BMCR 2021.09.32

The Akragas dialogue: new investigations on sanctuaries in Sicily

, , , The Akragas dialogue: new investigations on sanctuaries in Sicily. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. viii, 422. ISBN 9783110500271. €119,95.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The remains of Akragas have earned an evocative modern title. The splendour of the ‘Valley of the Temples’ makes it a crown jewel amongst Sicily’s embarrassment of riches, and rightly so. But fame is a double-edged sword. The celebration of its temples can abstract them from their civic context with all the clutter and detritus of life, just as it may isolate them from others in Sicily and beyond through their exceptional status. The image sells, but the archaeology can suffer as a result. Conversely, some of Akragas’ other less-grand remains have been drawn together and identified—like so many others in Sicily — with chthonic deities, especially Demeter and Persephone, such is the strength of the island’s association with the goddesses. It is these sites and their associated remains that form the basis of this volume, turning attention away from the grandeur of Akragas’ temples onto the spaces in between and around them, and the evidence for ritual and depositional practice.[1] As the editors of this volume are keen to stress, Akragas has benefitted from the insight of many a gifted archaeologist, and it is not their intention to dismiss their work. Rather, if the outputs of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries — and indeed the famous temples — constitute the main course, the chapters in this volume might be thought of as sides and seasoning: no doubt the main gets the glory, but in truth the trimmings are just as fundamental to the success of the meal.

The ‘Dialogue’ in the volume’s title points toward the collaboration between research groups based at the Universities of Augsburg and Palermo, and specifically from discussions between the researchers at their 2016 conference. The two institutions have undertaken excavations at Akragas on the extra-urban sanctuary at S. Anna (Augsburg) and the Zeus Olympios temple on the Collina dei Templi (Palermo), and thus contributors are well-placed to offer insight. However, this ‘dialogue’ — as much as any academic works produced independently can be said to be in dialogue — is that between the researchers here and archaeologists of previous generations. Parello (chapter 4) provides a useful summary, but throughout, the work of Pirro Marconi (1920–30s), Graziella Fiorentini (1960s, 2000s) and Ernesto de Miro (1980–2000s), amongst others, often forms the starting point from which discussions begin.

The reappraisal of evidence on the basis of new analytical and technical methods, and in light of recent finds, surveys and full-scale excavations has produced modest, but nevertheless important results for the broader understanding of Akragas and the other Sicilian sites that feature. The volume roughly breaks into four sections. The first (chapters 2–3) are broad discussions of religious and particularly votive practice in Sicily during the Archaic and Classical periods. The direction then veers towards sanctuary contexts in and around Akragas specifically (4–9), and focused discussions of ritual deposits (10–12), before widening to include sites around Sicily, in particular Selinous and Himera, but also Gela and Akrai (13–19). In the preface (pp. v–vi), the editors suggest that a holistic approach to the assessment of evidence is required, ranging from sacrificial material and votive deposits through to the large-scale architectural developments themselves, in order to assess the ritualistic implications of phenomena that did not exist in isolation. The contributions consistently pay close attention to broad spectrums of evidence, but nevertheless have somewhat distinctive ambitions dependent on what they focus on, namely: the identification and dating of structures, typologies of votives, and the nature and understanding of depositional practices. These are identified as the main issues under discussion in the Introduction (pp. 1–7). In the following, I have therefore departed from the geographical structure of the work in favour of these groupings.

De Cesare and Portale’s reassessment of the oikos structure to the south of the Zeus Olympios temple (chapter 5) resituates this building within a cultic sphere, from which it has sometimes been excluded owing to its less monumental nature. They offer tentative steps to unpacking the use of spaces, the performance of rituals, and their potential significance; Leggio’s discussion of the Demeter and Kore sanctuary at Akrai (chapter 19), similarly attempts to pin down the ritual function of its rooms, though fascinatingly, the discovery of a human burial at the site seems to attest to a final closing-down ritual performed at the end of the 3rd century BC. Returning to Akragas, Longo (chapter 7) contemplates the layout and dating phases of another oikos structure, this time to the east of Gate 5; and Ducati (chapter 6) usefully draws attention to a seemingly forgotten series of structures in the so-called ‘Hellenistic-Roman’ quarter where a significant number of female figurines and ritual bothros have been attested. Rheeder’s typological study of terracotta roofs (chapter 8) is a particularly fine example of what can be achieved through the combination of modern technical analysis and detailed work on museum archives. The example offered unites under one roof, so to speak, two friezes and a third fragment of roofing (lion-head water spout), previously thought of as separate; given that late archaic buildings are frequently only identifiable through such remains, this constitutes an important adjustment to our sense of building numbers at the time.

