Beyond the polis


The “Sacred House” at the Academy of Plato in Athens


This architectural complex, known in research as the “Sacred House”, came to light in 1958 at the site later occupied by the Academy of Plato in Athens. It comprises seven compartments set on either side of a corridor with a N-S orientation.  Its walls are built entirely of mud brick with the use of stone socle limited to three walls of its rooms. It is possible that the complex remained unroofed. Its exploration brought to light large quantities of Late Geometric fragments from various shapes, as well as a number of pyres occupying subsequent layers and marked by unworked stones. Only a few architectural features were explored, namely a central pit in room ζ, an offering trench in room ε and an eschara at the north edge of the corridor.

The excavator, Phoivos Stavropoulos, attributed a cultic function to the building where sacrifices were addressed to the local hero Academos. The Early Helladic edifice detected north of the Sacred House has been interpreted as the hero’s dwelling. Other scholars denied any sacred character and identified it as a farmstead or a house.

The building had two architectural phases. During the first, it was composed of rooms α-α’ and β, with the plan of the former finding parallels among contemporary or later domestic buildings in Attica. The gradual addition of compartments ζ, ε, δ, δ’, γ implies the need for extra space.

The ritual use of the building has been assumed on the basis of the layers of ashes, bone and fragmentary vases detected in all the excavated compartments. The pyres were either simply composed of ashes and marked by a single or multiple stones, or they contained ashes, remains of bones and fragments of vases, mostly drinking cups, discovered below the stone markers. In some cases spindle whorls were also found. In close proximity to the edifice a number of urn burials –containing both infants and adults– and a number of pits containing re-deposited urns have been detected.

The first assessment of the material led to the assumption that the pyres represent the remains of ritual practices addressed to the deceased who were buried in the vicinity of the house. However the chronological sequence needs to be examined, since it seems that most of the pyres were  earlier than the burials. It seems possible that the edifice in its earlier phase was a dwelling, which had been abandoned. After its destruction it housed these peculiar pyres, dated to the middle and third quarter of the eighth century, with the latest evidence dating to the middle of the seventh. By the last quarter of the eighth century, some of it must have been used as a burial ground, as indicated by disturbed urn burials detected in its compartments, while it was partially filled with debris from the area nearby.

If the pyres are indeed earlier than the burials their character and their recipients need to be explored. Moreover, the ceramic evidence from the fill - mostly kraters, skyphoi, one-handled cups and banded amphorae - need to be carefully examined. Many of the shapes seem to originate from disturbed urn burials, while the mixing and drinking shapes and their quality of decoration point to banquets for which a degree of wealth investment can be inferred. It is significant that the material finds its closest parallels among the contemporary evidence from the sanctuary at Kolonna on the island of Aegina, while interesting comparanda come from the peak sanctuary of Hymettos in Attica.

Within the frame of the research project, funded by the Ph. Wiener - M.Aspach Foundation, the detailed study of the ceramic assemblages from the Sacred House and the neighbouring burials in combination with the accounts of the excavator’s diary and notes aims at resolving all the questions which are still unanswered concerning the different stages of its function in a chronological sequence.

A.Mazarakis Ainian, A. Alexandridou, “Τhe ‘Sacred House’ of the Academy revisited”, in A. Mazarakis Ainian (ed.), Τhe Dark Ages Revisited. An International Conference in Memory of William D.E. Coulson, Volos, 14-17 June 2007, Volos, 165-189.