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Early Thermos: New Excavations 1992–2003

Early Thermos: New Excavations 1992–2003

By I.A. Papapostolou (Library of the Archaeological Society at Athens 277). Pp. 248, figs. 52, pls. 88. The Archaeological Society at Athens, Athens 2012. €65. ISBN 978-960-8145-93-1 (paper).

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The impressive archaeological remains from Thermos have intrigued and challenged archaeologists from the time they were uncovered more than a century ago. This new volume by Papapostolou encompasses the results of his recent excavations as well as a synthesis of the previous investigations at the site by Romaios and Soteriadis. It is a condensed, revised, and supplemented version of a Greek edition (Θέρμος: Το μέγαρο Β και το πρώιμο ιερό. Η ανασκαφή 1992–2003. Library of the Archaeological Society in Athens 261 [Athens 2008]) and is translated by Caskey. Papapostolou informs the reader that one must consult the Greek edition for additional stratigraphical information and other details. It is clear, however, that the new volume is accessible, with beautiful illustrations and color images.

The book has two main parts, “Excavation” (pt. 1) and “Cult in Early Thermos and the Development of Aetolian Ethnicity” (pt. 2). The excavation part has several dense sections on the stratigraphic and building sequences from the Middle Helladic (MH) through the Early Archaic period, a summary of the ceramics and small finds, and a discussion of the “MH tradition” at Thermos in the Early Iron Age. The second part focuses on the cult and ritual at Thermos and the development of an Aetolian ethnicity in a synthetic and interpretive way, incorporating recent scholarship and considerable literary evidence.

Papapostolou argues that Thermos, located in the middle of Aetolia in a naturally fortified plain, had permanent settlements and had functioned as a meeting place since the Bronze Age. Later, it became the political and religious center of the Aetolian League. This volume includes many plans and photographs of the site and region, including several 19th-century maps. But since the author frequently compares Thermos with other sites, it would have been helpful to have a map showing them in relation to Thermos.

Papapostoulou notes that Thermos is well known in Greek archaeology for the terracotta revetments and painted plaques (“metopes”), which reflect rare Early Archaic painting, and the architecture of the buildings, which were seen to represent evolutionary development from the apsidal MH tradition (Megaron A) to the long, rectangular building (Megaron B) of the Early Iron Age, and eventually to the peripteral Doric temple (9–13). He demonstrates that this evolutionary theory is no longer tenable, but he argues that the site shows continuity of use from the Bronze Age through the Iron Age.

The MH phase was a flourishing period at Thermos, with huts of wattle and daub, hollows, apsidal buildings, matte-painted pottery, and other handmade ceramics. In the Late Helladic (LH) period, the settlement at Thermos included the apsidal building (Megaron A) and oval buildings. It is unclear when Megaron A was built, but it is thought to reflect the MH cultural tradition and was in use until the end of the LH period.

Papapostolou maintains that Megaron B was built immediately after the LH IIIC destructions, as the west wall of Megaron B was built over LH remains. A Sub-Mycenaean bone pin found with LH IIIC late sherds below the southwest corner of Megaron B are thought to reflect the construction phase of Megaron B in the 11th century B.C.E. (29). There have been debates in the past about aspects of the structure, such as how many rooms it had, whether the front was open, and if its exterior walls were slightly curved. The new excavations allow for a reexamination of its architecture. Papapostolou argues that there was a rear room in Megaron B from the beginning, as in Megaron A, and other Early Iron Age buildings. He also maintains that the slight curvature of walls, as reconstructed by Romaios, was unintentional. Papapostolou believes that Drerup’s plan showing curved walls is incorrect (Griechische Baukunst in geometrischer Zeit [Göttingen 1969] 65, 83–4, 103–4) and that Megaron B was not a stage in an evolutionary process (56). Rather, Papapostolou argues that the curvature in the walls is a result of later alterations, pressure from fill, overlying constructions, tree roots, ground instability, and structural weakening. He concludes that Megaron B was originally designed as a rectilinear building with cross-walls. The better-preserved southwest corner shows that the west wall bonded with the cross-wall of the facade, making it a closed building from the outset.

Other rectangular and circular structures were also in use during the period of Megaron B, but the latter was the most prominent Early Iron Age building. Papapostolou believes it must have been the seat of a chief and place for communal gatherings such as feasting, but not the chief’s dwelling.

