Beyond the polis
Ritual practices and the construction of social identity in Early Greece
(ca. 12th-6th centuries BC)
Beyond the polis is an international research project based at the Faculty of Classics at the University of Oxford and in the CReA-Patrimoine at the Université libre de Bruxelles, ULB. The project, funded by the Ph. Wiener-M. Anspach Foundation, is led by Prof. I. Lemos and Prof. A. Tsingarida.
The Greek polis, as a political and territorial entity, is a remarkable social organisation that emerged in the Greek world after the collapse of the Mycenaean palace system and the “transition” period that followed. Because of its very distinctive character within the ancient world, the city-state dominates the study of Greek history. As a result, earlier literature often links the polis with communal rites and feasting in sacred or public spaces. Scholars consider that these activities were a means to enhance the territory or group cohesion.
Previous scholarship has discussed cult and burial practices for periods earlier than the formation of the polis, but we have need of an up-to-date study of collective ceremonies from the Post Palatial period (ca 12th-11th c. BC) to the Archaic period (6th c. BC). Recent archaeological discoveries and their interpretations therefore reveal complex communal practices that must be examined within a wider social context and, more importantly, beyond the structure of the Greek polis.
The project aims to study distinctive collective rituals which already occur in the Early Iron Age, and which extend into the Archaic period. Four significant study cases have been taken as a starting point. They will provide evidence about collective activities performed near settlements or city walls: the circular structures at Lefkandi, the Sacred House in the Academy of Athens, the EIA Amyklaion in Lakonia and the Archaic Building Complex in Itanos. Thanks to a one-year extension granted to the program, each of these case studies will be examined in the light of further evidence on ritual practices on one hand, from the same -in the narrow sense- geographical region and on the other hand, from other areas of the ancient Greek world. The evidence from Lefkandi, for instance, will be compared to that from the Euboean sanctuary of Apollo Daphnephoros in Eretria. Similarly, the available data from the Aegean will be enhanced through the study of the Cycladic sanctuary of Apollo in Despotiko (Antiparos). The related practices in the fringes of mainland Greece, already taken into account through the case of the Macedonian kingdom, will be further explored in the region of Thessaly. Finally, the project will expand to Greek colonial contexts and more precisely, to the collective rituals attested at the Sicilian site of Megara Hyblaea. The project will address several important issues that can also be applied to other sites which display similar features and are located over a wide span of geographical areas:
- It will examine the typology of the structures associated with ritual activities, their location in relation to the settlements or the city-walls and to the tomb grounds or cemeteries, and the material assemblages. Although ceramic finds prevail among these assemblages, the non-architectural material remains taken into account will include other categories, such as archaeobotanical and zooarchaeological evidence.
- A close investigation of these components will allow us to reconstruct the nature and importance of communal ceremonies (feasting, sacrifices, objects deposition, etc...). The study of associated finds will further enhance our understanding of the social identity of the groups that developed these activities. Recent studies have demonstrated that the 12th to 10th century communities developed complex social structures that might not be limited to those described in Homeric sources. It is therefore significant to trace not only the changing identity of social groups but the variety of functions (expression of status, territory claim, group cohesion) attributed to communal practices over time and throughout geographical areas.
- Special emphasis will be laid on the investigation of the associations of ritual activities performed within settlements and cemeteries with the emergence of the polis cults. For this purpose, for each of the geographical areas under examination, there will be a comparative study of the spatial components and the material remains of rituals carried out within different social/archaeological contexts. A significant research question is whether, in each region, the social groups participating in these different rituals and the identities forged in their frame coincide or vary.
- The wide chronological span of the project and the distinctive nature of the evidence taken into account may also shed new light on the much debated issue of the continuity of social and cult practices from the Late Bronze Age (ruin of the Mycenaean palaces) to the rise of the polis.
The final aim of the program will be to describe the variety of social structures that gave rise to such activities and to demonstrate continuity in patterns of collective behaviour, at least in certain distinctive areas of the Greek world.
The Craven Committee (Oxford), Merton College (Oxford), The Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres (ULB), the Fonds National de la Recherche Scientifique (FNRS, Belgium) for funds received to organise the workshops.