and creativity Phidias out-did himself. The decoration programme included gilded ornamental work, inset glass beads and bronze work. The design incorporated multiple levels, sections and marbles.
The frieze (not visible) which was made of dark Eleusinian limestone and the temple was constructed from Pantelic marble. The frieze’s subject matter is unknown, but an inscription recorded payments to the tradesmen who carried out the work.
The female figures which line the porch are called Caryatids. Though made most famous by their presence on the Erechtheion, Caryatids had been an architectural feature in other sacred sites in Greece; during the Archaic period there were possibly other buildings with standing female columns, most notably in Delphi. These Ionic columns carved to look like young women is pretty spectacular by anyone’s standards. The original Caryatids have been moved and restored, using state of the art technology, in the New Acropolis Museum. For quite some time they had been under restoration, but you could view the work being carried out. While visiting in 2016, I was able to walk right up to them (which you cannot do with the replicas), and they were stunning.
This cultic complex is an interesting oddity. It drew together many aspects that Athenians could use to define themselves; their foundation myths involved gods and local heroes, and all were represented within the Erechtheion.It was created in the period which followed ahistoric clash of cultures between the Persians and Greeks,and throughout the period of its creation the growing city-state of Athens developed into the imperial power it would belauded as for the next two thousand years.
Walking upwards along the processional way, passing the Temple to Athena Nike and under the Propylaea, the real feast for the eyes stands before you – the Parthenon. It is a building so thoroughly embedded in our collective imaginations through all forms of media, that seeing it evokes something in everyone.
My impression of the Parthenon has changed with each encounter. When I was 18 years old I could appreciate the elegance, but lacked any real understanding. At 24, when I returned back in 2008, much more was visible and my understanding of it was enriched by four years of studying Art History, Classics and Archaeology. I would have to try very hard not to be impressed. I sat and awkwardly sketched what my poor draftsman’s hand could barely grasp, but I was drawn to draw. Most recently, as a travel-wise woman in my 30s, I could appreciate the nuances at play within the monumental building of power, politics and art.
The painstaking nature of this current methodology of restoration work deserves comment. Previous restoration work in done in the 19th and 20th century led to problems which specialists are now trying to repair (wrong pieces were fit together and corrosive materials which were unknowingly unsuitable were also used).
The current mandate for repair work is to map out each stone to the smallest detail, and any structure that is assembled has to be done with an eye for future restoration (meaning, nothing that is done now cannot be undone). The slow pace of work might annoy some members of the public who wish to view the building in all of it’s glory, but preservation with a long-term view is obviously a worthwhile endeavour. The creation of this temple dedicated to Athena began in 447 B.C.E. and lasted right up to 432 B.C.E, built atop the previous “Pre-Parthenon” also destroyed by the Persians in 480 B.C.E. Under Pericles, Phidias designed a monumental Athena statue that once stood in the Parthenon, and the sculptural motifs along the metopes and pediments and frieze, though the architectural design was Callicrates and Ictinos.
Work on the Parthenon was slowed and interrupted by the outbreak of the Peloponnesian Wars, beginning 431 B.C.E., and ending nearly thirty years later. While the temple was dedicated to Athena, but also functioned as the state treasury. It bears contemplation that following the defeat of the Persians and the enrichment of Athens, they developed building projects which were all linked to their mythical patron and founding myths of the city. Even as hostilities rose between their main rival, Sparta, which ultimately led to a devastating war which divided all the Greek city-states against each other, the will of the Athenians (or at least the ones in power) was to carry on when possible with building. Perhaps, it was especially important in the face of foreign invaders, and even domestic ones, to complete an artistic and architectural legacy which presented their identity and power to the world.
Making a StatementThe main themes of the artist design surrounding the Parthenon focused on their history and identity. Themes of conflict are illustrated in the two sides of the metopes (almost like a film reel running along the long sides of the Parthenon). The north-facing metopes possibly depict the sack of Troy (though it is under debate).
The south side of the Parthenon’s metopes depicted the Centauromachy (the battle of the Centaurs against the Lapiths), which highlighted a lengendary hero connected to Athens, Theseus. The west-side, running underneath the pediment, featured the Amazonomachy (battle of the Amazons against the Athenians). The east-facing metopes which faced the entrance though the Propylaea, depicted the Gigantomachy (the battle of the Olympian gods and -wait for it- you probably guessed it- the giants).Did you guess that last one? Gold stars, whole class.
There is basically nothing you can glean from the west-pediment now, but once restoration is complete, the structural elements should at least be visible. As with the statuary from the east pediment, the Ionic frieze, the decorations have been stripped from the building and reside in several museums around the world.