Away from Akragas, several chapters also contribute to our understanding of specific architectural situations through a combination of recent excavations and reappraisal. Spatafora and Greco’s offerings on the Zeus Meilichios sanctuary at Selinous (chapters 14 and 15, respectively), speak in particular to Vincenzo Tusa’s excavations of 1969–70, and more recently Cristoforo Grotta’s detailed analysis of close to a century’s worth of work on the site.[2] Spatafora’s evaluation of somewhat neglected finds from Tusa’s excavations raises questions about the extent of the ‘campo di stele’ sacred area, but also the possibility of cultic continuity into the late classical and Hellenistic periods. At the same time, Greco’s presentation of recent excavations in the ‘campo di stele’ points to the increasing separation over time of the sanctuaries of Demeter Malophoros and Zeus Meilichios. Marconi’s excavations on Temple R at Selinous (chapter 16) have offered a wealth of evidence from this 6th century context, leading first to the suggestion that this building is a precursor to the early Hellenistic Temple B, and secondly, on the basis of finds, to a tentative identification of the temple with Demeter. Finally, Mango’s summary of the extensive excavations at Himera’s Piano del Tamburino (chapter 17),[3] presents two sanctuaries of as yet unidentified deities (though there is some suggestion that the one in Area 12 belonged to female deities of some sort). Though preliminary, the results here offer important evidence for depositional practices in archaeologically intact contexts (discussed briefly in Boglione’s supplement, chapter 18), and taken as a whole, afford Mango the opportunity to comment on long-running debates as to the size of Himera from the late 6th century until its destruction in 409.

Much of this work on structures in religious contexts is dependent on their relationship with votive and sacrificial remains in depositional contexts. Nevertheless, the emphasis of the relationship is reversed in several chapters, well demonstrated by Patera’s discussion of cult places in Sicily dedicated to Demeter (chapter 2), which takes on the challenge of identification of these places, but through the classification of votive material. The author questions the ‘automatism’ (p. 27) of associating sites where female votive figurines, kernoi and plemochoai have been found not only with Demeter, but specifically with the Athenian-style Thesmophoria. The contribution remains cautionary, but the discussion is nevertheless welcome. At Akragas, Genovese (chapter 9) reflects on the traditional identification of the building at S. Biagio with Demeter and Persephone in light of its votive deposits, in this case suggesting that though a dedication to Demeter is highly likely, there is little to warrant an extension to Persephone. Pautasso’s contribution (chapter 3) represents a shift from thinking about structures to ritual practice through votives in Sicily at large. The author notes the changing patterns of gifts borne by female figures in coroplastics and pinakes; these are clearly relevant for our understanding of forms of ritual, but, as Pautasso hints at the start (pp. 59–60), might also bear on the conception of the gods themselves. Serra (chapter 10) addresses metal deposits, focussing in particular on the building to the south of the temple of Zeus at Akragas (see de Cesare and Portale’s chapter), identifying a change in ritual practices involving the dedication of metal objects over the course of the building’s history. Miccichè (chapter 12) offers preliminary results of the zooarchaeological analysis of finds at the S. Anna site, noting an overwhelming number of pig-bone remains. The chapter concludes with the presentation of an archaeological experiment on the decay of pig bones, relevant for understanding the time that aspects of the Thesmorphoria rituals took to undertake. Finally, Sojc (chapter 11) and Albertocchi (chapter 13) turn more pointedly to the nature of deposits in sacred contexts, addressing the site of S. Anna at Akragas and Bitalemi near Gela, respectively. Sojc’s contribution is a thorough account of what can be gained through careful consideration of modes of deposition, distinguishing between single act, sequential, and ‘prompting’ depositions (i.e., those that inspire others). Discussion is limited to the complexity of these situations, but there is plenty here that might feed into larger accounts of ritual and religious life at Akragas and beyond. Albertocchi’s assessment of material first excavated by Paolo Orsi and Piero Orlandini similarly aims to categorise forms of deposition, usefully drawing together the work of these archaeologists.

