Saturday, June 29, 2013

Arkadian Eyrie – The Temple of Apollo Epikourios

Once it a while, I come across a site that strikes me as so magnificent and mysterious that I wonder why I didn’t know about it before, why it’s not spoken of by everyone with an inclination to ancient history.

If you’ve been reading my blogs you’ll know that I love to travel and have done so quite a bit in Greece. A few years ago, I was touring some of the major sites with friends and family - Delphi, Mycenae, Olympia etc. The biggies.

After Olympia, we drove back into the Arkadian mountains. It was hot and bright, and the cicadas were whirring louder than I had ever heard before. As I was navigating a particularly treacherous series of mountain switchbacks, my father-in-law said that we should go south to Bassae.

1986 view of the site from
Mount Kotilion
“Bassae?” I said. “What’s there?”

“Some ruins,” he answered. “There is a temple of Apollo Epikourios.”

“Apollo Epi-what?” I half-answered, too focussed on the road to pronounce this new, strange word. 

Admittedly my first thought was of Apicius and food – no matter that the Roman gourmet was about a six hundred or so years off. I was starving!

So we turned south, into the teeth of even larger mountains.

Apollo Epikourios means ‘Apollo the Succourer’ or ‘Apollo the Helper’.

Artist's impression of the
temple interior
The epithet refers to Apollo’s role as a god of healing. In the mid-seventh century B.C., Spartan warriors and plague came to the people of Phigaleia who were living in these high mountains. Many offerings in the form of weapons were found on site indicating that originally, in this place, Apollo was worshipped as a martial god. However, after escaping Spartan aggression and the plague of later years, Apollo became a succourer or helper to the Phigalians.

In gratitude, the Phigalians commissioned the architect Ictinus to build the temple at Bassae. Ictinus was one of the architects of the Parthenon and the great Temple of Mysteries at Eleusis.

In the second century A.D. Pausanias visited Bassae and the temple there:

Phigalia is surrounded by mountains, on the left by Mount Cotilius, while on the right it is sheltered by Mount Elaius. Mount Cotilius is distant about forty furlongs from the city: on it is a place called Bassae, and the temple of Apollo the Succourer, built of stone, roof and all. Of all the temples in the Peloponnese, next to the one at Tegea, this may be placed first for the beauty of the stone and the symmetry of its proportions. Apollo got the name of Succourer for the succour he gave in time of plague, just as at Athens he received the surname of Averter of Evil for delivering Athens also from the plague. It was at the time of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians that he delivered the Phigalians also, and at no other time: This is proved by his two surnames, which mean much the same thing, as well by the fact that Ictinus, the architect of the temple at Phigalia, was a contemporary of Pericles, and built for the Athenians the Parthenon, as it is called.” (Pausanias)

When most tourists visit the Peloponnese today, they focus on sites like Mycenae, Epidaurus, ancient Corinth and of course, Olympia. Why wouldn’t folks head for these places? They are magnificent sites that are all worth visiting – more than once.

However, if you are more adventurous and enjoy heading off the beaten path, the Peloponnese holds some hidden treasures that are not always prominently featured in guidebooks or on tour itineraries.

Bassae, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of those special, unsung places. Academics know about it but few tourists make it there. In fact, due to its remote location, it lay mostly forgotten until the early nineteenth century.

Our car whined up the steep mountain, higher and higher, the sunlight blinding. I felt like Icarus for a moment, driving up and up.

Temple covered by the
 tent in 1987 *p.9
We finally levelled out and our eyes were met by a giant, white…tent.

“This is weird,” I remembered saying. I had no idea what lay beneath the white, sail barge structure. 

We paid our minimal entry fee to the lady in the wooden site booth; she sat smoking and sipping an hours-old frappé.

The mountain top was rocky and desolate, patched with hardy olive trees and shrubs. We made our way up the rocky path to the tent and stepped beneath the awning.

I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Doric outer columns and cella wall
Up there, at what felt like the top of the world, was a magnificent stone temple, one of the most complete temples I had ever seen. The stone was cracked in many places, pounded by the elements for centuries in its eyrie.

But it was intact, columns and walls, foundations. A few stray rays of sunlight made their way into the shaded sanctum to illuminate the cella. We were the only visitors on site and the main sense that invaded my person was pure awe.

Temple steps and supported columns
Bassae’s Temple of Apollo is a particularly important specimen, and not just because of the architect. It contained the earliest known example of a Corinthian capital which was displayed in the middle of the naos which was lined with Ionic columns. However, on the outside of the temple, the strength and support of the structure is provided by strong Doric columns, fifteen on each long side and six on the ends.

One of the things that make this temple unique is this incorporation of all three of the classical orders of
Reconstruction of the cella showing
Ionic and Corinthian columns
and friezes *p.27
columns. Also, the interior of the cella was ornamented with a series of beautifully detailed friezes of the Amazonomachy (Battle of the Amazons) and the Battle Centaurs and Lapiths.

You can see the Bassae Friezes at the British Museum where they are on display, far from their home at the top of that lonely mountain.

I think I was in such awed shock the first time that I didn’t quite realize what I was looking at. Some places do that to you. The power of the place and setting can quite overwhelm the academic eye.

After wandering around the temple for a time, we went back outside into the sun to look at the surrounding countryside. These were some of the highest mountains in Arkadia and they stretched out in all directions. It is a quiet, contemplative atmosphere.

Unique side door to the cella
Outside the cicadas were louder than ever but it is a sound I have come to associate with peace. The air was hot but dry and tinged with wild thyme that must once have been laid upon Apollo’s altar by the Phigalians.

We stood in the sun and looked to Mount Kotilon where the map indicated that there was a Temple to Aphrodite and another to Artemis Orthasia, the ‘Protector of Small Children’.

