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From Tripoli to Lykosoura

Tripoli is a rarity among the larger towns of modern day Greece in that it isn’t located at the site of an ancient polis. As the major town of Arcadia it is, however, home to a museum housing finds from various sites throughout that region including the Classical poleis of Tegea, Mantinea and Megalopolis, the “Great City” which was founded in the early 4th century BC as a synoikism (a bringing together) of most of the smaller polis in the area – it was an idea on the part of the Thebans to create a mighty centralised power in the region to hold Sparta in check. A lot of small towns in Greece have their own museums (as does modern Tegea, for example) and most of the really impressive artefacts from the smaller sites have ended up in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens so I was very curious today to see what exactly the collection at Tripoli was like.

I’ve never quite got used to the way that in local Greek museums the museum guards are required to follow you closely as you make your way through the galleries. When you are the only one in the museum, as I was today, that means that the guard constantly hovers no more than a few metres away. The lady shadowing me was very friendly and helpful but even so it is a little off-putting and makes it hard to relax and really take in what you are looking at.

I think that one of the reasons the guards at Tripoli museum are required to be so vigilant is that they enforce an almost total ban on photographs. You often find that you aren’t allowed to take photos in Greek museums because certain artefacts have yet to be published in academic journals. Particular researchers have been assigned the rights to work on particular artefacts and they don’t want images of them circulating too widely before their work is finished. Unfortunately there is a lot of material sitting in museums in Greece that has been waiting for publication for a very long time. I think that nowadays new discoveries tend to be published quite quickly and efficiently but it is frustrating that some of the older discoveries still haven’t been and I find a great shame that I wasn’t allowed to capture some images for my own record of some of the things I saw today.

I should stress that I’m only surmising that in this case the problem was publication rights and strangely there was at least one artefact in the museum – a famous inscription from Mantinea – that has been published and which you still aren’t allowed to take a snap off. Still, I’d been warned about that by a colleague so I wasn’t too disappointed. There were a few objects that I was allowed to photograph and the guard very kindly pointed them all out to me but, to be honest, most of them weren’t the things I was most interested in, with the exception of this rather beautiful female portrait head of Trajanic period, with a particularly elaborate and well executed hairstyle. It was apparently found at Lykosoura, the site I was going to see this afternoon.

Trajanic (98-117 AD) female portrait head - found at Lykosoura
Trajanic (98-117 AD) female portrait head – found at Lykosoura

Apart from that head some of the other exciting things I saw included a couple of reliefs showing the Dioscouroi (Castor and Pollux) standing facing each other, holding the bridles of two horses, fascinating because they apparently date to the 4th Century AD, a time when paganism was waning and Christianity was taking hold of the Roman Empire. I was also particularly impressed with a whole collection of sculpture – statues and reliefs – that came from the estate of Herodes Atticus at Loukoi. Herodes was without doubt the richest man in Greece in the mid 2nd Century AD. He associated with emperors such as Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius and paid for a whole range of major benefactions at his home city, Athens, as well as at Corinth, Olympia and Delphi. He had various estates in Greece, including one near Marathon in Attica and the one at Loukou in the Argolid where these sculptures came from.

Apparently there are other sculptures from this villa site at another Greek museum which have also not been published though there is supposed to be dissertation about some of them. I am definitely going to look into what has been written about this material. The sculptures at Tripoli include a few Hellenistic grave monuments, each a couple of metres tall and in high relief, one of the strangest portraits supposed to be of Marcus Aurelius that I’ve ever seen and a rather lovely portrait bust of a boy Herodes adopted called Polydeukes, who died young and who is known from other statues. There was also an amazing relief showing a sacrifice to Apollo with the god Pan in attendance. Tripoli museum also has an impressive collection of pottery and bronze artefacts and is definitely worth a visit.

After leaving Tripoli I set off for the site of Lykosoura, a site that has long held a deep fascination for me but which I’d not previously visited. For all sorts of reasons this rural sanctuary has always struck me as one of the most magical of archaeological sites in Greece. In the first place because it is one of the few places where ancient cult statues have actually been discovered – not just sculpted representations of the gods, which were fairly common in the ancient world and are indeed well represented in modern museum collections – but the actual, over life-size statues that were worshipped in the temple itself – or at least substantial pieces of them.