The main components of the Parthenon’s artistic works are on display in the British Museum.Future blog posts will look at some of the artistic elements of Greek art, of which the Parthenon provides excellent examples.There is a lively academic debate about the nature and meaning of the images depicted on the frieze, which Mary Beard discusses in her book “Parthenon”.
View of the Propylaea and the Temple of Athena Nike from the Pynx – 2008
Beginning with the crown jewel of experiences in Athens, let’s talk about the Acropolis. This focal point, at the centre of the city, is as impressive at night as it is during the day. With a mixture of gleaming marble and scaffolding, the conservation and reconstruction on the Acropolis is visible at a great distance and illustrates a multi-generational project.
The rebuilding of the Parthenon began after the expulsion of the Ottomans, and the cause of its ruinous state might surprise you. We have all heard the story of how the Ottomans stored munitions in the Parthenon, which exploded and was the cause of the destruction in the late 17th century, I assume. A less frequently repeated aspect of the story was that while the Venetians were bombarding the Ottomans in their encampment within the Parthenon, they had barricaded themselves on the Acropolis with 200 of their women and children. The Venetians fired at the Parthenon, then a thousand-year-old Christian church, and killed hundreds of non-combatants. Arguably, the Ottomans did not destroy the Parthenon, it was Christian Europeans. And thus it remained in a ruined state until the 1830’s when the restoration programme began.
Why Was it Built?
The explosion which left a scar on this famous Greek symbol, interestingly, was not the first time such a disaster was unleashed on the Acropolis.
The growing power and development of Greek cities in the 490s B.C.E. allowed them a significant degree of self-determinism. While Ionian Greeks were under the rule of the Great Kings of Persia, the Athenians were working in a burgeoning democracy, the Spartans had dual kings, Thebes and Megara were ruled by oligarchies. It should be said that, most Greek cities of this period were governed by oligarchies, and the experiment of limited democracy which the Athenians were operating under was the exception, not the norm.
Once the Ionian Greek cities came into conflict with the Persian Empire, after rising up against the tyrants placed in charge of these cities by the Persian king, a rebellion spread. This led to a series of battles which would culminate in the burning of Athens before the Persians would be ousted (for a time) at the Battle of Marathon.
Column drums from a building before the Persian invasion, were later integrated into the north-facing side of the Acropolis.
King Darius’ death in 488 B.C.E. led to his son, Xerxes’ (yes, the one from 300) invasion of Greece in a George Bush-style attempt to ‘finish what his dad started’ manoeuvre which was equally unsuccessful. This led to several incredibly famous battles at Thermopylae and Salamis, which are still in being re-imagined in our modern era.
A depiction of one of the triremes used in these battles, Acropolis Museum – 2016
An incredible cultural florescence occurred in the years following the Persians eventual defeat. The Athenians expanded their imperial reach during these 50 years of peace between the Greek city-states. The Athenians had amassed an impressive navy through the taxes which each member of the Delian League (the allied city-states) paid to maintain and develop their navy, “should the Persians strike again”. The colonies and subject people of the Athenians also provided revenue streams to the state. The leadership of Athens was in a good position to start spending some of their wealth on crafting the image of how they wanted the world to view them. Through an impressive architectural campaign under Pericles, Athens began to invest in portraying itself as the natural leader of the Greeks.
Modern historians have called this the ‘Periclean building programme’, as it was organised and led by Pericles, who was the most prominent statesman in Athens during the period between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars. The whole point of the Periclean building programme was to make a statement focusing on Athens’ new position in the geopolitics of the Mediterranean. Pericles, his chief architects Callicrates and Ictinus, and the famous sculptor Phidias, were the dream team which gave us the innovative and impressive buildings we see today.
The Temple of Athena Nike
The newly restored Temple of Athena Nike – 2016
The construction of the Temple of Athena Nike was completed around 420 B.C.E. (possibly directly) atop of the previous temple to Athena, destroyed by the Persians in the second invasion led by Xerxes.
This impressive temple stood proudly at the entrance, a bold statement to honour of the city’s namesake and of the power the Athenians sought to rebuild.
Entrance to the Propylaea – 2016
This structure was the monumental and imposing gateway into the Acropolis. It had dual purposes in restricting access to the sacred spaces as well as protecting the state treasury held within.
Above, you can see the areas of modern materials added in the conservation of the Propylaea. Modern techniques and approaches no longer attempt to hide the reconstruction, rather they discretely blend the new materials into the damaged ancient structure/objects, but use a different shade.
In 2008, the Propylaea and the Temple of Nike were heavily scaffolded during my visits. As you can see in the bottom left corner, there is still work being done on the columns of the Propylaea, but it has come a long way from my first encounter in 2001, or the subsequent trips. These incredible buildings offer a tantalizing greeting to any visitor, and I was thrilled and impressed to see them so nearly complete!
