Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.11.59 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.59

Samuel Verdan, Le sanctuaire d'Apollon Daphnéphoros à l'époque géométrique (2 vols.). Eretria, 22​.   Gallion:  Infolio éditions​, 2013.  Pp. 286; 182.  ISBN 9782884744119.  120 CHF.  

Contributors: Sandrine Huber, Patrice Méniel, Tatiana Theodoropoulou, Evi Margaritis, Nigel D. Meeks, Paul T. Craddock.​

Reviewed by Stefanos Gimatzidis, Austrian Academy of Sciences (

This study, originally presented as a doctoral thesis at the University of Lausanne, is the long-awaited publication of the earlier phases of the sanctuary of Apollo Daphnephoros at Eretria. The site, under excavation since the end of the 19th century, is regarded as one of the most eloquent archaeological sites for the deciphering of early Greek cult practice. This is already made clear in the introduction, which apart from presenting methodology and objectives, also reviews the site’s research history from the early Greek excavations and the take-over by the Swiss School of Archaeology at Athens in the 1960s, to the modern excavations of the last twenty years conducted by Sandrine Huber and the author, the latter masterly published in some of the recent volumes of Eretria. In this same chapter, Verdan also gives some description of the damage caused by the earlier Greek, and in part Swiss, excavations, which left either no or insufficient documentation. This was one of the major problems confronting the author.

The first chapter treats the stratigraphy and structures of the sanctuary. It seems that alluviation was the most influential factor in the area. Episodes of regular sedimentation were observable between Early Helladic II, i.e. the date of the earliest structures, and Subprotogeometric II, when the site was reused perhaps as a cemetery. Fluvial activity was continuous even during phase I of the construction of the sanctuary’s first structures (MG II/early LG II) as well as later, during phases II (LG I–LG II) and III (end of LG II). It is unclear why such an unstable landscape was chosen as a place to found a sanctuary. Verdan interprets its enclosures as protective walls against the flood episodes. But could they guarantee a safe and dry place to perform rituals? Even so, it may be asked why the central area of cult performance, altar St12 and surroundings, was always kept outside the allegedly protected zone of the sanctuary (pp. 49–51). The most feasible explanation would be that the occupation of the site had significant breaks and periods of abandonment. Perhaps M. Ghilardi, who has conducted research in the area, will offer additional answers to this and other problems related to the archaeogeomorphology of the site (pp. 40 n. 97). Though Verdan attempts a stratigraphic correlation between various structures and sectors of the sanctuary, this is difficult to achieve without overlapping architectural remains. Compounding this difficulty is the scarcity of pottery and other finds from contexts that can be reliably associated with any given occupation level of the buildings due to the problems of earlier excavation practice, as mentioned above. Even the pits, which yielded the great majority of archaeological material from the site, were often not treated as separate contexts during excavation (pits 26, 258, 105, 106, 190, 211, 253, 254, 122).

The second chapter of the book deals with the pottery assemblages and their chronology. The ceramic finds are certainly spectacular. One would ask, however, if it was really necessary to republish the content of six pits, which were originally published and commented in Eretria 20 and occupy 14 plates and several pages of commentary in the present book. The literature cited in the analysis of the Subprotogeometric wares is outdated, while in the case of the Late Geometric wares there are references almost exclusively to Lefkandi, Eretria 20 and Coldstream’s pottery handbook.

The third chapter, under the title qualitative approach of the pottery, principally describes the imported, figurative and inscribed pottery. It is not clear why this, the previous, and the next chapter do not form a single chapter.

Chapter four is devoted to the quantitative analysis of the material. Anyone who has worked with settlement material understands the positive effect of quantitative analysis conducted by a single person upon the reliability of the results. Though counting thousands of rim sherds (pp. 66) among hundreds of thousands of others is a highly time-consuming job, the task was actually accomplished by the author himself (information hidden in footnote 506 on pp. 110). Had it not been for the disturbed ceramic contexts and the biased sampling during the older excavations (see i.e. pp. 116), we would have had excellent results to work with. What is missing not only from quantification but generally from pottery analysis in this book is the study of ceramic technology.1 The author does not even define the major categories that he is revising, i.e. course, semi-course and fine pottery (pp. 113–114). Ceramic technology studies have unfortunately become the victim of historical-cultural approaches in the discipline of classical archaeology that look for evidence of historical events in the pottery shapes and types, though this is however not the case in this book. Despite that, I cannot share Verdan’s enthusiasm over the quantitative analysis of the material of Eretria, which – he admits – did not bring any significant results (pp. 123).

The small objects from the area of the sanctuary are presented in chapter five, while in chapter six the author presents some very special finds, i.e. waste material from metalworking installations found all over the best investigated areas.

In chapter seven a space analysis is undertaken and there is also a discussion of architecture and building techniques. Verdan here avoids an extensive comparative study of the sanctuary of Apollo at Eretria in its wider Aegean context. So it is inevitable that he feels very uncomfortable when, for example, he deals with the interpretation of the numerous pits within the sanctuary which form a dominant feature of its morphology and function, since he overlooks parallels in other regions (pp. 120; 157–158).

