Friday, February 12, 2010

New evidence for religious continuity through ‘Dark Age’ Greece

Last night I attended a lecture at The British Museum given by Professor Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier on his continuing excavations at Kalapodi in Phokis, Greece.

Professor Niemeier’s excavations have secured the recognition of the Kalapodi as the site of one of the most famous sanctuaries of ancient Greece, that of Apollo at Abai. Numerous ancient sources attest to the importance of the oracle and sanctuary and talk of the offerings made to the god there, clearly putting the site on the same level as Delphi or Olympia, but until Niemeier’s excavations, the location and of the site and remained a mystery to scholars, and Abai seemed to be reduced to a footnote in ancient history.
Now, however, the excavations have revealed not only the huge wealth of the sanctuary, but also a huge amount of new evidence for ritual practice at sanctuaries and a clear continuity of cult from Mycenaean through the Dark Age. The question of religious continuity has been a subject of debate amongst scholars for many years. Some held that in around 1200 BC when the Mycenaean civilization ended, a period of discontinuity, decrease in population, and poverty followed, known as the Dark Ages. These scholars presumed a discontinuity in religion and cult, and believed that it was not until the second half of the 8th century BC when a sudden economic and cultural advance occurred, forming the basis of Classical Greece, that factors allowed for the emergence of ‘the Greek sanctuary’.

Excavations over the last few decades have begun to demonstrate more continuity than was previously thought, and now findings from the sanctuary of Apollo at Abai at Kalapodi show, for the first time on the Greek mainland, clear evidence of continuous cult activity from at least the Mycenaean Age, through the 'Dark Age', to the Archaic period and beyond - even to the Roman temple built by Hadrian (see below). 
Whilst many truly exciting finds have been made, including votive trophies of weaponry and even chariot wheels, and painted pottery with images of battle and loot, the most interesting aspect of the excavation for me is the way continuity of worship and cult activity was ensured, even through disruption in the use of the temple: be it through the erection of a new building, or destruction by enemy or earthquake. Temporary ritual areas seem to have always existed in between building phases, ensuring that rituals could still be carried out and perhaps even allowing for consultation of the oracle wihout interuption. The meticulous excavation also shows how previous temple buildings were ritually ‘buried’, preserving a great number of votives and other artefacts associated with cult. Perhaps the most astonishing preservation is a unique wall-painting of the 7th century BC with the representation of a battle scene between hoplites. This is a significant find for the history of Greek painting and also lends weight to the theory that many vase painters were influenced by wall paintings.
The wealth of evidence from the site is going to add to current knowledge in many different subject areas, and for this Professor Niemeier is to be lauded. I am looking forward to hearing more, and also to visiting the site!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

An 'early Muslim settlement' discovered in Saudi Arabia

A fascinating settlement, believed to date to the 7th century CE, has been discovered in Damman, in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Dr. Ali I. Al-Ghabban, Deputy Secretary-General for Antiquities and Museums, made the announcement on Monday and was confident in the dating of the site due to the ceramics and other artefacts unearthed so far.

The site is in the Al-Raaka district and within 1km of the Arabian Gulf, but it is not evidence for a fishing industry that is provoking interest, but rather evidence for the the processing of dates.

Although the existence of the site has been known for some time, actual excavation commenced only three months ago and is taking place in cooperation with Saudi Aramco which holds title to the land and which hopes to build a contractor training centre on the site. The excavation team, however, is solely Saudi.

The settlement seems to have been well planned, with about 20 separate 'houses' discovered to date, all of four to five rooms. A well is also located with each cluster of buildings, with 5 being discovered so far. The exciting aspect of the construction of the buildings is that each has a special room which Al-Ghabban considers to be for conserving dates. The floors of these rooms are in the form of furrows and it is proposed that dates were stored thereon and juice collected through the furrows. Whether this hypothesis is supported by known practice in ancient or modern date processing was not mentioned by Al-Ghabban.

Arttefacts recovered from the site so far include clay utensils, pottery with inscriptions, seashells, iron bars and, bizarrely 'a pair of scissors'. Al-Ghabban says that the settlement, which is not mentioned in any literature, ancient or modern, is a very early Muslim village. He does not cite his evidence for this, but perhaps the inscribed pottery gives a clue. This would be a very early Muslim settlement indeed (the Islamic calendar starts in the equivalent of 622 CE) so it will be extremely interesting to hear more of the evidence for this proposition as the excavation continues. In the meantime, the image of the furrowed floor provides a fascinating glimpse into an early highly developed agriculture processing system.