BMCR 2000.08.16

Ancient Greek Cult Practice from the Archaeological Evidence. Proceedings of the Fourth International Seminar on Ancient Greek Cult, organized by the Swedish Institute at Athens, 22-24 October 1993

, , Ancient Greek cult practice from the archaeological evidence : proceedings of the Fourth International Seminar on Ancient Greek Cult, organized by the Swedish Institute at Athens, 22-24 October 1993. Skrifter utgivna av Svenska institutet i Athen, 8° = Acta Instituti Atheniensis Regni Sueciae, series in 8°, 15. Stockholm: Svenska Institutet i Athen, 1998. 249 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9179160360 £23.30.

The archaeological exploration of ancient Greek ritual must be one of the more successful aspects of Classical archaeology. Since at least the 1980s a series of books and collections of articles have been published which have explored such important aspects as the issues of recognition of cult (Renfrew 19851), and sacred landscapes and the significance of location of cult (de Polignac 1984/1995; Alcock and Osborne 19942). Major issues that have emerged from the ever-burgeoning literature are not only the interrelation between religious and other types of social behaviour, but also the idea of ‘boundedness’ — according to which physical boundaries are taken as conceptual boundaries between the sacred and the profane. This concept has influenced scholars’ assessment of the significance, for example, of the growth of separate demarcated sanctuary spaces in ‘Greece’ in the eighth century BC.

This set of essays adds to and further refines elements of this important body of material and theoretical discussion. The volume contains a series of papers which illustrate well the varieties of approaches now current in the study of ancient cult — from the almost entirely descriptive treatment of individual sites to the theoretically-informed discussion of ritual behaviour in entire regions.

Of the papers that deal with individual sites, those that constitute reports of excavations carried out by the author form a particularly useful database for those studying ancient cult. Marangou’s paper on her site of Minoa on Amorgos, for example, is an extremely valuable tracing of material evidence for changing ritual behaviour on this particular (little studied) site. Huber’s piece also presents exciting new evidence — here of a sacrificial altar near to the famous sanctuary of Apollo Daphnephoros at Eretria. Themelis discusses sanctuary Ω at Messene, presenting a long inventory of terracotta plaques and figurines found in the 1992-4 seasons of excavation. In general the presentation of material in all these papers is exemplary. The same goes for Gebhard’s discussion of the ‘small dedications’ from the destruction layers of the archaic temple of Poseidon at Isthmia, which shows great sensitivity to the ancient processes of abandonment and salvage and to specific contexts of objects within the temple. Binder’s analysis of the cult of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis combines chronological arguments from archaeological data and texts. My only problem with some of these papers is the way in which this archaeological evidence is sometimes made to fit in with literary evidence. Thus, for example, Marangou has no need to speculate on the identity of the deities worshipped using mythological material. Equally Themelis invests much in the identification of his temple with that of Demeter and the Dioscuri mentioned in Pausanias.

These identifications are not necessarily incorrect. My worry is more in the way in which later perceptions about Greek cult are so easily imposed upon the Archaic and even earlier periods, producing a comfortable feeling that we fully understand Greek cult — that we know its rules and specific rites for specific deities or that it even had a simple set of rules. This problem lies at the heart of another paper in the volume, that of Ekroth. In this paper Ekroth pulls the rug out from under such comfortable assumptions, specifically looking at the case of hero-cult. As Ekroth suggests, our perceptions of the differences between the worship of gods and heroes are extrapolated from later literary sources written at a time when the rules had become more entrenched. Her archaeological analysis indicates that, contrary to the scholarly orthodoxy, eating played just as important a place in hero cult as it did in the worship of gods — the holocaust of the animal is a development of Hellenistic times. This is an important study that must warn us against easy correlation of literary statements about cult with the more complex picture afforded by archaeological analysis. Local choice in worship patterns is also a factor that, as Morgan points out in her paper, makes overarching arguments problematic (p. 89). As Hägg puts it (p. 56), literary-based studies “tended to express rules and make distinctions in a much too categorical way. The reality of Greek cult practice, especially in the early period, was much more complicated and it is the archaeological sources … that will help us to revise our picture.”

Ekroth’s conclusions are largely based upon the analysis of animal bones, and the value of this is a theme that runs through the entire volume. Bammer’s fascinating discussion of Geometric cult at the Artemision at Ephesus, and Bergquist’s sensitive distinction between sacrifice and feasting areas in the Thasian Herakleion (see below) in particular rely upon the analysis of animal bones for elements of their arguments. Hägg’s paper, entitled ‘Osteology and Greek Sacrificial Practice’, provides the definitive treatment of this topic. In this paper Hägg makes a plea to archaeologists to pay more attention to animal bones, and to employ more methods such as wet and dry sieving and flotation in order that important evidence not be lost. He gives a list of the many things we can learn about ritual practice from the study of animal bones: how the animal was butchered, how it was cut up, which animals were sacrificed (many of the papers in this volume express surprise at the ‘unusual’ animals which are found to have been sacrificed at their sites), which portions were burned for the gods, which animals (or parts of animals) were consumed by humans and finally, how meals following sacrifice were prepared.

