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The Sanctuary of Athena at Sounion

July 2019 (123.3)

Book Review

The Sanctuary of Athena at Sounion

►By Barbara Barletta, with architectural analysis by William B. Dinsmoor, Jr., and observations by Homer A. Thompson (Ancient Art and Architecture in Context 4). Pp. 360, figs. 247, tables 2. American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton. 2017. $75. ISBN 978-0-87661-967-4 (cloth).

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Long known, but often overlooked in favor of its more glamourous neighbor on the opposite hill, the sanctuary of Athena at Sounion is a site that repays careful study in a multitude of ways. From its remains, one can trace the evolution of the Ionic order on the Greek mainland, contemplate the relationship between Doric and Ionic in Attica, analyze the interconnected nature of the Aegean, and reflect on the Roman propensity for recycling.

Excavated and investigated first by V. Staïs and the Greek Archaeological Society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and again by Dinsmoor, Jr., and Thompson of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens in the third quarter of the 20th century, the sanctuary of Athena Sounias was primarily published through excavation notices, with the exception of Staïs’ volume, Τὸ Σουνίου καὶ οἱ ναοὶ Ποσειδῶνος καὶ Ἀθηνᾶς [Athens 1920]. After numerous fragments of the main temple were uncovered in the Athenian Agora, the American excavators recognized the need for an updated appraisal of the sanctuary. Their efforts, however, were never brought to completion, and the partial manuscript remained unpublished. In 2000, the publication office of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens sought a new author to finish, revise, and update the project, and they made an admirable choice in selecting Barletta. Due to her untimely death in 2015, Barletta was able to see the manuscript only to near the proofreading stage. Her collaborator for architectural drawings, David Scahill, undertook the final tasks to bring the book to publication. The result is a tremendous addition to our knowledge of the sanctuary at Sounion as well as to architectural studies as a whole.

After a brief introduction, the first full chapter details the history of excavation and inquiry at the site, painting a clear picture of what survived at the sanctuary and what was noted at different times, including many fragments no longer visible or extant. A description of the principle features in the sanctuary is included, with detailed but concise summaries of the oval enclosure, temenos walls, votive pit, various supports, small temple, altar, and Temple of Athena. The chapter also foreshadows where Barletta will deviate from both Staïs and Dinsmoor and Thompson in her conclusions.

Barletta then moves, in chapter 2, to a thorough consideration of the small temple in the sanctuary. Against interpretations that seek to identify it as a heroön to Phrontis or that date it contemporaneously with the large temple in the mid fifth century, she convincingly argues that it functioned as the early Temple of Athena Sounias and was built ca. 500 B.C.E., serving as a predecessor for the large temple, and suffering at the hands of the Persians. Barletta adduces comparanda from throughout the Aegean, with an emphasis on examples of Cycladic-Doric sacred architecture. Her analysis of the small temple also encompasses the statue base and altar. Although it would be largely hypothetical, a restoration drawing of the elevation of the small temple would have been a welcome addition to this chapter.

Chapters 3 and 4 form the heart of the volume, focusing on a description and reconstruction of the Temple of Athena followed by a thorough contextualization of the structure. The chief issue at the core of these chapters is the date and pace of construction, as elucidated by the architectural remains. In chapter 3, Barletta’s precise, careful assessment of architectural details and technical issues, presented cogently and persuasively, allows her to lay out the arguments put forth by Dinsmoor and Thompson and then, where applicable, contrast them with her own updates and changes, in some cases reverting to suggestions originally made by Staïs and Orlandos. She also presents other possible solutions, indicating where they solve or create more problems, which allows the reader to trace all permutations of reconstruction. This painstaking approach applies even to hypothetical elements, like the peristyle frieze or the toichobate of the sekos. Ultimately, Barletta restores the temple with a 10 x 12 partial peristyle, a displaced sekos, single-step krepis, and unfluted columns with painted capitals, all constructed during a single phase dated ca. 450 (as opposed to two phases dated to just after 450 and just after 420, as proposed by Staïs and Orlandos and followed by Dinsmoor and Thompson).