Fifteen years ago I went on a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe.
It was my first time leaving North America for the wider world, with the best company in the world: my mum and big sister. Long before I became the avid, capable travel planner I am today, I had a great teacher in my mum.
Theatre of Dionysus – 2016
Interested as we were in European history, it was trekking among the ruins and sketching my first real views of Greek temples, stones and statues which would influence the path my life would take thereafter. Athens was the last stop on our month-long trip, but left a resounding impact on my life.
In Greece, I began the process of ruining my life in North America for myself. I fell in love, and knew that whatever it took, I would make my way back and find a way to the columns, capitals and carvings of the Mediterranean.
Greece in particular holds a special place for me. I’ve done my most comprehensive traveling there, trying to see for myself the places I have read about. It is an understatement to say that it’s a place brimming with history, since you find traces of the past basically everywhere.
View of the Acropolis from the Areopagus – 2016
There is a lot of agency in creating the past. We choose to highlight aspects, or periods, which mean something to us, or do so to imbue these places or periods with meaning. It is important, when considering the presentation of the past, we remain aware that at some point a choice was made about what to present on an archaeological site, and how to present it.
Creating a Historical Narrative:
The archaeological monuments we see before us today are only skeletons of times past, and most notably often illustrating one particular phase of site use. There have been many discussions in the last few decades about the way archaeologists, governments and historians construct and present an image of the past.
For instance, you may not be aware that there was a Byzantine period which saw a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary built right into the Parthenon, which was turned into a mosque! Or a period which saw the Propylaea become part of the Ducal Palace. Not to mention the Erechtheion being turned into the Ottoman governor’s private Harem.
None of these phases are represented any longer on the site. In fact, archaeologists dug so far down on the Acropolis there is bedrock exposed, which is slick to walk on and would not have been the stuff and muck under a Classical Athenians’ feet.
Ottoman period building near Monastiraki station, one of the few visible reminders of the 400 year occupation – 2008
What does all this mean?
From 1833 onwards, following the expulsion of Ottoman rule from Greece, the interest in the cultural florescence of the “Classical Period” of Greece would direct the new freedom the Greeks felt. Perhaps, it was appropriate to hearken back to a period following the expulsion of the Persians, after living so long under the rule of the inheritors of the Persian Empire.
With an interest in archaeology, the new leadership of Greece under Otto, Prince of Bavaria, focused the gaze on the Classical period architecture to develop a new sense of Greek identity, officially making Athens the capital of Greece. His initiatives for conservation and restoration attempted to look back to a period of self-determination and incredible inventiveness which had so set them apart in the ancient world.
A 19th Century painting depicts the presence of a minaret on the Ottoman building, illustrative of the romantic notions brought by travelers who admired the ruins, and wrote poetry about them in the din of the moon….as one does.
Unfortunately, the 19th century interest in presenting the period of ‘Classical Athens’ required the removal of structures from other periods. This has left a disjointed archaeological impression and historical representation. We know from sketches and paintings made by gentleman travellers in the 1800’s how the landscape has been changed. Those other phases of history have been deconstructed and left unspoken in many areas.
Early Photograph of ‘Classical’ elements of Athens
When viewing archaeological monuments and cities like Athens, it is worth remembering that the image you are presented reflects a moment in time and often is meant to symbolize how the people in power wanted to signify their rule. King Otto wanted to be seen as a liberator from the occupation by the Ottomans. Following a long established practice (especially in Athens), which we will look at in the Hellenistic and Roman posts upcoming, Otto focused on rebuilding and patronizing a period of history which saw the Greeks as leaders in Mediterranean politics and culture. None of what we see today is by accident.
A background in a variety of disciplines is important for the study of Classical Archaeology. For instance, you need to understand the various historical contexts surrounding the archaeological materials, have the ability to interpret the iconography, understand the archaeological excavation practices and documentation, have a background in ancient languages and several modern ones (ideally), and understand how the art/archaeology fits into the wider narrative of history.
As any self-aware student discovers, the deeper you dive into your studies, the more there is for you to learn. I will be looking towards further schooling and specialization within this field, so despite my existing credentials (B.A., B.G.S., M.Sc) there is still a way to go. I am merely a Padawan focused on the goal of becoming a Jedi of Archaeology.
What you find often depends on luck. Frequently one can dig an area which seems promising, but not fruitful. Getting down in the dirt, so close to the soil you are at times only an inch from it is – for me – one of the most interesting parts of the whole experience. You start to ‘hear’ the difference in soil types and composition, you can genuinely see when something has changed, and it is terribly exciting. Then sometimes you even find stuff, ancient stuff!
