Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.02.40

J. M. Cook, R. V. Nichols, Old Smyrna Excavations: The Temples of Athena. With an Appendix by D. M. Pyle. Annual of the British School at Athens, Supplementary Volume No. 30.   London:  The British School at Athens, 1998.  Pp. xxvii, 214; figs. 42, pls. 30; fold-out pls. 4.  ISBN 0-904887-28-6.  £55.00.  

Reviewed by Margaret M. Miles, University of California, Irvine (
Word count: 1516 words

The site of Old Smyrna is near Bayrakh, a village just north of modern Izmir, now about a quarter-mile inland from the coast, but on the shore in antiquity in a favorable location for sea-trade. Here excavations conducted fifty years ago revealed an impressive early sanctuary of Athena, where one of the earliest monumental stone Greek temples was constructed c. 610 BC, with columns bearing Aeolic volute capitals. Already well-known as a site with remains of a Dark Age Greek settlement, Old Smyrna proves to have been on the forefront of architectural developments in the early Archaic period, probably with stimulus from the Near East and from Egypt.

A joint excavation was conducted at Old Smyrna in 1948-1951 by Ankara University and the British School at Athens, directed by Ekrem Akurgal and J. M. Cook. The British team discovered the temples described in this book, nearby stoas, and part of a large ramp leading to the sanctuary, and they investigated the stratigraphy of the surrounding area. The British team published various articles on finds from the site in the BSA, but although preparation for the full publication of the stratigraphy and important architecture was well underway, actual publication was considerably delayed, apparently as part of the agreement of the joint excavation (the reasons are not clearly stated). Meanwhile, the site was investigated further under the direction of Ekrem Akurgal from 1966 on, and Akurgal published his results in 1983 (Alt Smyrna I, Wohnschichten und Athenatempel, Ankara, 1983). The present volume includes an assessment of the stratigraphy by J. M. Cook (who died before the book was published), and a study of the successive temples to Athena by R. V. Nicholls, which comprises about three-quarters of the text. A detailed account of the context pottery from the excavations is still needed; by joint agreement, the seventh-century BC finds are to be published by the Turkish excavators.

Unpublished excavations are a bane of the archaeological world. Therefore we should be grateful to Cook and Nicholls for their perseverance in the face of unstated but imaginable obstacles. The considerable importance of their findings helps to compensate for the long wait. Moreover, the actual remains are very fragmentary, with complex and incomplete foundations, so that the authors' posited sequence of building phases and suggested plans and elevations, while hypothetical and tentative in parts, must be seen as a major achievement.

The passage of time, however, is evident in this book because, although it is handsomely produced with frequent illustrations and fold-out plans, it does not always meet current expectations for a final archaeological report. The study focuses exclusively on matters of chronology, construction, design, and the stratigraphic evidence of the excavation and how it meshes with the previous publications of E. Akurgal. It would have been useful to include a brief overview of the cult of Athena at Smyrna and the context of the sanctuary within the town, but such synthetic topics are left entirely to other publications.

Part I, by Cook, describes the composition and layers of the various areas excavated in the sanctuary, and delineates the main periods of construction of the temple, which had four major phases, with several subdivisions. One difficulty for the reader is the lack of the stratigraphic sections that are standard in present-day excavation reports. Also, in a modern report one would expect the context pottery to be illustrated and listed in detail. Presumably Cook was unable to include this evidence by terms of the agreement for publication, and so for the chronology we simply have to accept his assessment without the possibility of independent evaluation or testing (fortunately he was an expert in ceramic studies, with a great deal of experience, yet as ceramic studies proceed, interpretations are bound to change).

Part II, by Nicholls, describes in detail the various stages of construction in the sanctuary. Some of the information in Part I is necessarily repeated, an unfortunate result of a co-operative undertaking from two points of view that are not fully meshed. The earliest fills in the area date to c. 820; in c. 740 a defensive platform was constructed, and about 700 the area seems to have become a sanctuary, as indicted by votive offerings. A major earthquake had caused considerable destruction (c. 700), and in the aftermath Ionian Greek refugees from Colophon might have been welcomed into the city, as per Herodotos (I.149-150). Temple I, reconstructed in good sketches as a large thatched hut, was built c. 690-670.

