Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.05.16

John M. Camp, The Archaeology of Athens.   New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2001.  Pp. 352.  ISBN 0-300-08197-9.  $39.95.  

Reviewed by Linda Jones Roccos, College of Staten Island/City University of New York (
Word count: 1118 words

The Archaeology of Athens could be two books for it is creatively divided into two unequal parts, first the longer thorough and expert view of the historical and chronological record of the city and its surrounds, and secondly, briefer records of the entire area in the form of site summaries. The densely packed volume is an up-to-date account of one of the world's most complex prehistoric and historic archaeological sites. It supercedes and expands on J. Travlos, Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Athens (1971), and R. E. Wycherley, Stones of Athens (1976), in a readable volume with some documentation and copious illustrations, perhaps heavy on the latter at the expense of the former. The Archaeology of Athens is one of the few must-have books for every scholar and student, every library and every individual concerned with archaeology. The student will find basic information about several thousand years of occupation and summaries of the better known sites such as the Acropolis in Athens and Eleusis in Attica. The scholar, particularly those in fields other than classics, will find recent bibliography, historical, and archaeological accounts of many less well known sites such as the Areopagus in Athens and Thorikos in Attica.

In all sections, historical records are supported by the archaeological evidence in greater or lesser degree. The inclusion of the countryside of Attica and surrounding areas places the city firmly in its physical and contextual leadership role, and the book could well have been titled The Archaeology of Athens -- and Attica. Illustrations (257 b/w + 19 color illus.) are clear and explanatory, including photographic views and understandable plans, as well as lively reconstruction watercolors. No one but John Camp (hereafter C.) could write such a multi-faceted book, for he has directed excavations in the Athenian Agora for decades, spent many years as professor at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and provided great numbers of students with an always stimulating first-hand account of archaeological sites in Athens and Attica. C. is extremely knowledgeable not only about excavations and surveys, but about the city's historical and epigraphical records, which he seamlessly integrates throughout the book.

Part One presents "The Monuments of Athens" in a chronological survey from Prehistory to Late Roman Athens, with a concentration on the Archaic and Classical periods and its most famous names (Solon, Perikles) and buildings (Parthenon, Erechtheion). It is an unfortunate truth that readers and students learn most of what they know of Greece almost exclusively from Athens, but it may be a well-deserved truth. Few locations in the known world present such a continuously important record of civilization through several thousand years, from the simple beginnings of the Neolithic period, through its heights of power in the Periklean age of the mid fifth century B.C.E., and its near renaissance in Roman times. The chronological account appears somewhat unbalanced in favor of the Classical period, but that is what the archaeological evidence yields. Part one on the "Monuments" takes up more than two-thirds of the volume but highlights the significance of the material remains of Athens and Attica in the historical record of these ancient lands. An account of the material remains of Sparta, for example, would be meager in comparison. There are around 100 pages committed to the Classical period, but only half that for the entire pre-Classical era from Paleolithic through Archaic, and less than 100 for post-classical Athens through the Late Roman period.

Legendary accounts of Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur and king of Athens in the Late Bronze Age, serve as an introduction to Mycenaean remains in Athens and Attica, which consists of cemeteries and grave sites, ancient walls, and the impressive Mycenaean spring on the Acropolis. "By 1250 ... we find the Acropolis of Athens massively fortified ..." (p. 16). The Homeric epics have little to say of Athens at the time, but note Athena's sanctuary on the Acropolis. Athens is of lesser importance, compared to the great Bronze Age cities of Mycenae and Tiryns. Although the Geometric era is largely anonymous, it is one of the most important periods in early Athens, with the establishment of the world-famed Athenian pot-makers and vase-painters in the Kerameikos or potters' quarter. In the Archaic period, historical accounts of Solon's reforms and Kleisthenes' democracy are coordinated with the archaeological evidence as the Acropolis became the religious center of the city and the Agora became its civic center. The Classical period is certainly most well known to specialist and non-specialist alike, but long sections on Athens and Attica in Roman and Late Roman times are welcome additions to a complete presentation of the city. In particular Hadrian (117-138 C.E.) greatly favored the city, building and rebuilding extensively. "The Olympieion is perhaps the single most imposing monument undertaken by Hadrian in Athens" (p. 200), and it still stands impressively below the Acropolis. Recent excavations are highlighted throughout the volume, but detailed explanations are left to the site summaries. Although the evidence is clearly stated in the first part of "Monuments," there are no footnotes or references, and one must proceed to the following part.

Part Two presents "Site Summaries" of various sites in Athens, Attica, and its border areas. Although brief, these summaries capture the essence and the most important information for each site, its chronology, its history, and its monuments. These are presented in the same format throughout: "Description, History, and Significance," then "Excavations," and lastly, "Bibliography." The section for "Athens" includes six summaries for the Acropolis, Acropolis Slopes, Agora, Kerameikos, Mouseion Hill-Pnyx-Areopagus, and Olympieion-Southeast Athens. "Attica" includes twelve summaries for Acharnai, Brauron, Eleusis, Peiraeus, Rhamnous, and Thorikos, as well as less known sites such as Ikaria, Phyle, the East Coast, and West Coast sites. "Border Areas" include summaries of Eleutherai, Oropos, and Salamis.

In just one example of the strengths and the frustrations of the volume's two-part structure, C. narrates Herodotos' account of the Persian defeat in 490 B.C.E. and the battle site of Marathon within their historical context in the "Monuments" of Part One (pp. 47-52), as well as briefly within their archaeological context in the "Summaries" of Part Two (pp. 291-294). Here C. also describes the site's important Mycenaen tholos tomb with horse burial, as well as the Roman villa of native son and patron of art and architecture, Herodes Atticus. With so many brief summaries, twenty-four in all presented in less than 100 pages, one wishes for fuller accounts, perhaps as a separate book for this important evidence. C. is to be applauded, however, for providing us with this excellent and novel study of Athens and Attica, and it will be an invaluable guide to further explorations for many visitors, students, and scholars, now and in the near future.

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