BMCR 2006.02.23

The Fabric of the Ancient Theatre: Excavation Journals from Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean

Diana Wood Conroy, The fabric of the ancient theatre : excavation journals from Cyprus and the eastern Mediterranean. Lefkosia, Cyprus: Moufflon Publications, 2004. xiii, 394 pages : illustrations (some color), map ; 23 cm. ISBN 9963642144 $56.00.

The theatre has been the subject of intense interest in the study of ancient architecture at least since Vitruvius wrote his De architectura during the late first century BCE. In Book V, he described the Greek and Roman examples in relative detail, rendering the geometric arrangement of each, and eventually dictating the proportions of the scaena wall and discussing sounding vessels installed within the cavea. Much later, the Renaissance architects that we have come to know so well, Alberti, Cesariano, Filarete, and so on, took up Vitruvius’ work and studied theaters extensively, mostly by undertaking comparative studies between the words in the De architectura and the visible ruins in their immediate landscapes. More recently, the work of Bieber, Gros and Sear, among others, has continued the quest to understand meaning, form and technique in theater architecture. In terms of related archaeology, Dumasy, Gilkes and Pensabene, to name but a few, have given us a better understanding of the intricate design elements of the building type, as well as their importance in landscape ensembles. There remain many questions, however, related to such design elements as decoration, vela arrangement and stagecraft, as well as broader problems connected with the use and cultural meaning of theatres. For this reason, any publication focusing on the building type is a welcome addition to the literature.

As chronicler of some of the discoveries at the excavations of the theatre at Paphos and other ancient theatre sites, Diane Wood Conroy (DWC) complements the excavation reports of the same sites. And as artist-in-residence at the Paphos theatre excavations, DWC observes the surrounding cultural milieu and the environmental circumstances, thus potentially bringing important context to the interpretation of archaeological discoveries. The journal entries cover some seven years of travels and research work and DWC has more than one goal in writing the book: First, DWC records, in journal format, her thoughts and experiences as she assists with the organizational arrangements of the excavations at the Paphos theater; second, as artist-in-residence, DWC presents some of the finds at the same theatre; and third, the author documents her efforts to locate painted decorative sections of some of the theatres of the Eastern Mediterranean. DWC narrates very personal observations of her travels as an “outsider looking in”, beginning to unravel the complex world of Eastern Mediterranean archaeology.

The book is divided into four main parts, each subdivided by theme and dated journal entries. An interlude is included between parts 2 and 3. The titles of the four parts use the theatre as metaphor for the wider Eastern Mediterranean region.

The first part, “The Orchestra: The Paphos Theatre, 1995-1999”, contains thirteen subsections, each varied in its content. It opens with a prelude, complete with a very personal discussion of the author’s background (home country, children, dissolved marriage, and so on) and the difficulties with setting up an excavation base after a year of it having been left out of service. Aside from the personal and anecdotal passages, there are also discussions contextualizing the theatre within its mythical and cultural milieu. The content is multifarious, with, for example, the writings of such notables as Michel de Certeau and Marcel Proust evoked in a discussion of the meaning of archaeology. Descriptions of short trips to places like Palaepaphos are also included. The second part, “The Cavea : The Arc of the Mediterranean, 1999-2000″, is essentially a travel diary. Divided into nine subsections, this part comprises what could be called a set of highly personal ethnographic vignettes as DWC travels to Cairo, Alexandria, Ikingi Maryut, Athens, and places in Turkey such as Pergamon and Ephesos. Between parts two and three there is an interlude with some thirteen samples of the author’s artwork: gouaches, watercolors and tapestries, representing fragments of mosaics and other subjects such as an abstracted site map (site unknown). Part three, “The theatres of Southern Turkey, 2000”, continues in the travel diary style, retracing DWC’s footsteps as she sets out to look for traces of painted decorations within the numerous theatres of the region. The theatres of Perge, Side, Aspendos, Olympos, Myra, Termessos, Selge, as well as some of the nearby museums are explored. The commentary is not necessarily archaeological or architectural in detail; it comprises personal impressions that are related to the general architecture of the monuments and the local environmental settings. Finally, the fourth part, “Theatre and Tomb: Cyprus, 2001-2002”, sees DWC returning to the theatre at Paphos. There are seventeen subsections, as varied in subject as those of the first part, beginning with a recounting of the myth of Ariadne and Dionysos (as connected to the theatre), followed by a description of the unique Roman labyrinthine mosaic nearby, the recounting of a Good Friday procession, and eventually the linking of the same procession to the Bacchae. This part of the book also contains a description of some of the more important finds at Paphos, followed by a narrative of a side trip to document the paintings in the Odos Ikarou tomb, located a short distance away. This final part ends with a depiction of a group of painted stones being pulled from the earth towards the end of the excavation season, and, an acknowledgement that the full pattern of the mosaic will never be known.

DWC’s work is rich in detail with its personal, historical, social, mythical and geographical notes. Along with the discussions of team and work organization at the Paphos excavations in the first and final parts, the travel notes regarding many other theatre sites can serve as an introduction to the uninitiated into the world of archaeological fieldwork. There is the constant feel of exploration and discovery that keeps one wanting for more. However, the notes, while probably useful for future researchers looking for context beyond excavation reports, are disjointed and can therefore be difficult to follow. The reading can also be challenging as it moves, for example, from personal thoughts regarding the author’s father, to references to myths and legends, and then to discussions of theatre site conditions. And while the information such as artifact descriptions will add to future interpretations of the same finds, nowhere does the reader find a map or a close reference to excavation context. This makes it very difficult to combine the book’s observations with the excavation site’s realities.

This is not a book specifically about archaeology; it is a book of personal musings regarding the field of archaeology. Nor is this a book about classical theatre architecture; it is a book about the travels and reactions of an artist to specific theatre sites. The interpretations are loose (and are probably meant to be so), rendering research results that are less than robust. While DWC concludes that the theatre at Paphos is the only one where a well-preserved painted wall persists, close study of the literature would have revealed the same conclusion.

With its initial focus on excavation organization, site conditions and what one might call the pleasures associated with field archaeology, and with its descriptions of finds and eventual depictions of remote theatre remains, the book is suitable for undergraduate students and perhaps beginning graduate level students. It most certainly sparks interest in archaeology and the inevitable travel that can often come with its practice.

Finally, it is clear that this book is a unique accomplishment; the detailed imagery alone will serve as a further record of the Paphos excavation work and other theatre monuments of interest. And the entertaining vignettes of the vicissitudes and pleasures experienced by the archeologist and traveler in the Eastern Mediterranean world render a fascinating travel book. But as with any other such text accompanied by copious personal and subjective narrative, a reader seeking more than leisure reading must approach the matter with a certain amount of trepidation.