That temple was replaced by Temple II about 630-610, with a socle of gray andesite. Here with very slender evidence Nicholls ventures to reconstruct a well-developed plan for the temple, with a pronaos, opisthodomos, back chamber and a peristyle of 6 x 11 Aeolic columns, presumably of wood. For such an early period, this plan seems overly refined, and too much in anticipation of later temple designs to be plausible. A key part of this tentative reconstruction is calculation of spaces based on a hypothetical foot-measure, a procedure fraught with difficulty even for much later stone architecture, and not likely to be useful for reconstructing such early, wooden architecture. About this time, c. 620, another ramp was added to the precinct, and Nicholls suggests two stoas were also added, also on the basis of tenuous evidence.

Temple III, the "Great Temple," dates to c. 610-600. In his discussion Nicholls makes significant corrections to the chronological sequences and reconstructions published by E. Akurgal in Alt Smyrna I. The temple had andesite foundations and a plan reconstructed with a peristyle of 11 x 15 Aeolic columns around a cella with a pronaos, and possibly four columns in antis. The temple was never actually finished, however, and the intended peristyle was left incomplete. Pieces of column drums and capitals, made of white tufa, were found in the excavations and are illustrated in drawings and photographs. Nicholls discusses the fragments in detail and his reconstruction of the column and its parts is convincing.

The construction of the Great Temple was short-lived because Smyrna was besieged by Alyattes, king of Lydia (Herodotos I.16) about 600, and it seems that the defenders dismantled the temple, perhaps in an effort to build up the area into a fortified citadel, which had been its function much earlier. A smaller, non-peripteral Temple IV was constructed soon after the siege and was rebuilt a decade or so later. This temple too was destroyed, possibly by Persians after their victory over Croesus of Lydia in 547, but was rebuilt again.

About 500, another attempt was made to rebuild the temple in more monumental form, as suggested by layers of working chips of white tufa. But this too was left incomplete, perhaps because of the Persian suppression of the Ionian Revolt. Yet another rebuilding (Temple IVD) was undertaken c. 460, and possibly the nearby stoas were reconstructed too. Finally, the city was abandoned in the late 4th or early 3rd century BC, when new Smyrna was founded to the south, either by Alexander or Antigonos and Lysimachos. Nicholls suggests that this process of abandonment was gradual, and notes that no effort to rebuild was made c. 334. Further refinement of the chronology based on the ceramic evidence was made by Susan Rotroff, who places the final abandonment of the site between c. 325 and c. 290 BC.

Nicholls concludes his study of the sequence of temples with a chapter on their wider significance within the context of the development of monumental Greek architecture. He believes that Mycenaean palatial architecture was a continuing formative influence even into the Iron Age, radiating from posited "centres of excellence," but the difficulty with this idea is the considerable discrepancy between Mycenaean designs and construction, and that of excavated Iron Age buildings. What similarities do exist in the later buildings could have been based on observation of the construction of Mycenaean tholos tombs or the remains of the Mycenaean palaces, some of which were still visible.

More persuasive in this synthesis is Nicholls' assertion that the stone "palm order" and Aeolic order used in this region are as early as the earliest known Ionic and Doric columns. He cites representations of similar volutes in Assyrian reliefs, such as those from the Palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad and of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, as possible sources of inspiration. Yet in his discussion of "orders" and monumental stone architecture, Nicholls leaves out early examples from Greek Sicily, such as the remains of Temple E1 at Selinous. It seems that the edges of the Greek world, east and west, were the sources of early architectural innovation.

Historians of Greek architecture and its early development will be pleased to have this thorough account of an important sequence of temples. The origins of monumental stone architecture and the issue of how "orders" came into being can now be studied with more detailed evidence for the Aeolic and "palm" orders to consider alongside early examples of the Ionic and Doric orders. The constant rebuilding of the temple of Athena after many vicissitudes is also vivid testimony to the resilience of the people of Old Smyrna.

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