Shedding light on Sanctuaries as spaces for political actions

A conference report by Sarah Herzog & Wang Banban

The international workshop „Sanctuaries as spaces for political actions: approaching the sacred in Greek poleis“, hosted by the Collaborative Research Centre „Material Text Cultures“ from 24 to 26 June 2021, dealt with Greek sanctuaries and different types of political actions taking place within these sacred spaces. Ten speakers from six countries gave talks, ranging from thirty to forty-five minutes, covering periods from the Archaic time to Roman Greek East, examining sources including literary texts, epigraphy, coinage, and material culture.

Sanctuaries were integral to the Greek polis and provided spaces for political activities. In order to deepen our understanding of the relationship between sacredness and the polis the lecturing scientists focused on the question of how this relationship was represented through materiality and texts in the sacred space. The workshop was co-organised by Sarah Herzog, PhD student at the Institute for Classical Archaeology and Byzantine Archaeology, and Wang Banban, research associate and PhD student at the CRC 933 ‚Material Text Cultures‘, subproject A01 UP1, thanks to the generous support by both CRC 933 and the Graduate Academy in Heidelberg University. The organisers received fifty registrations not only from European countries, but also from North America and East Asia.

A short introduction was given in the afternoon of 24 June: the organisers attributed the original idea of the workshop first to the groundbreaking monograph, La naissance de la cité grecque, and a series of conferences, Griechische Heiligtümer als Erinnerungsorte and Griechische Heiligtümer als Handlungsorte.

Jean Vanden Broeck-Parant (Utrecht University) gave his talk on guarantorship of building contracts and its relationship with citizenship. After a delicate graph of social networks between guarantors and contractors, he took guarantors in Epidauros as the main example, arguing that the combination of foreign contractors and local guarantors was a result of political insurance in the polis. While Epidauros had to work with local guarantors, in sanctuaries with a wider political influence like Delphi foreign guarantors were also attested. He argued that this was merely for practical reasons, since the sanctuary had to ensure that money from the guarantors could be claimed if the contract was not fulfilled. In the discussion following the talk we also pursued the question whether guarantorship can be understood as a type of liturgy. 

John Haberstroh (University of California, Riverside) provided a broad overview on various political actions in the sanctuary of Nemean Zeus near Argos in the period he coined as ‚The Long Third Century‘. Basing his research on dedicatory inscriptions, disposition of coinage in the stadium, and literary sources concerning important visitors to the Nemean Games, he presented how different political parties exerted their authority on this Pan-Hellenic site via their presence, their dedications, and their participations in the Games.

Erica Angliker (School of Advanced Study, University of London) shedded light on the building activities of different poleis in the sanctuary of Apollo on Delos in the Archaic and Classical Period. The strong visible Athenian presence on Delos was displayed by their new buildings and festivals there: this not only reflected the fierce competitions between elite groups, but also brought prestige to the sanctuary which would flourish in the Classical and Hellenistic Period. In the following discussion we also learned about her ongoing research on Despotiko, another Cycladic island nearby.

Sarah Herzog (Heidelberg University) argued in her talk on the basis of two case studies that similarities in the visual appearance between the urban and an extra-urban sanctuary of a polis could occur and that these were recognized by viewers who knew both temples. Through their own aesthetic agency, and foremost through the agency of their viewers, the similarities in the visual appearance of the temple buildings could even be politically effective.

Floris van den Eijnde and Janric van Rookhuijzen (Utrecht University) discussed the possible identities of the korai dedicated on the Athenian Acropolis in the Archaic Period, arguing that they were votives on behalf of aristocratic families as a commemoration of their daughters’ cultic service as Arrephoroi. Further, they addressed the question why the dedications of korai suddenly ceased in the Classical Period. They presented the interesting idea that the maidens of the classical Karyatid porch should be understood as communal successors to the individual korai, which could be considered self-enhancing aristocratic monuments that were tabooed in the emerging democratic ethos.

During the talk of Chiara Tarditi (Università Cattolica, Milan & Brescia) we stayed focused on the Athenian Acropolis and the material evidence, but turned from sculpture to bronze vessels. Very few complete bronze vessels remained from the Archaic and Classical Period. The pieces that survived to us were often pieces that could be considered as important, for example, pieces with inscriptions or decorations. Thus, Chiara Tarditi argued, that a piece of a dedication could remain as pars pro toto in the sanctuary, while the rest of the vessel could be resmelted.

Wang Banban (Heidelberg University) gave a theoretical reflection on writing documents on monuments in sacred spaces in the Hellenistic Period. In order to analyze the phenomenon of reuse in a processual perspective, he proposed to understand the practice of writing new documents on existing monuments as an ongoing process of abduction of contemporary functions and original intentions. With examples selected in Delphi, Gortyna, and Sardis, he showed the complexity and uncertainty during the epigraphic life of monuments after it had been originally erected.

The talk given by Natasha Bershadsky (Harvard University) brought us back to the Archaic and Classical Period, for the hero cult for the legendary poet Hesiod in a perspective of conflicts between neighbouring cities. Arguing that the struggle for Hesiod’s corpse and tomb was crucial to relevant poleis in intercity competition, she presented historical and literary sources on the transfer of Hesiod’s bones and contextualised the event with archaeological sources of the tomb and the heroic sanctuary. The usage of literary sources attracted further questions, which in turn resulted in a good discussion on how the perception of Hesiod’s work can influence later narratives on his own life.

Dafni Maikidou-Poutrino (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki) started the last day of the conference with a study on social history in Hellenistic and Roman Thessaloniki, focusing on the sanctuary of the Egyptian deity Serapis. By analyzing the rich epigraphic sources with recent archaeological information, she sketched a delicate mechanism in which different social actors, ranging from rulers to local citizens and religious communities, interacted with other groups, taking the Serapeum as both a space for action and a platform for displaying their political agenda.

The final talk of the workshop, given by Elisabetta di Virgilio (University of Campania), offered us a case study on feasting culture on the island of Tenos (Cyclades). Thanks to traces of food, culinary material, architectural structure, and relevant inscriptions, she provided the audience with a reconstruction of the area for feasting on Tenos; inscriptions also shedded light on foreign influences on the practice of feasting. With ongoing archaeological projects and edition of new inscriptions, as she pointed out, the picture of feasting is expected to be richer.

In the final discussion, we raised again the questions on the definition of ‚political‘, on contributions of different types of sources, and on the relationship between pan-Hellenism and localism. On the last question, we agreed that the two trends in sanctuaries are not necessarily an opposition, but could also be complementary. Sanctuaries could be both local and Pan-Hellenic; the emphasis on localism or Pan-Hellenism could shift over time or maybe even within one year on different occasions in the sanctuary.

We benefited much from the great talks and lively interdisciplinary discussions and we would like to take that opportunity to thank again all speakers and participants that took part in our workshop – sometimes even at crazy hours due to the time difference!


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