Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.08.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.08.02

Gerald P. Schaus (ed.), Stymphalos: The Acropolis Sanctuary. Volume 1. Phoenix supplementary volumes, 54.   Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 2014.  Pp. xvi, 499.  ISBN 9781442645295.  $145.00.  

Reviewed by Jeannette Marchand, Wright State University (


This meticulously documented and amply illustrated book is the first in a promised set of two dedicated to a worthy and daunting task: the full publication of the remains and finds from the fourth-century sanctuary on the acropolis of Stymphalos in Arcadia, excavated between 1994-2001 by the Canadian Archaeological Institute at Athens under the direction of Hector Williams and the supervision of G. Schaus, K. Wooten, and Y. Lolos. It will be welcomed warmly by scholars interested in both Greek religion and the history of the region, and be envied for the completeness and speed of publication of such a broad corpus of excavated material: architectural remains, sculpture, coins, projectile points, jewelry, iron nails, miscellaneous small finds, select pottery, lamps, loomweights, and the faunal and human skeletal remains (from two Late Roman/ Early Byzantine graves). The second volume will comprise the terracotta figurines, a more complete study of the pottery, additional small finds, and overall summation and results.

Although some chapters will inevitably serve primarily as documentation and for comparative purposes, particularly valuable is the fact that all the material is presented with extreme attention to detail (full catalogues accompany each chapter), and possible interpretation. Robert Weir’s statement on the coins sums up the approach of the book as a whole: “it is only human to push the boundaries of our competence by flying high (hopefully not too close to the sun), because an assemblage of facts and figures without some attempt at interpretation is usually not worth the time, neither the writer’s nor the reader’s.” It is this approach that elevates the volume from something of potentially only narrow interest. Indeed, the whole reads like a debate over some of the big questions the sanctuary presents: the identity of the main deity to which it was dedicated, the nature of the cult conducted therein, and the degree of its possible relationship with Athens. It can only be hoped that the refreshing lack of agreement on these basic points amongst the contributors will be allowed to stand in volume two, where a fuller discussion of the cult is promised.

Ultimately what emerges most strongly from this volume is the difficulty of interpreting Greek sanctuaries for which little or no literary evidence remains (which is the majority of them), the degree to which a different picture emerges when the relevant questions are approached from the perspective of different corpora of evidence, and the great diversity of cult practice even within the most modest of Greek sanctuaries.

In the opening chapters Schaus presents an overview of the site based on the ancient sources, accounts of early travelers, excavation history, and architectural remains. The sanctuary is relatively modest, consisting primarily of a simple, “house-like” temple, an altar and surrounding court, a “pillar court” adjacent to the temple—where five aniconic stone pillars dedicated to diverse deities received open-air worship— and an ancillary building (Building A, originally identified by Orlandos as a priest’s house), where cooking, dining, and weaving apparently took place. The temple dates to the second quarter of the 4th century B. C. (the sanctuary as a whole had its acme between 350 and 270 B.C. and was destroyed in the mid 2nd century B.C.), but major feature of the site is an archaic kore of apparently Attic workmanship that was set up inside the cella, either to serve as the cult statue (if a finely worked stele found in the cella did not serve as an aniconic, plank-like cult image instead) or as an elaborate votive. While expressing some doubt as to whether a stone found in the sanctuary by A. Orlandos and inscribed in what he identified as fourth-century letter forms with the single word “Poliados” can in fact be taken as a boundary stone for the sanctuary (and not simply as another aniconic representation from the pillar court, as seems likely from its discussion here), Schaus interprets the sanctuary as one of Athena Polias, established while cementing the close ties to Athens at the time of the temple’s construction evidenced by the treaty between Athens and the Arkadian league in 366 B.C. The suggestion is attractive and fits with a larger interpretation of the re-founding of Stymphalos as part of a concerted effort to contain Sparta during this period, but elsewhere in the volume the suggestion is made that the temple is an elaboration of an already sacred spot, in which case the cult here would not be “new.” The re-founding of the city around the site of an already existing cult could have provided the impetus for enriching the sanctuary with a temple, regardless of the main deity involved. It may be possible, then, to suggest not the founding of a new cult of Athena Polias but the introduction or assimilation of Athena into the pantheon of an existing cult. Although the Poliados inscription certainly indicates that Athena Polias was represented in some way, more than one goddess was clearly worshipped at the sanctuary . Likewise, the suggestion that the simple, “house-like” form of the temple can be taken as a purposeful reflection of the nature of the deity is possible, but simpler explanations (given the relative simplicity of the sanctuary as a whole and the general similarity between temple and house types) seem just as probable.