A work of this kind will, of course, be of interest to those researching particular aspects of what the different chapters address, but there is no doubt that they benefit from each other and in this respect, the ‘dialogue’ is successful. However, in other ways it remains a conference volume, despite somewhat loftier ambitions. In the Introduction to the work, the chapters are broadly grouped on the basis of three areas of enquiry (pp. 1–7): (1) the architectural features and setting of sanctuaries; (2) the material culture of votive deposition and religious feasting, and (3) the significance of gender in cultic practice. The first two of these should be apparent from the discussion above, but the third less so. It would have been possible for me to draw comments on female deities and worshippers together, but this would be to produce something that the volume does not itself offer. I suspect that discussions of gender formed an interesting and important part of the conference, and it is a shame that that is not reflected more clearly in the volume itself. Wallensten’s opening discussion (chapter 1), focussing on the entanglement between the mortal and divine in religious contexts, might also raise hopes that subsequent chapters would address ongoing debates about the relationship between what we consider to be ritual and religion in antiquity. That this is not the case does not diminish either Wallensten’s chapter — a thoughtful discussion of names, statue dedications, contexts and gods at Poros, Greece — nor the others. We might rather hope that the contributors have the opportunity at a later date to return to such themes.

On more prosaic matters, the book is not especially user friendly. The work is well illustrated, but amongst all the images there is no large plan of Akragas; at times images can be confusing, for example, reversed orientations on bird’s-eye photographs without noting this in captions (fig. 5, p. 107). More disappointing is the complete inadequacy of the index, especially for a work intended to encourage dialogue. It consists mostly of one term, one-page references that ignore the most basic interrelations (as opposed to exact word searches in digital format), e.g., a listing for ‘knife’, but no ‘knives’ (as appears on, e.g., p. 231); ‘Chthonian deities’ has only one page reference, which is incorrect. On singular and plurals: do we need separate entries for kernoi and kernos? And no attempt has been made to bridge the gap between Italian, French and English language contributions, e.g., separate entries for ‘Demeter and Kore’ and ‘Demetra e Kore’. This also does the contributors a disservice, simply because it makes their work much harder to penetrate.

These critiques notwithstanding, this work makes an important contribution to the scholarship of Archaic and Classical Sicilian religion, and given the ongoing work of many of its contributors, points to expanding horizons in years to come.

Authors and titles

Introduction—Natascha Sojc, Monica de Cesare and Elisa Chiara Portale
1. Closing in on the Gods. Indirect Communication Between Mortals and Immortals—Jenny Wallensten
2. Identifier Déméter Thesmophoros et son culte en Sicile à partir des données matérielles—Ioanna Patera
3. Dedicants, Offerings, and Sacrifice—Antonella Pautasso
4. Introduction to the Study of Sacred Spaces in Ancient Agrigento—Maria Concetta Parello
5. Il santuario di Zeus Olympios ad Agrigento: al di là del tempio monumentale—Monica de Cesare and Elisa Chiara Portale
6. Sacelli dimenticati nell’area urbana di Akragas—Fabrizio Ducati
7. Nuove considerazioni sul tempietto tripartito ad Est di Porta V—Marco Longo
8. Investigating the Terracotta Roofs of Akragas—Annalize Rheeder
9. The ‘Upper Sanctuary of Demeter’ at S. Biagio in Akragas: A Review—Cristina Genovese
10. Le offerte di manufatti bronzei nella pratica votiva agrigentina—Alfonsa Serra
11. Depositions of Sacrificial Material and Feasting Remains from the Extra-Urban Sanctuary of S. Anna (Agrigento)—Natascha Sojc
12. Sometimes Pigs Fly—Roberto Miccichè
13. Depositional Practices in the Bitalemi Sanctuary in the Archaic Period: Form and Interpretation—Marina Albertocchi
14. Il santuario di Zeus Meilichios a Selinunte: Dati e materiali inediti per la rilettura del contesto—Francesca Spatafora
15. I santuari di Demetra Malophoros e Zeus Meilichios a Selinunte: Le nuove indagini—Caterina Greco
16. The New Investigations of the Institute of Fine Arts–NYU in the Main Urban Sanctuary of Selinunte—Clemente Marconi
17. New Evidence for Sacred Structures and Ritual Practices in Himera, Piano del Tamburino – Urbanistic Considerations—Elena Mango
18. A Typology of Votive Offerings: Observations Regarding a Sacred Area on the Piano del Tamburino, Himera—Marcella Boglione
19. Rites and Mysteries on the Acropolis of Akrai: Preliminary Remarks on a New Sanctuary Dedicated to the Cult of Demeter and Kore—Daniela Leggio


[1] Other recent publications have similarly aimed ‘to fill the gaps’ though are not limited to studies of religious life, e.g. Natasha Sojc (ed.) 2017, Akragas: Current Issues in the Archaeology of a Sicilian Polis.

[2] C. Grotta, Zeus Meilichios a Selinunte. Historica 9, Rome 2010.

[3] The preliminary reports on which have appeared regularly in Antike Kunst since 2013.