Kerameikos in Athens

The Kerameikos site in Athens feels at first a bit of a disappointment. It’s not well signed and so not that easy to find. The Kerameikos underground station is in the middle of a business regeneration area, an old gas works that has been turned into small business units for design and tech companies. The surrounding bars are equally trendy.

The Kerameikos site contains remnants of the old city walls, two of the main gates to the city and some reconstructed grave steles. But it’s bounded to one side by a main road and enclosed by modern buildings. However, once you start to explore it, it seems to have an atmosphere all of its own and it’s full of reminders of the ancient Greeks . It also has one of the best small museums in the city.

The site is crossed by one of the best preserved sections of the ancient city wall that was built by Themistocles in 479-478 BC to protect Athens against the Persians. I really like the solidity and beautiful design of these walls, incredible considering the speed at which they were thrown up. Although destroyed by Sulla in 86 BC they were rebuilt under Justinian and lasted in total for about 1,000 years.

The site also incorporates two city gates: the Sacred Gate which was only used for processions to celebrate the Mysteries at Eleusis, and the road to Peiraias which ran through the Dyplon gate.

Originally the Kerameikos was the area of the potters who used the clay from the River Eridanos that flowed alongside the Peiraias road and then it became the place (the Demosion Sema) where notable Athenians (including Lycurgus, Pericles and Kleisthenes) and the war dead were buried. There are very few remains of the public cemetery still left, but one notable exception is a monument to the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) who were killed in 403 BC which is still in good condition (minus its top and contents). It was excavated during the First World War and the skeletons of the Spartan soldiers were found intact.

The road to Peiraias passed by Plato’s academy (now buried under the concrete of the road and buildings beyond the perimeter wall in the photograph below).

The open area to the left in the above picture was used for funeral games and was also probably the site of Pericles Funeral Oration in 430 BC in honour of the Athenians killed in the Peloponnesian Wars.

The site also contains the remains of a building called the Pompeion that dates back to 400 BC. Here those involved in the great Panathenaic festival procession (that also features in the Parthenon Marbles) were robed and pre-festival feasting took place. At one time it apparently held a bronze statue of Socrates, but the building was destroyed by Sulla in 86 BC.

The Street of the Tombs contains mainly replicas steles, the originals of many of which are in the site museum.

I think the museum is the best part of the site, particularly the grave steles. This is a cavalry soldier:

The grave stele for two sisters:

A touching stele of a mother and baby who presumably dies in childbirth:

This is an unusual one with a dead woman looking into a mirror:

and this one of a man holding some form of implement. Having recently seen some Bhangra dhol drummers performing and using curved drumsticks, I wonder whether it is actually a Greek drumstick he is looking at so intently:

I like the little dog jumping up at the youth in this one:

Here is am interesting sculpture on the side of a basin:

and a scene of horseman on the side of a sarcophagus:

There are a couple of sphynxes on display:

and a lion:

Some pottery that looks Minoan in style:

Finally, one of my favourite items is this brilliantly realised bull that originally stood on an arch stele raised in honour of Dionysios of Kallytos.

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Valley of the Temples, Agrigento

The Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) near Agrigento is a stunning series of monuments built by the Ancient Greek colony in Sicily. ‘Valley’ is a bit of a misnomer though as the temple complex is spread along a ridge and connected by a sacred way.

The first temple you come across was thought at one time to be dedicated to Hera (Giunone), but that’s probably not the case. It is a massive temple, with an enormous 10 step altar in front of it. It was built like most of the temples on the site in the 5th century BC from the loot taken from the Carthaginians following their defeat in 480 BC.

Along the sacred way are the remains of the settlement’s protective walls. At some point in the Christian era rock tombs were hollowed out of these walls.

The next major site along the sacred way is one of the most complete Greek temples in the world, the so-called Temple of Concordia. An inscription was found nearby with the word Concordia and this was taken to be the name of the Temple. Judging by its size it looks more like a Temple of Zeus (although there is another huge temple to Zeus at the end of the sacred way). It is in incredible condition and gives a real sense of what the temples would have looked like to their original builders.

In the 4th-5th century AD, the temple was turned into a Christian basilica by a local bishop, a common practice to Christianise pagan sites in places where the newly converted were used to gathering when they practised their old religion. Another very good example of this practice is the church dedicated to St George that was built in the Temple of Ifaistos in the Ancient Agora in Athens which is similarly extremely very well-preserved (see my earlier blog post on the Agora here).

