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!



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