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Heroic Offerings: The Terracotta Plaques from the Spartan Sanctuary of Agamemnon and Kassandra

Heroic Offerings: The Terracotta Plaques from the Spartan Sanctuary of Agamemnon and Kassandra

By Gina Salapata. Pp. viii + 393, b&w pls. 25, maps 3. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 2014. $70. ISBN 978-0-472-11916-5 (cloth).

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Although many deposits with terracotta figurines have been brought to light at various sites in Lakonia, the publication of assemblages of terracottas remains exceptional. Because of this, the study of the terracotta relief plaques from the Sanctuary of Agamemnon and Kassandra in Amyklai by Salapata represents a fundamental contribution to our knowledge of the coroplastic craft of Lakonia and sheds light on its hero cults.

The first chapter provides the reader with information on the history of Amyklai and on the identification of the sanctuary with which are associated two votive deposits found in 1955 and 1998. This study is limited to the relief plaques discovered in 1955, constituting a set of 1,273 objects dated from the late sixth to the fourth century B.C.E. According to literary, epigraphic, and archaeological sources, the sanctuary can be identified as that of Agamemnon and his consort Kassandra. The sanctuary is indeed mentioned by Pausanias (3.19.6), who saw the grave of the hero there.

In the second chapter, the author explores the Lakonian tradition that places Agamemnon’s palace, and thus his murder and that of Kassandra, in Lakonia. The alleged presence of their graves in the sanctuary attests to the heroic character of the cult that was dominated from the beginning by the figure of Agamemnon. The association with Kassandra is attested only from the fifth century B.C.E. It is interesting to note that, perhaps because of political changes, Kassandra superseded Agamemnon as the main recipient of the cult in the Late Hellenistic period.

Production processes and the system of classification are developed in the third chapter. Most of the reliefs were made in a one-piece mold and in general are less than 30 cm in height. Substantial information is provided on Lakonian coroplastic practice (filling of the mold, treatment of the back, shapes and cutting of the outlines, separately molded heads, retouch by hand or by incisions, use of polychromy). In spite of serial production that degraded the quality of the plaques, the author was able to distinguish 284 types, produced in as many as five generations of molding. These types are grouped into six categories according to their iconographic content (seated figures, standing figures, riders, warriors, banqueters, miscellaneous). Each category is subdivided into various iconographic groups, which contain various technical types whose fragments are classified according to their place in the series.

Chapters 4 and 5 concern seated figures. The most popular iconographic type is the man holding a kantharos and generally accompanied by a snake, often alone or occasionally with a standing woman. Couples and women are very rare. To understand the meaning of these scenes, the author takes into account regional stone reliefs decorated with the same subject. It is argued that the terracotta plaques had a similar function and were less-expensive versions of them. In any case, these reliefs were certainly a major source for the iconography of the plaques.

In the fifth chapter, the author discusses questions relating to the interpretation of the scenes and their significance. She aims to better understand the nature of the cult and the personality of the associated heroes. Her methodological approach is based on a multicomponent analysis of the plaques. The kantharos appears as an important marker, linked to the symposion and the consumption of wine, perhaps even within a Dionysiac context, expressing the aristocratic status of the individual who holds it. The snake is the second most important motif, its presence anchoring the chthonic character of the scene and emphasizing the heroic status of the figures. The kantharos and the snake are the two attributes that enable the author to identify the seated man with a hero.

Chapter 6 is devoted to the other categories of types. The most significant scenes represent female triads, sometimes accompanied by a snake, who may be the Erinyes. Other motifs include figures holding hands, who surely are mortals performing dances in a ritual context. Riders, warriors, and banqueters evoke not only typical aristocratic activities but also the fields of education of the young Greek male and his initiation to and participation in the symposion. Plaques with dismounted riders showing a youth holding a cock or an oinochoe, as well as a representation of a beardless man, seem thus to refer to the world of youth.

In the last chapter, the author examines the nature of the cult and of its dedicatory practices. If some of the plaques do show recognizable representations of Agamemnon, others must be considered generic images that have a symbolic meaning. The iconographic themes point out the civic character of the cult. On the basis of the images, we can conclude that the cult included rituals intended for the young, boys as well as girls.

In the conclusion the author summarizes the main contributions of the study. The terracotta reliefs seem to have been a major offering in the sanctuary, linked to the nature of the worship and to the personality of the recipient heroes. Their quantity and their dedication through four centuries attest to the importance of the sanctuary and of the rituals that were practiced there. The cult was an important ideological vector allowing the community to assert its identity and its hegemony over the neighboring cities.

The book includes three maps and 25 plates, which provide illustrations for only 113 of the plaques, but the complete corpus can be found illustrated on the website of the University of Michigan Press at Two appendices complete the analysis of the material: a list of the findspots of Lakonian and Messenian terracotta relief plaques, and a list of all the known Lakonian stone reliefs with seated figures. A full bibliography and an index conclude the study.

The importance of the research carried out by the author and its general quality make this book an indispensible reference for the knowledge of the coroplastic craft in Lakonia as well as for shedding light on the Sanctuary of Agamemnon and Kassandra in Amyklai.

Stéphanie Huysecom-Haxhi
CNRS UMR 8164-Halma
Lille University

Book Review of Heroic Offerings: The Terracotta Plaques from the Spartan Sanctuary of Agamemnon and Kassandra, by Gina Salapata

Reviewed by Stéphanie Huysecom-Haxhi

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 1 (January 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1211.HuysecomHaxhi

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