Chapter 4 is where the reader sees Barletta’s encyclopedic knowledge of Cycladic architecture, particularly as brought to light in the past 50 years, as she traces the development of Cycladic-Ionic (or Island-Ionic) as it developed in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. through her deep contextualization of the Temple of Athena. After reading this chapter, it is even possible to come away with a thorough grounding in the Temple of Demeter and Kore at Sangri on Naxos, along with the Temple of Athena at Sounion, given the number of similarities between the two structures elucidated by Barletta. Ultimately, Barletta positions the Temple of Athena at the intersection of Cycladic-Ionic, Attic-Ionic, and Doric, but emphasizes that the structure is also innovative in its own right. This chapter further showcases Barletta’s attention to both aesthetic and practical concerns and explanations, such as her discussion of the plain spira of the column base, which allows her to reflect on the inherent flexibility of the Ionic order. Most welcome in this chapter is also Barletta’s emphasis on color and texture, two topics often overlooked in architectural studies.

The volume ends with discussion of the afterlife of the Athena Temple (ch. 5), which Barletta uses as an opportunity to discuss both Greek and Roman architectural reuse more generally, with particular reference to the Athenian Agora. This holistic approach to Roman reuse of structures in the Agora allows her to put the specific example of the Temple of Athena into a broader context. This chapter unfortunately does not display the same level of nuance and meticulous detail as the others, nor does it have sufficient images and plans for all of the structures discussed. Its inclusion in the volume is, nonetheless, beneficial, not least because it allows Barletta to expound on her argument that the decision in the Roman period to relocate the Temple of Athena (and other Attic temples) was not strictly economical but also carried political, religious, and symbolic meaning. A brief conclusion (ch. 6) follows, in which Barletta summarizes her findings. She also uses this final chapter as an opportunity to reflect on how new discoveries and developments in scholarly understandings of Cycladic architecture since the 1970s allowed for a fuller contextualization of the sanctuary of Athena Sounias.

A full catalogue of 146 architectural fragments rounds out the volume, including in situ remains at the sanctuary, finds brought to storerooms and museums at Lavrion and Athens, finds from the Athenian Agora, blocks once documented but now missing, and several new fragments identified by Barletta. This thorough catalogue could have been enhanced with an up-to-date state plan of the sanctuary at Sounion, so that readers could see the current location of many of these blocks. The references to Agora records appear accurate, based on random checks, and the cross-references to images in the volume itself are without error. Almost every block has at least one image, either in the main text or in the catalogue. Endnotes, references, illustration credits, an architectural concordance, and an index close the volume.

In updating and revising the text, Barletta frequently diverged in her conclusions from Dinsmoor and Thompson, most notably in the dating of the two temples, as noted above. These differences, however, are always developed and presented fully and without castigation, allowing the reader to trace Barletta’s updates and reflect on general trends in the field of Greek architecture, as more sites are discovered, ceramic chronologies are refined, and comparanda are expanded. The fastidiousness of the text and catalogue enable the reader to trace fully the divergences between the authors.

Lavishly illustrated with both color and black-and-white photos as well as numerous line drawings, this volume deserves a spot on the bookshelf of every scholar interested in Athenian and Cycladic architecture, the Ionic order, and Roman architectural reuse. Its sewn binding holds up well to repeated use and its price belies its impressive size and final production quality. Mistakes and typographical errors are remarkably few; there is some slippage between the use of “epistyle” versus “architrave”; there is a missing zero on page 134 (the raking sima base fascia height should be ca. 0.04–0.045 m); and one wishes for more image callouts throughout the text, to reduce the amount of flipping back and forth between text and catalogue. It would also have been beneficial to have Barletta’s own proposed reconstructions of the temple (fig. 174) at a larger scale and an updated isometric or perspective view, given her deviations from Dinsmoor and Thompson’s conclusions, particularly with respect to the epistyle, epikranitis, and antae (cf. fig. 141). These quibbles are minor, though, and in no way detract from the impressiveness of the volume.

There is no doubt that Dinsmoor and Thompson’s manuscript benefited in a substantial way from Barletta’s attention to detail and comprehensive knowledge of the Ionic order, particularly as it developed and evolved in the Cyclades. The completed volume repays careful reading many times over. Ultimately, this book stands as a brilliant testament to the meticulous scholarship and memory of its three authors.

Jessica Paga
Department of Classical Studies
William & Mary

Book Review of The Sanctuary of Athena at Sounion, by Barbara Barletta

Reviewed by Jessica Paga

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 3 (July 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1233.paga

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