One of the added bonuses of a Fine Arts Diploma was having to take pottery courses, which have made a lot of what I am looking at comprehensible. For instance, understanding the curvature of ceramic vessels, even without a handle or lip, knowing how ceramics are made helps identifying what you see. However, I have not taken directed studies on pottery typologies formally, so that is another thing to add to the bucket list.
Sometimes the find is gorgeous examples of figurative painting, colourful striations and less refined pottery of the Early Middle Ages. Then there is coarse-ware pottery.
If you can imagine so, the rough-and-ready DIY of the pottery quality spectrum is like when you authentically make your own soaps, or boutique mason jar candles. It gets the job done, but not the most precious of discoveries.
All joking aside, you can learn a significant amount of information from the coarse-ware pottery! You can see the types of vessels were people using en masse, what types of local materials were being produced and possibly statistical information about population density and consumption patterns. Animal bone can be a significant contribution to the finds, though of course it all depends on the type of site on which you are digging. But as a rule, in any location where people lived and dumped their refuse, you will find some kind of animal remains. This is an area where my background is limited, so I have a lot to learn. Hopefully as I do, I will be able to provide some titillating tidbits!
Small finds, like glass, game pieces, bronze items and stone materials can be found as well. These are often quite exciting, as you may suddenly come upon a loom weight, fibulae, a ring, or best of all – coins! Nothing helps the understanding of a site quite like finding a coin. Happy days!
Different countries handle the discovery of human remains from antiquity in different ways. I have been lucky enough to work on two excavations which allowed me the opportunity to unearth the remains of four individuals. Handling human remains by the guidelines set by whichever country you are working in is, of course, incredibly important. It can be a sombre event, and even quite upsetting for some.
Perhaps it is through being an artist and archaeologist that the experience of excavating human remains actually excites and inspires me deeply, each and every time I have done so. I see a great deal of beauty in the lines and the shapes of the bones, and can vividly imagine the care that went into their final resting moments.
One of the more forward-thinking moments I experienced in my undergrad was taking a course in Human Osteology. Making my own study guide to quiz myself was a good investment, and genuinely very helpful when coming across human remains in the field. Humans are the subject of my art, their history the subject of my studies, and what they created with their hands is the subject of my excavations. When stripped down – even just the traces of the individuals that remain – are just as beautiful, graceful and impressive.
Coming face-to-face with a individual who lived during the Peloponnesian Wars or the Roman Empire, 2,000+ years after they have been carefully buried, is a humbling and exciting experience. Laboratory tasks tend to include: washing and sorting pottery, cataloguing, and illustrating artifacts which may have some diagnostic relevance. I took an archaeological illustration course at Edinburgh which was helpful but – as in all things – different teams/countries will tell you to do something differently.
As an artist (and huge nerd) I spend 70% of my free time drawing anyways, so this is just fun! Possibly even one of the top five things I love about this field. I will be posting further artifact illustrations, discussion, and more depth to these topics later on, but I hope this little introduction to some of what is studied on an archaeological dig!
Over the last ten years I have had a multitude of moments where I stood atop a mountain, under arches, lay among ruins, swam in seas and stood face to face with some of the most impressive pieces of art ever made. In these quiet and exhilarating moments, I have often been alone.
I have sketched and photographed these incredible places but often wished I could have shared the experience, the history and the spirit of those moments.
I did not have this hunger to explore until my mid-twenties. Toiling away in employment that offered little reward, I put all of my effort into my education for many years. It was during this time that I seized on an opportunity to study abroad in Greece for 9 months. That decision changed my life, my journey and grew a love of archaeology and travel within that burns brighter every day.
I am now rich in time as I work towards getting myself a professional position within the archaeological community of the United Kingdom, and there is no better time than the present!
I will start this blog non-chronologically, and as time progresses I will hopefully catch up with me!
Aqueduct in Rome. 2014
One of the many facets of my studies and travels that has been enriching and interesting to me has been the ability to teach strangers, friends and loved ones along the way about the incredible things I have learned and seen. Beauty for beauty’s sake certainly, but contextualizing and adding the depth of history to a striking vista…well that is a more remarkable thing.
I will also endeavor to add in the ‘WHY DOES THIS MATTER’, as nothing is more infuriating to audiences when they have no idea why they should care about some dry piece of history or some stodgy/smutty statue.
Sketch of ‘Dama de Elche’ – Madrid. 2014
There is so much more going on than you can imagine!
So, if your interest is peaked, feel free to check out my blog and explore some little known gems alongside some of the biggest, most spectacular sites of the ancient world!