In chapter eight Verdan explores the origins of the sanctuary by considering its place within the narrow limits of the local settlement, consequently missing again the wider Aegean context to which the Eretrian sanctuary belongs. As he also picks up the old discussion about the origin of the city of Eretria as well as the origin of its cults (Lefkandi or Amarynthos?), one wonders if there is any sense in reviving such old-fashioned kinds of questions which overlook fundamental issues of landscape archaeology and resulting critique (pp. 173–178).2 On the basis of the new finds (especially Ed150) Verdan proposes a new interpretation for the function of the site during phase I. The author believes that the few animal bones in the circular structure St12 attest to its function as an altar, although no votive offerings have been found as yet. Accordingly, he proposes that there were two different sectors at the site from the beginning of the 8th century occupation: one cult sector comprised of buildings Ed150 and Ed1 and two domestic ones with Ed9 and Ed5. However, separating Ed1 from Ed 9 solely on the presence of a series of pits between them is far from convincing. The discovery of building Ed150 has brought significant new evidence for the comprehension of spatial organization at the site. The presence of monumental craters in building Ed150,3 clearly orientated towards structure St12, is testament to the elaborate symposia that could have been organized by some local elite. However, Verdan’s belief that the residences of these elites could be found in different sectors, allegedly comprised of structures Ed9 and Ed5, is not persuasive. On the contrary, it seems more reasonable that Ed150, Ed9 and Ed1 belong to the same sector, which means that the people who lived there were responsible for both the organization of symposia and the metalworking. I think that this makes the theory of Mazarakis, who believes that the origins of Greek religion must be sought in the domain of an older monarchy/aristocracy, and its development subject to socio-political changes, more attractive.4 That theory was the outcome of an extended comparative study that considered archaeological evidence from all over Greece. The same changes were also observed in the study of the Heroon at the West Gate of Eretria by Bérard and recently found further support in another study that took into consideration the votive practices in the wider cult context of the Aegean. 5 Through these studies, it has become clear that a major change in function took place at Greek sanctuaries at the end of the Geometric period with the widening of the social basis of their clientele. This is attested at several sanctuaries by the replacement of monumental or normal-sized ritual vessels by numerous cheap miniatures of the same shape at the very end of the Geometric and beginning of the archaic periods. This was exactly what happened at the sanctuary of Apollo Daphnephoros and the sacrificial area to the north during this same period. In conclusion, I agree with Verdan that the aristocracy was responsible for the performance of cult practice. There is, however, an obvious break in its development that he denies, i.e., the participation of the rest of the community at a later stage, during phase II, when the miniature vessels appear for the first time as votive offerings not only in Eretria but all over Greece.6

Chapter nine reviews the function of the sanctuary during its second phase, when cult practice is attested to by votive offerings for the first time. This is the time when the first hekatompedon (Ed2) was erected, which according to the author had multiple functions. According to the distribution of small finds the hekatompedon may have been primarily a temple (not with the conventional meaning that it housed the cult image of a god), while Ed150 could have been a place for symposia (pp. 200–204). Laying aside Verdan’s views on the social role of the metal workers in the sanctuary area (pp. 186; 206–207), the author offers a persuasive scenario of ritual processions connecting the sanctuary of Apollo and the sacrificial area to its North. I cannot, however, agree with him on the interpretation of the figurative scenes on some of the common mixing and drinking vessels as any kind of historical evidence for rites of passage ceremonies (pp. 219–222 [see especially the discussion on the sherds with dancing scenes and sherd no. 366]; see also pp. 208 [sherds no. 290, 373]).

In his concluding chapter, Verdan argues more persuasively for the early practice of Daphneforeia at the sanctuary of Eretria by means of the iconography of women holding branches on some ritual vases from the sacrificial area.

At the end of the book, terrestrial archaeozoological material is analyzed from many different contexts of the sanctuary area, but unfortunately none from building Ed2 (pp. 201). The study of the marine archaeozoological material has shown that an impressively large shell known as noble pen shell (Pinna nobilis) must have played a particular role at the symposia in buildings Ed150 and Ed1 during phase I. There is also a contribution on the plant remains from pit Fo221. Finally the examination of two sherds with gold particles has shown that they were used to melt gold for assay.

In the second volume there is a catalogue with short descriptions of the finds presented, analytical tables with the graffiti on the vases, several types of tables with statistical analyses, lists of every single structure found at the site, very helpful, analytical plans of Eretria and its sanctuary (pl. 1–10), maps showing the distribution of several finds (pl. 11–16), very good excavation photos though rather few stratigraphic sections, plans and reconstructions (pl. 17–57), numerous pottery drawings and photos of excellent quality (pl. 58–114) and finally statistical tables and photos of the material analyzed in the contributions.

The new Eretria volumes of Verdan uphold the high quality of earlier works in the same series and will form an important point of departure for further researches on the origin of Greek sanctuaries in the Aegean. ​


1.   See for example P.M. Rice, "Evolution of Specialized Pottery Production: A Trial Model," Current Anthr. 22, 1981, 219–240; C.M. Sinopoli, Approaches to Archaeological Ceramics (New York; London 1991) 9–42; 52–67; 98–103.
2.   A. Fleming, "Post-processual Landscape Archaeology: a Critique," Cambridge Arch. Journal 16, 2006, 267–280.
3.   The largest crater was actually found placed on a base in the apsis of the building.
4.   A. Mazarakis Ainian, From rulers’ dwellings to temples. Architecture, religion and society in Early Iron Age Greece (1100-700 B.C.), SIMA 121 (Jonsered 1997) 393–396.
5.   S. Gimatzidis, "Feasting and Offering to the Gods in Early Greek Sanctuaries: Monumentalization and Miniaturisation in Pottery" in A. Smith/M. Bergeron (eds.), The Gods of Small Things. Ure Museum, University of Reading, 21-22 September 2009. Pallas 86, 2011, 73–93; cf. A. Scholl, "ΑΝΑΘΗΜΑΤΑ ΤΩΝ ΑΡΧΑΙΩΝ. Die Akropolisvotive aus dem 8. bis frühen 6. Jahrhundert v. Chr. und die Staatswerdung Athens," Jahrb. DAI121, 2006, 117; 128.
6.   The monumental and valuable symposiatic mixing vessels may allude to the presence of an elite group, if any, and not to the whole community, as Verdan proposes.

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