You are here

Shaping Ceremony: Monumental Steps in Greek Architecture

Shaping Ceremony: Monumental Steps in Greek Architecture

By Mary B. Hollinshead. Pp. xiv + 233, figs. 12, b&w pls. 101. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison 2015. $50. ISBN 978-0-299-30110-1 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Variegated terrain around the Mediterranean, together with plentiful sources of stone, led to early construction of stone steps: among the earliest are those at the Tarxien complex on Malta, dated to the late fourth millennium B.C.E. Staircases, as Hollinshead points out in this interesting and thoughtful study, seem to be an intuitive invention that suits the biomechanics of the human body by allowing efficient ascents and descents. The utility of outdoor staircases as a form of retaining wall, a means of ascent, and as a platform for viewing spectacles may be documented at least as early as the sixth century B.C.E. (21). During the subsequent four centuries, the potential was soon realized for staircases to do more than just serve those utilitarian functions. Grand stairs could provide a memorable setting for processions, demarcate space within a sanctuary, highlight a temple or ritual setting, and even provide a particular kinesthetic experience for a visiting devotee.

Hollinshead defines her topic as outdoor, monumental stairs and excludes from her discussion the steps of temples and altars, interior stairs, theaters, and theater-like buildings. After a brief review of existing scholarship and some commentary on representations in archaic painted pottery of grandstands (packed with eager audiences), she cites succinctly some relevant sociological and anthropological approaches to outdoor environments and human movement through them. She then notes some possible political consequences from construction of this type of monument and how grand outdoor staircases could contribute to social and religious experiences. In five short chapters, she then considers examples dated to each century (sixth–second centuries B.C.E.), followed by concluding remarks and a brief appendix on monumental stairs in Hellenistic Italy. Her catalogue of sites discussed in the text is arranged alphabetically. The book is well illustrated with photographs and nicely drawn plans, many by Cornelie Piok Zanon.

Possible influence from the Aegean Bronze Age and stepped tombs in Asia Minor is noted but rightly dismissed; oddly, influence from Egypt—plausible, since Greeks borrowed Egyptian construction techniques and were inspired by Egyptian sculpture—is not considered. Perhaps the idea of stone steps is so obvious and ubiquitous that we need not seek “origins” or “influence.” Among the early examples of monumental steps in Greek cities is a staircase at Dreros, of uncertain function (either for an agora or cultic performances). Most other examples of monumental staircases in this period may be assigned unambiguously to sanctuaries: the stairs, where needed because of the terrain, soon become an essential part of the spatial arrangements within sanctuaries, lending them grandeur and a sense of stability and permanence.

Among outdoor staircases that date to the sixth century B.C.E., a series of steps in the Heraion at Perachora stabilizes the area around the altar; a partially preserved set of steps outside the fortification wall at Eleusis may have been used as a viewing platform; impressive steps (no longer visible) in the Sanctuary of Athena at Lindos show that the ascent must have given visitors a powerful experience even before the much later renovations of the Hellenistic period. Hollinshead also includes ramps (sometimes with low steps), such as the ascent to the Sanctuary of Zeus Hellanios at Aigina and the ramp up to the Temple of Apollo at Corinth. The most sophisticated use of steps in this period, however, is at Selinous in western Sicily, where Temple M, with a grand staircase and paved forecourt (studied in detail by L. Pompeo, Il complesso architettonico del Tempio M di Selinunte: Analisi tecnica e storia del monumento [Florence 1999]), all show careful alignment with the acropolis opposite the river valley to the east. Also in the later sixth or fifth centuries B.C.E., Selinous again was in the architectural forefront, with the construction of an extensive, high (9.8 m minimum), stepped retaining wall around the east side of the acropolis that stretches some 75 m north–south, then turns northwest for another 50 m (41).

Of the staircases Hollinshead discusses in sanctuaries of the fifth century B.C.E., the most extensive and impressive are in the Heraion at Argos (50). Renovations there included stepped retaining walls, terraces, the South Stoa, ramps, and monumental staircases—construction that was carried out ca. 460–440 B.C.E., before the new temple was built. Hollinshead accepts Jonathan Hall’s suggestion that such extensive works reflected Argos’ control of the sanctuary and a synoikism after Argos’ military victories over neighbors. Here and throughout the book, Hollinshead brings into her discussion relevant literary and epigraphical evidence to elucidate the significance of the monumental staircases. Because each ancient site gets a paragraph or two of discussion before we move on to the next staircase, the text reads a bit like a gazetteer, but Hollinshead holds it together with tight organization and a careful selection of connecting points. Ritual, ceremonial, and processional functions are the main threads, and the author uses these to advantage with her discussion of the paved courtyard and coordinated steps on the north side of the Erechtheion, which she suggests was used for the rites of the Plynteria and Kallynteria.

For the fourth century B.C.E., Hollinshead moves to Labraunda in Asia Minor, a steep site like Delphi, where a “Great Stairway” provided access to the new andrones and other sanctuary buildings. She discusses here Hekatomnid patronage and the possibilities for unified plans under such wealthy patronage. A grandstand was added to the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Pergamon in the third century B.C.E., with further additions by Queen Apollonis, an exemplar of female euergetism and patronage in this period. Although the patron(s) at Lindos are not certainly known, that sanctuary, too, underwent extensive renovations that featured monumental staircases as an integral component between carefully planned terraces. Architects of the third and second centuries evidently had the resources to build expansive terraces and stoas and to provide framed vistas from the monumental steps. The culmination of this architectural development in the Greek world was the Asklepieion at Kos, with the addition of the upper terrace, Temple A, and new staircases, a design anticipated at Deir el-Bahri (so admired by Frank Lloyd Wright) and possibly emulated later in Hellenistic Italy. This fine book stimulates fresh appreciation of the scope and vision characteristic of ancient Greek architects and how their architecture enhanced rituals and ceremonies.

Margaret M. Miles
University of California, Irvine

Book Review of Shaping Ceremony: Monumental Steps in Greek Architecture, by Mary B. Hollinshead

Reviewed by Margaret M. Miles

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 1 (January 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1201.Miles

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.