Lykosoura was home to a cult that centred on a local variant of the myth of Demeter and Persephone, which I discussed a few pieces ago in connection with the famous mystery cult of Eleusis in Attica. In the 19th century archaeologists discovered the heads of Demeter, Artemis and the Titan Anytos, who both played an important role in the cult at the site. The head of Persephone, or Despoina (the “Mistress”), as she was known here, was not discovered but several other pieces of the sculpture were. These were so-called Acrolithic statues, made part from stone and part from wood, which has naturally long since rotted away. These sculptures are now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and I’ve always found it a slightly eerie sensation standing before them there to think that these were the very statues that people stood before over two thousand years ago believing they were in the presence of the gods. I don’t actually have any of my own photos of these statues so I’m looking forward to seeing them again when I get back to Athens. I’ll post some pictures here or on Twitter but for now here are the photos of them from Wikipedia:

The Lykosoura sculptures in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens
The Lykosoura sculptures in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens

The reason that we know these are the actual cult statues is that they are vividly described in Pausanias’ second century AD description of his travels in Greece, which is the second reason that I find Lykosoura such a magical site. When we look into the faces of these statues in Athens we know that they are the same faces that stared impassively back at Pausanias when he visited the temple. Lykosoura like Eleusis was also home to a mystery cult where people were initiated in secret rites in the hope of a better life after death. Pausanias’ religious scruples here, as elsewhere, prevent him from describing those rites but he does give us one wonderfully evocative detail about the cult – he says that there was a mirror near the entrance and that on leaving the temple, if you gazed into the mirror you would see the reflections of the cult statues standing on their bases but would be unable to see your own reflection. I’ve sometimes thought they should put a mirror next to the door of the gallery where the statues are displayed in the National Archaeological Museum to see what happens!

The final reason that I’ve always found Lykosoura so alluring is that Pausanias also tells us who these statues were made by – an artists called Damophon from Messene, the other city that was founded in the 4th century BC to hold Sparta in check, in the southwest Peloponnese. That’s where I’m heading for tomorrow. Damophon is, thanks to Pausanias’ work, probably the Hellenistic artist who we know most about, even though he isn’t mentioned by any other ancient authors. Pausanias tells us that he was responsible for repairing the famous 5th century BC statue of Zeus at Olympia. He was also responsible for a series of statues that stood at Messene itself. Thanks to those discoveries, and a few inscriptions that mention him, scholars, and in particular, Professor Themelis, the excavator of Messene, have been able to gain quite a bit of insight into Damophon’s career and his artistic style and to date his activity to somewhere around the early 2nd Century BC. So the statues from Lykosoura aren’t just special because they are cult statues they are special because they are some of the only surviving original works from the antiquity by a named artist. Most of the other works of named artists that we have survived only as later copies.

So, did the visit measure up to my expectations? Well, after mentioning yesterday that I’d bought a very good map of the Peloponnese you might be surprised to hear that I spent a good hour and half driving around looking for the site this afternoon. It’s in the vicinity of Megalopolis, a modern town at the site of the ancient polis, which now lies next to an enormous industrial plant with a coal power station at its heart. It was quite surreal driving along windy country lanes and through otherwise typically quaint Greek villages but with a colossal chimney in the background and every so often driving beneath shoots transporting coal from one part of the site to the other. I made a lot of wrong turns, came to a lot of dead ends and finally only found the site by asking people for directions, which is what I should have done in the first place.

The site was far more off the beaten track than I’d imagined, at the end of a winding road through thick green forest. As I approached the site I felt that I was really in Arcadia the idyllic pastoral paradise that had inspired the imagination of writers such as Horace in antiquity and Keats in more recent times. I even drove past a strangely wise looking old goat, with shaggy brown hair and a slight limp and could imagine for a second that this was Pan himself. It took me a good twenty minutes to reach the site from Megalopolis and that gave me a very good impression of what it must have been like for ancient pilgrims such as Pausanias making their way through what I can only assume must have been a rather similar landscape in antiquity. I’ve always found that one of the most useful things about travelling around visiting sites in Greece is getting a feel for how the landscape fits together and for how easy or difficult it was to get from place to place in antiquity.

The ruins of Lykosoura - view from over the fence
The ruins of Lykosoura – view from over the fence
Arcadia - the view from Lykosoura
Arcadia – the view from Lykosoura

Finally arriving at Lykosoura I was strangely not as disappointed as you might expect to discover that the site was shut – fenced off and with heavy chains on the gates. Perhaps I had, once again, arrived too late although I wouldn’t be surprised if a site as remote as this was rarely open. I can’t imagine it gets many visitors and even though I’d found a website saying it should be open Sunday to Saturday 9:00-16:00 it’s possible that it’s now only open in certain months of the year. I could make out some of the walls of some of the sanctuary buildings and that was about it. I thought about climbing the fence but for one thing, that wouldn’t be right and for another I didn’t want to find myself lying at the bottom of it with a broken leg waiting days for somebody to find me. But anyway, I was content to just get a feel for the place; to stand there on top of the hill looking out over miles of woodland, as if Megalopolis and the power station were part of a different world. Maybe I’ll go back there one day, but for now Demeter and the Mistress had managed to keep their secret from me, just as Pausanias would have liked it.

Now I’m in Kalamata in the very south of the Peloponnese. After a long day on the road I am about to head off for another fish supper by the sea. Tomorrow I’ll be off to Messene. I’m going to stay there for a couple of days and will be meeting with the archaeologists working there. I don’t know if I’ll have internet access or time to blog there but I’ll post something about the site soon.

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