The destruction of Megaron B is dated to ca. 800 B.C.E., confirmed by ¹⁴C dating, though no details are provided (35). This phase was followed by the period of the hearth and ash altar (eighth–late seventh centuries B.C.E.), which was enclosed within the ruined walls. Only the rear room of Megaron B was repaired and continued in use. During this phase, there is considerable evidence of ash, calcined bones, bronzes, and sherds.

Eighteen stone bases forming an ellipse were added in the late eighth or early seventh century B.C.E. Papapastolou summarizes the various interpretations for the elliptical enclosure (39). Based on his excavations, he concludes that the slabs were installed after Megaron B was destroyed and were placed around the ruined building to create a temenos. Although constructed later than the ash altar, the slabs coexisted with the altar in the seventh century B.C.E. He doubts they held roof supports, since the width between them was too great, and roofing over holocaust offerings would not be practical or safe.

The archaic temple was built on a leveled area of fill covering Megaron B and the ash altar. Papapostolou refrains from addressing the problem of dating the peristyle and the stylobate (53 nn. 87–8) but says that the temple may have been a long rectangular cella with antae at the facade and no peristyle.

A brief summary of the ceramics from Thermon is provided, based on the analyses of K. and D. Wardle (65–71); the pottery from the recent and past excavations will be published by K. Wardle. MH and LH sherds were uncovered, as well as a local style of Early Iron Age pottery decorated with matte paint similar to the Protogeometric pottery from Achaea (69). Papapostolou discusses the MH tradition continuing into the Early Iron Age, the prevalence of the local handmade pottery, and the challenges of dating it. There are a few excellent illustrations of the ceramics, but no in-depth discussion. Given the stratigraphical complexity of the site, one requires more information about the local ceramics, some sort of typology, and more nuanced analysis of the Early Iron Age pottery especially.

The metal finds, to be published by Pateraki, are discussed briefly, with a short catalogue and illustrations of some bronze statuettes from the older excavations. The recent finds include weapons and jewelry similar to those found in the earlier campaigns. In the section on cult (137–39), Papapostolou discusses the Reshef bronze figure found in the black layer by Romaios (which the latter had identified as Artemis). Papapostolou associates it with Apollo.

Animal bones are mentioned in various sections. In the discussion of the bones from the LH horizon (97), the reader is instructed to consult the Greek edition, in which there is an appendix by Gardeisen on the faunal remains. Papapostolou identifies evidence for LH feasting, such as cooking vessels and faunal remains, but very few bones show traces of burning. The question of continuity of cult at the site is also tackled. Papapostoulou concludes that there is no secure evidence for ritual in the LH period. He sees possible evidence for cult activity during the use of Megaron B, with the pits and circular constructions, the latter containing unburnt animal bones. But he cites clear evidence for ritual activity demonstrated by the remains of calcined animal bones during the period of the ash altar. He discusses continuity of cult generally (102–3) and sees Amyklai, Olympia, Isthmia, and Kalapodi as possible parallels and centers of regional communication. There is also a discussion of the altar at Thermos and ash altars in the Greek world generally (108–12).

The author explores the cult of Apollo, when it came to Thermos (possibly in the eighth century B.C.E.), literary references to the god, and the iconography of the beautifully illustrated metopes. He explores the evidence for an Aetolian ethnos-state in the Dark Ages, analyzing the Catalogue of Ships and Aetolian myths. He concludes that Thermos may have been a communal and ritual center as early as the eighth century B.C.E.

The author provides us with an admirably prompt publication, with good illustrations, analyses, and new perspectives on the sequence of building events at Thermos. He tackles numerous important issues, but many questions remain unanswered or incompletely addressed. The reader will need to wait for the final publications of the pottery and metal finds, and to consult the Greek version of the book for more information about the faunal analysis, the radiocarbon dating, or for more stratigraphical details. Overall, though, this volume is a welcome contribution to the scholarship and is valuable for our understanding of this significant ancient site.

School of Anthropology
University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona 85721

Book Review of Early Thermos: New Excavations 1992–2003, by I.A. Papapostolou

Reviewed by Mary E. Voyatzis

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 1 (January 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1181.Voyatzis

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