BMCR 2005.05.24

Eretria. A Guide to the Ancient City. Translated from French by Steven Rendall

, , Eretria : a guide to the ancient city. Fribourg: Infolio éditions, 2004. 314 pages : illustrations (some color), maps ; 21 cm. ISBN 2884741127. CHF 29.00/€19.00 (pb).

Eretria is, in the current scholarship, one of the main archaeological sites of the Greek world in general, and of the Greek Early Iron Age in particular. Since the discoveries of Christos Tsountas in the 1880’s, the works of the Greek archaeologists and of the Swiss School at Athens in charge of most of the site have slowly shed more and more light on this important city-state of Euboea. Because of this work, many of the features of this site (the Heroon at the West Gate, the House of the Mosaics or the Sanctuary of Apollo Daphnephoros, just to mention a few) are now common illustrations in handbooks on ancient Greek history, and the bibliography about Eretria at all period is huge.

Thanks to the Swiss team, this site now has the archaeological guide it needs. This guide represents the synthesis of all the results we can rely on today to understand the life of this site, from the earlier times, the Late Neolithic (ca.3500-3000 BC) and Early Helladic (ca.3000-2000 BC) periods, to the present day, as some chapters are devoted to the modern days of Eretria (and the involvement of the Swiss mission at the site). Abundantly illustrated, this dense book is divided into three sections, covering all aspects of the site’s history and archaeology.

Section I, ‘Eretria through Time’ (p.11-70).

After a short foreword by Pierre Ducrey, director of the Swiss School of Archaeology in Greece, this section is devoted to a brief summary of the geographical and historical background of the city, and also to the history of the excavation of the site. Though well-written and full of details and useful information on the history of the city (especially the chapter on historiography), this part does not, I suggest, allow the non-specialist to really understand the importance of the site in antiquity and frustrates the specialist by over-synthesizing important issues. For example, there are only three pages concerning Eretria in the Geometric period, yet this is called one of the three glorious ages of Eretria by P. Ducrey in the preface.

Section II, ‘Living in Eretria’ (p.73-151).

This section combines various chapters on the main aspects of life in Eretria in antiquity, each chapter considering one theme: Institutions and Society (p. 74-85), Urbanism and Architecture (p.86-105), Religion and Death (p.106-123), and Economic Life (p.124-151). These divisions are sometimes questionable. For example, it is somewhat surprising to find a description of sculpture in the chapter ‘Economic Life’ or an association of the funerary evidence with religious life, nowadays more related to society. But like a virtual museum section, it covers more or less all the visitor to the site needs to know about life in Eretria.

Section III, ‘Exploring Eretria’ (p.153-305).

The last section is also the longest and takes up more than half of the book. It is organized, as we expect from an archaeological guide, around the practical visit of the site. Thirty-six entries offer a repertoire of ‘promenades’ to the visitor. Each entry is given one, two or three stars, corresponding to the importance of the remains still visible and worth walking. Each entry is a short notice of 3-4 pages at the most, containing directions to the monument, a few lines on the main excavation period and the excavators, the chronology, the main reference(s), and some comments on what is visible on the site and what is not. Very richly illustrated by photographs and/or plans, these notices are very easy to use. Although this selection is a purely ‘touristic’ one, it can be useful and very practical for visitors who are not aware of the importance of the site. Fortunately, this section also includes a chapter on the ‘Surroundings of Eretria’, placing the city in a wider regional context. It might have been wise to add some lines on the remains of Oropos, just on the other side of the strait, many times cited in the text but not illustrated in the guide. The site is now very well known thanks to A. Mazarakis-Ainian,1 a Greek archaeologist who used to participate in the Swiss excavations of Eretria in the 1980’s and who has recently resumed excavation at Oropos after a long pause. It is now clear that many of the archaeological dynamics of Eretria are understandable only by including the Oropos evidence in the discussion.

The book ends with a series of appendices (a glossary, a short bibliography containing only the main publications, an index), which are helpful.