The stone looks very crumbly and in places you can still see some of the original stucco that has helped to preserve it over the centuries.

The third temple on the site, the oldest, is dedicated to Ercole (Hercules) and dates back to the 6th century BC. Apart from a few remaining columns however, the site is just a jumble of massive stones.

The final temple we visited is dedicated to Zeus It’s on a massive scale, but  again it’s very hard to get a sense of what it looked like originally as it is totally in ruins.

The temperature on site on the day we visited was 30 C and there is virtually no shade. In addition, the sacred way is about 3-4 kms long, so we were very glad to hop on a shuttle bus to get back to the entrance to the site at the end of our visit.

Later that evening we dined at the nearby Re di Grigenti restaurant, the terrace of which has a spectacular view out over the Valley of the Temples.

In Montalbano country

Outside the city of Agrigento in southern Sicily, you’re in Montalbano territory. This is the area where the writer of the Montalbano stories lived and some of the local landmarks feature in the TV series. The Scala dei Turchi (Cliff of the Turks), for example, is a brilliant white, stepped basalt outcrop pictured above.

It’s a beautiful and relaxing spot: the place in the television series where Montalbano met his informer. A few miles down the road and the coastline flattens out to a sandy beach at Torre di Salsa. Further along the coast, the working port town of Porta d’Empedocle also features in the TV series, as does Agrigento police station.

As it happens, we didn’t manage to see much of central Agrigento. But our adventures in Sicilian traffic will have to wait for another post.

 

 

 

Roman mosaics of the Villa Romana Del Casale in Sicily (2)

This is my second post on the Roman mosaics of the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily – the first can be found here.

Probably the most famous mosaic in the villa is that of the so-called ‘bikini girls’, a group of eight girls engaged in various types of sporting activity, apparently wearing bikinis. This was though apparently standard wear for girls taking part in athletics contests. It’s unusual in its subject matter and is full of life and movement. It’s quite a contrast with the formality of many of the other mosaics in the villa.

The portion of geometric patterned mosaic in the top left hand corner of the room shows that at some later date the owners decided to cover over the mosaic of the girls. In other parts of the villa some of the mosaics were also later covered with a layer of concrete. Perhaps tastes change or, in a Christian era, the mosaic was seen to be too immodest.

The girl in the middle of the bottom row  wears a laurel crown and holds a palm frond, clearly she is being crowned the victor in these games.

One of the rooms has a depiction of children fishing from boats:

Another room has a whole mosaic dedicated to the watery theme based around Poseidon

At the centre of the villa is the basilica, an audience room, where the Master of the estate would have received visitors, probably seated on a throne under the apse. Today all that is left is the floor and part of the walls.

As you can see in the picture below the floor is very uneven in places. This seems odd because none of the other floors in the villa show anything like the buckling that is evident here. Originally the floor and the walls were covered with polished marbles from all over the  Roman Empire in the Mediterranean, including Egypt, Greece, Asia Minor and Syria. Evidence once again of the power and wealth of the original builders and owners of the villa.

One room has a mosaic depicting Ulysses giving a draft of wine to the Cyclops:

In the Master or Mistress’s private rooms there are some interesting portraits:

An image in a bedroom with a bit of seaside postcard erotica:

A dining room with depictions of fruit:

Finally a couple of mosaics of children, one of them playing games

and one of them engaged in a chariot race in a hippodrome:

Apart from wealth, the original owner must have had access to very skilled craftsmen to undertake such extensive mosaic work to such a high standard. It is now believed that many of the craftsmen came from parts of the Roman Empire in Africa.

Roman mosaics of the Villa Romana Del Casale in Sicily (1)

The Villa Romana del Casale is about 5km south west of Piazza Armerina in eastern Sicily and is the site of a 4th century AD Roman estate. It was inhabited until about the 12th century when it was covered by a mudslide and was not rediscovered until the mid 20th century.

The villa has some of the most extensive and high quality mosaics in Italy. Originally, the site was the main centre of a latifundium (a large estate). It is not known who the owner/builder of the villa was, though whoever it was may have had Imperial connections. They certainly had pots of money, as it is estimated that it took 50-60 years to complete the mosaics. I’m sure we’ve all known builders like that…

At the entrance to the villa are a set of baths with dressing area, massage room and hot and cold pools. One of the most interesting mosaics shows the mistress (domina) of the house walking to the baths with two servant girls and possibly two sons or slave boys.