The analysis of the ways in which objects are used in ritual contexts and of where votives are deposited also provides a unifying theme to this volume. Bookidis’ interesting discussion of the deposition of curse tablets in the sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis is unfortunately only a summary, but still gives a fascinating insight into the specialised nature of the location of such objects at this sanctuary. Alroth’s paper is rather more speculative and advertised as work in progress but gives welcome attention to the changes in patterns of ritual deposition throughout Greece from Classical to Hellenistic times and addresses the important issue of whether a change in physical remains and the types and numbers of objects deposited necessarily means a religious and/or a social change. Most interesting perhaps is the study by Kron of the deposition of sickles in Greek sanctuaries. She cuts through the arguments concerning whether these items are functional or votive / ritual (an argument which is rather reminiscent of that concerning ‘obeloi’ or iron spits, as she points out) and makes the excellent point that these objects could have varying connotations in varying contexts, and may have been, for example, votives with agricultural connotations or equipment of the sanctuary (either profane or sacral). She also argues that sickles may have had a liminal or magical quality.

The article by Bergquist combines the study of bones and the contextual analysis of other material culture at the Herakleion of Thasos to good effect. She argues that there is a distinction between the areas of sacrifice of animals and those areas in which the worshippers consumed the meat — the functions of the areas clearly visible from the kinds of bones and ceramics that are present. Her argument, from architectural evidence as well as from this evidence of dining, that the so-called first temple of Herakles was actually a hestiatorion or dining hall is very persuasive. The only problem with the paper is one that commonly occurs in Greek colonial contexts — the tendency for all material evidence, and particularly that of cult, to be explained only in terms of Greek practice. This comes into play when she discusses the strange so-called post-holes “of irregular sizes and spacing” (p.62), and assumes them to have been for the construction of tents by the first Greek worshippers. The so-called post-holes, which are so irregular and shallow that they could not have functioned as such, are actually very similar to ‘basins’ — features which appear as part of a complex of megalithic art and monuments throughout southern Thrace — as will be suggested by A.J. Graham in a forthcoming article. I have suggested that the rock-cut altar also discussed by Bergquist is also likely to have been of Thracian origin.3

This volume thus contains a vast amount of data (which are very well illustrated) and fascinating arguments about Greek cult of the Early Iron Age, Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods. Despite the disparate nature of these periods and the format of conference proceedings (which often leads to a lack of unity) the recurring themes of osteology and votive context unify this collection. I finish this review with a paper entitled ‘Ritual and Society in EIA Corinthia’ which, for me, was the highlight of the book. In this paper, Morgan provides a study of the deposition patterns in sanctuary and mortuary contexts in Corinthia, insisting on “the importance of considering all forms of ideological expression together, rather than pushing back what may be anachronistic conceptual distinctions between death and cult” (p. 90). Her analysis throws up an interesting pattern through time. This shows that while there is a broad correlation between an increased level of sanctuary dedications and investment in burial in Late Protogeometric and Early Geometric times, this is temporarily suspended in Middle Geometric I, and investment is focused upon mortuary display. This correlation reappears in Middle Geometric II, but around 750 BC there is a complete abandonment of the grave context for the deposition of wealth and a move towards cult. Her discussion most importantly uses this pattern to stress variation in values among communities as well as through time, and perhaps this is the most important insight that I have taken away from reading this book. The more archaeological evidence we have of ancient cult practices, the greater the variety of forms is and the more complexities emerge. We may learn more about ritual forms and their roles within Greek societies by studying the spatial and temporal variations in ritual practices — the differences, the idiosyncrasies — rather than attempting to identify in the material remains a predetermined set of rules.

List of the Papers

Lila Marangou, ‘The acropolis sanctuary of Minoa on Amorgos: cult practice from the 8th century BC to the 3rd century AD’

Anton Bammer, ‘Sanctuaries in the Artemision of Ephesos’

Robin Hägg, ‘Osteology and Greek sacrificial practice’

Brigitta Bergquist, ‘Feasting of worshippers or temple and sacrifice? The case of the Herakleion on Thasos’

Catherine Morgan, ‘Ritual and society in the Early Iron Age Corinthia’

Elizabeth Gebhard, ‘Small dedications in the Archaic temple of Poseidon at Isthmia’

Gunnel Ekroth, ‘Altars in Greek hero-cults. A review of the archaeological evidence’

Judith Binder, ‘The early history of the Demeter and Kore sanctuary at Eleusis’

Sandrine Huber, ‘Une aire sacrificielle proche du sanctuaire d’Apollon Daphnéphoros à Érétrie. Approaches d’un rituel archaïque’

Petros Themelis, ‘The sanctuary of Demeter and the Dioscouri at Messene’

Uta Kron, ‘Sickles in Greek sanctuaries: votives and cultic instruments’

Brita Alroth, ‘Changes in votive practice? From Classical to Hellenistic. Some examples’

Nancy Bookidis, ‘Cursing in the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at ancient Corinth’ (Summary).


1. C. Renfrew (1985) ‘The Archaeology of Cult: the sanctuary at Phylakopi’, British School at Athens: Supplementary volume no.18 (London) remains one of the few attempts to set out conceptual basis for recognising structures associated with the religions of prehistory.

2. F. de Polignac (1984) ‘La Naissance de la cité greque: Cultes, espace et société VIIIe-VIIe siècles’ (Paris) translated and revised as ‘Cults, Territory and the Origins of the Greek City-State (Chicago 1995). S.E. Alcock and R. Osborne (1994) ‘Placing the Gods: Sanctuaries and Sacred Space in Ancient Greece’ (Oxford).

3. A.J. Graham’s article entitled ‘Thasian Controversies’ will appear in his collected papers which will be published by Brill (publication date not yet set). See my PhD thesis: ‘A Theory of Greek Colonisation: EIA Thrace and initial Greek contacts’, Cambridge 1999, chs 5 and 10. For further evidence of Thracian megalithic activity on Thasos, see my article forthcoming in JHS 2000, entitled ‘New Light on Thracian Thasos: A reinterpretation of the “cave of Pan”‘.