This organization, though making the visit of the site very easy, can lead to some scattering of the information. For instance, the reader who wants to have a good general view on funerary ritual and space of the city would have to refer to various parts of the book: p.20-21 (Geometric period), p.50 (Classical), p.94-95 and p.118-123 (general evolution), p.143-144 (funerary sculpture of the Classical period), p.172-175 (Heroon at the West Gate), p.186-187 (Classical again), p.212-213 (Hellenistic), p.221 (Geometric), p.273 (Helladic), p.291-295 (Macedonian grave), p.298-99 (Heroon at Lefkandi). This format also led to some repetitions: for example, the two photographs on p.110 and p.135 show exactly the same 6th century BC amphora, and the photographs of the sanctuary of Apollo on p.22 and p.229 are practically identical. Of course, no overview can avoid this kind of redundancy or dispersion. But these are particularly unwelcome for the specialist when the schematic criteria for the mapping, for example, change from one part to the other. This is the case with the two maps of Eretria in the 8th century BC, one on p.94 and the other on p.118. Though illustrating the same evidence, they use different kinds of reference, and the impressions given are different. The same holds for the two maps of the 1st century AD: on the first one, p.95, the funerary evidence seems small; on the other, p.119, the melding with the dwelling space is more obvious. Maps and plans are the main disappointment of this book, even though they are numerous and good looking, of great readability, and always orientated and put to scale (one exception, p.283). The plans are of two kinds: very general ones, taking up the entire page and of small scale; very detailed ones, often small in size and of big scale. The small size of the second kind of plans allows the authors to put 3 or 4 side by side, thus showing the chronological evolution of one feature,2 which is very good and shows how a historical perspective can be useful in archaeology. But, conceived as illustrations, the plans are not an easy tool for those who wish to use this guide as an academic starting point, for it is difficult to connect the small plans to a general frame. An off-page plan, found in many archaeological guides,3 would have avoided this weakness.

But these criticisms are only very small points considering the main interest and strength of the book: its illustrations. These were obviously the priority given to the book by the editors, and they are well done. The photographs are numerous and of good quality (often in colour even for the 1960’s diggings; the black and white is used only when nothing else is available), although sometimes a little bit small. A lot of material is shown.4 Everything is aimed at making make the site accessible and ‘readable’. This is a good book, but it should not be taken for what it is not: a complete scientific synthesis on Eretria. Intended mainly for a wide audience, it is a compromise, responding to modern requirements of presenting exact information in a pleasant and practical way. Without falling into the ‘good old days’ syndrome, more traditional guides, organized by sources, seem more satisfying for the specialist and more accessible to the ‘enlightened’ visitor.5


1. A. Mazarakis-Ainian, “Les fouilles d’Oropos et la function des périboles dans les agglomerations du début de l’Âge du Fer,” in Habitat et urbanisme dans le monde Grec, de la fin des palais mycéniens à la prise de Milet (494 av. J.-C.), Pallas, 58, 2002, pp.183-227 with full bibliography.

2. P.193 for the Theatre; p.183 for the West Gate; pp.174-175 for the Heroon; p. 161 for the House II; pp.118-119 on burial customs; p.102 for the temple of Apollon Daphnephoros.

3. Guide de Thasos, Ecole Française d’Athènes (Paris, 1968), or the new edition of Mégara Hyblaea. Guide, Ecole Française de Rome (Rome, 1983), published in 2000.

4. But some objects are illustrated without any mention of the place of discovery or the academic publication to find them: for example, the oriental imports of p.24.

5. See note 3. The same remark can be made on the guides of Ephesus. While the ‘old’ guide, by A. Bammer (Ephesos. Stadt an Fluss und Meer, Graz, 1988), is very austere and not well illustrated, it brings information and a scientific perspective that the ‘new’ guide (P. Scherrer, Ephesus, The New Guide, Selçuk, 2000), with more photographs and practical observations, does not.