[Apologies for the variations in light and some of the angles of the shots – conditions were not ideal]

There’s also a communal family loo:

Some interesting geometric mosaics:

The mosaic floors also make use of intriguing trompe-l’oeil effects in the borders:

One long corridor that leads towards the basilica features a whole range of wild animals:

Thee are also some quite brutal hunting scenes which remind me of the equally savage animal depictions in the mosaics of the Great Palace in Istanbul that I covered in an earlier post.

The most impressive mosaic is one huge, continuous scene in the corridor in front of the basilica (the reception room of the villa). It depicts the hunting, capture and transfer from Africa to Rome of a huge variety of wild animals for display and combat in the Circus games.

 

‘Take that, for letting that valuable specimen get away!”

They obviously packed the animals carefully to protect them on the sea journey to Rome.

Obviously some animals were more difficult than others to bring on board ship:

At one part of the mosaic there are two richly dressed figures surveying the scene. It is possible that the one on the left is the owner of the villa:

Delphi Mueseum

I’ve blogged recently about my visit to the archaeological site of Delphi and previously about the remarkable bronze statue of the Charioteer of Delphi in the site museum. Now I would like to write about some of the other exhibits in the museum.

The sculpture in the picture above is on the path that leads to the museum and intrigued me when I looked at it. Sometimes objects just draw your attention without you quite knowing why. It’s something to do with the repetition of the shell shapes, the stylised leaves and whirls, and that strange flower at the top with what appears to be handles half way up the stem. I’ve read somewhere that shells were sometimes used in frescoes to indicate death. In the famous mosaic of Theodora in San Vitale in Ravenna she is shown standing under a scallop-shaped building which some people have taken to mean that the mosaic was made after her death.

A 4th century BC head of a woman (supposedly influenced by Praxiteles):

I liked the next head too, not for any merit in the sculpting, but because it still bears traces of colour from the original paint. Looking at perfect white sculptures in museums today, it is easy to forget that many were painted when they were originally made and that the paint has worn off over the centuries or (as in the case of the Parthenon marbles) been cleaned off to conform to a false concept of what classical sculpture should look like.

A statue described as a ‘philosopher’:

The column of the Dancing Girls was donated to Delphi by Athens in 330BC. It consisted a drum column, on top of which sat this sculpture of girls in dancing attitudes.

Above the statue of the girls originally sat a cauldron and above that an omphalos (the marble original of which is now lost) in a woollen net with precious jewels set at the intersections of the net. On top of the cauldron perched a double eagle. It must have been spectacular!

A statue of Antinoos, lover of the Emperor Hadrian who drowned in the Nile in 130AD in mysterious circumstances.

Various metopes from the Treasury of the Siphnians showing the Gigantomachy (Battle of the Gods against the Giants):

One of my favourite pieces from the museum is this Sphynx donated by the island of Naxos. Originally it stood on a 12.5m marble column next to the Rock of the Sybil. 

This pair of kouroi, a gift from Argos in 580BC, are thought to depict two brother Cleobis and Biton. Their story is rather odd. They dragged their mother in her cart to Argos to worship at the temple of Hera when the oxen were not available. At the temple the mother asked Hera for a gift for her sons and she granted them a peaceful death in their sleep.  A case of be careful what you ask for – especially when your mother is involved. Alternatively they could represent the dioskouroi, Castor and Pollux (twin brothers of Helen and Clytemnestra) and the children of Leda.

I can’t remember what this group is, but I really like their slightly sinister smiley faces and the way the artist has captured the figures in movement.

The following two figures are remarkable chryselephantine statues. The first one is possibly 6th century BC and depicts Apollo:

The second, also possibly 6th century BC, depicts Artemis.

The next statue is thought to depict Dionysus, originally holding a lyre, from the west pediment of the temple of Apollo (4th century BC):

A winged Victory figure with leg raised in a running pose:

The face of a rather cuddly looking lion:

A badly damaged 6th century BC Apollo sitting rather uncomfortably on a tripod, from the east pediment of his temple. Originally he would have been holding a myrtle branch and a flat cup (symbols of his oracle) and accompanied on either side by the Muses:

Finally, one of the star exhibits, a statue of a bull originally made from three silver sheets by an Ionian artist in 6th century BC: