Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.09.32 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.09.32

Mary B. Hollinshead, Shaping Ceremony: Monumental Steps and Greek Architecture. Wisconsin studies in classics.   Madison; London:  University of Wisconsin Press, 2015.  Pp. xiii, 233.  ISBN 9780299301101.  $50.00.  

Reviewed by Troels Myrup Kristensen, Aarhus University (


A simple but effective image of a pair of shoes placed on a set of stairs on page 107 of Mary Hollinshead’s new book perfectly captures one of its chief objectives, namely to integrate the often-neglected human scale in the study of Greek monumental architecture. The shoes reappear in several other illustrations where they have been placed in landscapes that are otherwise devoid of humans, for example, at Didyma (pl. 16c), Lykosoura (pl. 28b), and Olympia (pl. 31c). The point is further underlined in a set of four images on page 22 that show a figure moving up and down as well as sitting and standing still on a set of (modern) steps.

Hollinshead’s book is a study of monumental steps in Greek sanctuaries (in which they are most commonly found) ranging in date from the sixth to the second century BC, with particular emphasis on how they were used to "shape" ceremony and ritual. The shoes and the moving figure are both useful means of illustrating what the author terms the “ground-level” perspective (p. xi), by which she means putting people back into structures that have so frequently been studied without closer consideration of the social dimension. The book thus aligns itself with other recent work that has emphasized the active role of architecture in shaping human experience.1 The book is a welcome addition to the literature on movement, processions and space in the Greek world that has been growing since the late 1980s, although its strictly chronological organization somewhat limits the author’s ability to make broader observations about the affective and performative nature of the specific type of architecture under scrutiny.

An introduction presents the main objectives of the book, a closer definition of the topic, as well as an overview of previous scholarship and, finally, a discussion of visual representations of steps in Greek vase painting. It is slightly unfortunate that this initial discussion of depictions of steps is not more closely integrated into the remainder of the study, as it creates a gap between the otherwise sound empirical and theoretical frameworks that are put forward. One also wonders if a survey of different uses of steps in Greek literature would have added further (and perhaps more subtle) perspectives on the types of movement that are of interest to the author.

The introduction is followed by part I (‘Studying Steps’), containing three short chapters that discuss the theoretical and methodological challenges involved in the study of monumental steps in Greek architecture. Chapter 1 looks at biomechanics, how people use steps and how steps affect the movement of people (hence the accompanying image of the moving figure on a set of steps mentioned above). Chapter 2 (‘Theoretical Observations’) covers a lot of theoretical ground, including but not limited to Descartes’ concept of space, Bourdieu, Foucault, Casey, agency, and ritual as defined by Bell and Kreinath. It is, however, too superficial in its treatment of these diverse and not necessarily compatible theories. Further fruitful connections in other fields could have been highlighted, such as the growing body of work in the discipline of geography within the new mobilities paradigm, as well as other recent archaeological literature that has engaged with the topic of movement from the perspective of material culture.2 Chapter 3 (‘Social Effects and Political Consequences’) turns to the broader implications of the use of steps in Greek politics and ritual. Hollinshead sheds light on the performative function of steps and how they “promoted participatory behavior around the central act of sacrifice” (p. 29). She also notes the “smoke and mirrors” function of the grandeur of many such monuments: “the construction of monumental steps…constitutes tangible evidence of increased attention to communal celebrations so as to compensate for political disruption” (p. 31).

Part II (‘Evidence of Steps over Time’) constitutes the core of the book and discusses in chronological order the sanctuaries in which monumental steps are a prominent feature. Chapter 4 covers early steps (i.e., before the fifth century), whereas subsequent chapters are organized by century, ranging from the fifth (chapter 5) to the second (chapter 8). The century-by-century approach is useful for presenting an overview of this often neglected (and rather difficult) corpus of archaeological material. However, this structure also has its limitations in that the chronological framework is complicated by considerable problems involved in the dating of individual examples of monumental steps, which often cannot be neatly separated into centuries, as for instance in the case of Olympia (pp. 53-54). Secondly, this organization lends itself to somewhat sweeping overviews of all sanctuaries with steps rather than to in-depth study of the most suggestive cases that would have allowed the author to develop a more elaborate analysis of the social context and the ritual practices involved in each. The chance to study the effects of the architecture in question is for this reason sometimes missed. For example, the author’s very interesting suggestions as to the location of the Plynteria and the Kallynteria on the Athenian Acropolis (p. 49) receive less prominence than they deserve within the chronological framework.3 It is equally unfortunate that the characterization of the Argive Heraion as a “man-made Acropolis” (p. 44) does not lead to broader consideration of the patterns of movement through such sites that are so clearly crucial to understanding ancient experiences of them.

A conclusion ties up the many ends of the book and summarizes its main points, emphasizing again the function of steps as "participatory architecture" (p. 81). Hollinshead comments here on the problems of using chronology as her system of organization, but the problem is more profound than she describes, as the human scale that is so effectively evoked in the images of shoes and figures on steps is essentially lost through the chosen mode of organizing the material.

The conclusion is followed by an appendix that discusses Hellenistic Italy and the problem of transmission, how monumental steps made their way from the Greek world to well-known sanctuaries in Italy, such as Pietrabbondante, Praeneste and Tivoli. The book concludes with a useful catalogue of sites (providing dimensions and basic bibliography), 44 plates and an extensive and up-to-date bibliography for which the author is to be applauded, as it covers a broad range of disciplines not always consulted by scholars of ancient architecture. Easy consultation of the book is somewhat hindered by the difficult navigation between text, catalogue, endnotes and plates. The table of contents leaves out fifth- century Corinth, which is discussed in depth in chapter 5.


1.   See, e.g contributions in R. Laurence and D.J. Newsome, eds., Rome, Ostia, Pompeii. Movement and Space, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
2.   For an introduction to this work, see M. Sheller and J. Urry, "The new mobilities paradigm," Environment and Planning A 38.2 (2006), 207-226, and (for a more general account) P. Adey, Mobility (Key Ideas in Geography), London: Routledge, 2009. For archaeological perspectives, see (most recently) contribution in M.C. Beaudry and T.G. Parno, eds. Archaeologies of Mobility and Movement, New York: Springer, 2013.
3.   Although the Plynteria has now been given more focused scrutiny in the author’s "The North Court of the Erechtheion and the Ritual of the Plynteria," AJA 119.2 (2015), 177-190.

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