In her discussion of the sculpture Mary Sturgeon opts for Artemis as the most likely dedicatee of the cult. But she too seeks to find a close link with Athens, by suggesting that we might see at Stymphalos an acropolis sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia (as attested by Pausanias) in which Eileithyia was prominent, an arrangement reminiscent of that on the Athenian acropolis. She argues persuasively that the iconography of the archaic kore indicates that it was originally meant to depict Artemis or Aphrodite. Although she considers the possibility that the kore represented Athena once it was set up within the cella, she argues that it likely continued to be seen as Artemis or even Eileithyia, since that goddess is attested at the sanctuary by small finds and some inscriptional evidence. Given that Eileithyia was known as a “clever weaver” at neighboring Kleitor, loomweights found at the site can also be related to her and not Athena. Particularly attractive is the suggestion that a statue of a seated child also found in the cella may have served as a kind of “physical prayer” in conjunction with the kore, and that together they represented a kourotrophic goddess and her realm of influence.

Yet, just as an image of a cult closely associated with Athens and primarily the concern of women is emerging strongly in the text, in chapter 4 Robert Weir notes the “conspicuous absence” of Athenian coins in the sanctuary during the 4th century, and in chapter 5, Christopher Hagerman presents what he calls the remarkable and unparalleled collection of projectile points excavated at the site. Since these points occur in contexts spanning the entire period of activity of the sanctuary, he attributes them to a combination of natural deposition as a result of violent attack or siege (notably a Roman attack between 146 and 140 B.C.) and of purposeful dedication to Athena. They would reflect both the importance of mercenary service to the Stymphalians and the contemporary belief in the importance of projectile weapons in siege warfare.

However, in the discussion of the jewellery that follows, Alexis Young calls the dedicatory nature of the projectile points “dubious,” and concludes that women were the main devotees of the cult precisely because the men in their role of mercenaries were often absent. Over 325 jewelry votives were found, most probably hung on the cult image, and Young attempts to glean evidence for the identity of the deities worshipped based on some of the pieces: pomegranate head pins suggest Aphrodite and Persephone, medallions with Eros indicate Aphrodite, a finger ring possibly represents Athena and another possibly even Athena Polias, a glass bezel, for example, Eileithyia, (in this vein, it might be worth suggesting that the lion head pins would be appropriate for Hera). Like Sturgeon, Young concludes that the main deity here was kourotrophic – as suggested primarily by hair rings of a kind dedicated to Artemis or Athena by girls before marriage, the small size of some of the earrings, and a ring inscribed “kalos,” possibly dedicated by an ephebe or on behalf of one – although she seems to opt for Athena. She wonders whether two buttons from the site may imply the weaving of a peplos for the cult statue, a suggestion later expanded on by Laura Surtees on stronger evidence.

The next chapters elucidate the dating and function(s) of the ancillary Building A and its annexes. Identified as a priest’s house by Orlandos (an interpretation that is neither adopted nor fully refuted in the present volume; the closest to a direct comment on the question comes from Hector Williams, who states that a “residential aspect” to the building is not unlikely), the original southern rooms and in particular the SE room of the structure seem to have served as a kitchen for the production of food, either to be consumed in one of the other rooms or in the altar court. In a subsequent annex to the north, a concentration of drinking vessels (predominantly mould-made bowls apparently brought for the purpose) and lamps around a hearth suggests that the room was used for ritual drinking parties. Interestingly there is no mention of the likely gender of participants in this rite (presumably male?), or of the implications of this ritual for the cult as a whole.

A smaller annex to the west with an apparently short period of use presents greater problems, both in terms of date and of interpretation. A variety of possibilities is mentioned: it may have served some function related to the adjacent pillar court, or it may have been nothing more than a storage room or closet. On the basis of 19 loomweights found there (some with organic material in the suspension hole suggesting that they may have been in use at the time of the room’s destruction), Surtees argues that this western annex housed a loom for the ritual weaving of a garment for the deity, either Athena Polias or Eitheithyia, and that this ritual weaving reflects the direct adoption of cult practices from Athens. Other loomweights found at the site, however, are interpreted as dedications, and confusingly Surtees mentions elsewhere that the rarity of spindle whorls at the site may imply that no actual weaving took place there at all.

Deborah Ruscillo’s contribution on the faunal remains is the last to discuss the cult, and thus in the present volume it stands as a convincing “last word” on the issues raised in preceding chapters, a circumstance that may well change when the second volume appears. Although the ritual context of some of the material is unclear, the wide array of animals both wild and domestic found in sacred contexts, the evidence for avian sacrifice in the temple, and the holocaustic sacrifice of young victims, particularly piglets, elsewhere in the sanctuary, lead her to argue that the main goddess of the sanctuary was likely Artemis Eileithyia (worshipped in conjunction with other female deities). This points up what a long shadow that single inscribed epithet “Poliados” (and specter of Athens behind it) has cast over the sanctuary.

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