These mountains are a place for gods.

I hope, one day, to return to Bassae. I want to circle the Temple of Apollo Epikourios and to remember the Phigalians who thanked him for his aid by building him this magnificent sanctuary in the sky.


* A useful source on the temple of Apollo Epikourios is:
The Temple of Apollo Epikourios: A Journey Through Time and Space published by the Greek Ministry of Culture Committee for the Preservation of the Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai

Friday, June 21, 2013

Pompeii - A Summer of Archaeology

This week, we’re in for a treat. We’re going to Pompeii.

No, this isn’t a piece about a timeslip novel. We’re going to hear about an archaeologist’s first-hand experience excavating in one of the most important, fascinating and haunting sites in the history of the Roman Empire.

I’ve travelled to many places, but Pompeii is one place I have not yet explored.

So, when I found out my colleague, archaeologist Andrea Williams, had worked for a summer at Pompeii, I asked if she would be willing to do a piece on her experiences.

Lucky for us, she agreed.


Pompeii street view from
city wall
It had been 1,920 years since Vesuvius’ most catastrophic eruption and I was buried alive three metres below ground in the ancient city.  

To be more specific, I was standing at the bottom of a deep stone-lined cistern in the ruins of a house in Pompeii. I had been lowered down there by the site director to investigate how the cistern connected to the house’s water system. I was a second year archaeology student on my first dig and I was loving every minute of it.

As an undergrad archaeology major at the University of Toronto, I needed to take a field school course to complete my program. There were local field schools I could have joined, 19th century homesteads and the like.  Craving something a little grander, I chose to go to Pompeii, the world's most famous archaeological city and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There's no way I could sum up my whole experience with the Anglo-American Project in Pompeii:
Peristyle garden excavation
there are just too many stories to tell. About 90 people joined the project in 1999, students and staff from all over the world. We lived in tents at Camping Spartacus for the whole season where we were fed a daily menu of cappuccino breakfasts, pasta lunches and wood-oven pizza dinners. The campground was located directly beside the Circumvesuviana train line. On the first night, while I was dozing in my sleeping bag, the ground started shaking and there was a thunderous rumble: I thought Vesuvius was erupting! It was just a train passing mere metres away from my tent.

It was my experiences exploring Pompeii and observing visitors that inspired me to pursue an MA in archaeological site management instead of specializing in the archaeology of any one culture or region.

Excavations along the
Via Narcissus
In Pompeii, we were followed everywhere by stray dogs. I picked up a decent Italian vocabulary quite quickly. We learned a lot about the physics and the chemistry of volcanic eruptions and about the 79 A.D. eruption in particular. As archaeologists, we became tourist attractions in our own right: we were photographed, videoed and interviewed about our work. We also got special behind-the-scenes visits to several archaeological sites in the Naples area.

Every morning and afternoon, the group would hike from the lower, modern town of Pompeii through the Porta Marina and the forum of the ancient city all the way up to the House of the Vestals at Porta Ercolano, where our excavation was centered.

Collapsed wall
And every evening, in the free hour or two between work and the dinner bell, I'd explore the ruins. My official archaeologists' permit allowed me to walk around anywhere, so I saw a significant portion of the city that's off limits to regular visitors.

There were so many questions that came to mind on site: how is it possible to care for an entire open-air ancient city like this? How can visitor access and site protection be balanced? How is it possible for visitors to understand such a large, complex archaeological site? What about the large unexcavated sections in the city - can these be exposed and studied even as so much of the rest of Pompeii is crumbling?

In a trench on the
Via Narcissus
That's me in my trench, which was part of the sidewalk on the Via Narcissus (a little angled street just east of Via Consolare). It turns out that my square was the spot where people dumped their broken pottery. I uncovered stacked-up sherds of the same vessels: someone had collected the smashed pieces, cradled them in hand and then placed them in the alley. Once the excavated soil was sifted and water-sorted, we also found tiny fish scales and bones, pieces of sea urchin shell, seeds and nuts. I even found a preserved beetle shell.

Copper alloy handle
My personal best artifact that summer was an ornate copper alloy handle. The beautiful green of the metal stood out clearly as I brushed away the gray-brown soil. I also found gorgeous iridescent glass gaming pieces that looked like turquoise and purple jellybeans.

Lead shot
In that alleyway, we uncovered evidence of the Siege of Pompeii by General Sulla in 89 B.C. This part of Via Narcissus is right up against the city wall: Sulla’s army must have set up their catapults just there on the other side. We discovered lead shot and volcanic stone ballista balls buried in the deeper layers of soil along the street. 

I know that the situation in Pompeii has changed since 1999. I heard that there is better wayfinding signage now and that more buildings have been opened for public viewing.  I also know that damage and decay of the walls, streets and other elements is continuing. [link:]

Copper handle
It was an important experience for me to be part of such a large team of like-minded students and academics when I was still getting an idea of what I really wanted to study. I learned how to excavate, classify artifacts and survey monuments but I also got myself some kind of direction for the future.  

Now, 14 years later, I’m working as an archaeologist in site management, not in the field but for the government. It’s not UNESCO level but I think it is important work nonetheless.

-Andrea Williams

For more information about the Anglo American Project in Pompeii visit:].

Be sure to visit Andrea’s website at:

I’d like to thank Andrea for sharing her photos and taking the time to tell us a bit about her experiences in Pompeii.

It’s definitely on my list of places to visit!

If you are an aspiring archaeologist, the Anglo American Project sounds like a brilliant way to explore and get to know this amazing place.

For those of you interested in dramatic representations of historical events, here is a link to Pompeii:The Last Day. This will give you a taste of the terror that it seems the citizens of that ancient city went through in its final days. Pyroclastic surge anyone?

Thanks for reading, everyone!