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Selinus VI: Die Altäre in den Stadtheiligtümern. Studien zur westgriechischen Altararchitektur im 6. und 5. Jahrhundert v. Chr.

Selinus VI: Die Altäre in den Stadtheiligtümern. Studien zur westgriechischen Altararchitektur im 6. und 5. Jahrhundert v. Chr.

By Clemens Voigts (Deutsches Archäologisches Institut Rom, Sonderschrift 21). Pp. 190. Reichert Verlag, Wiesbaden 2017. €78. ISBN 978-3-95490-213-2 (cloth).

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Voigts’ book, the revision of a dissertation accepted at the Technical University of Munich in 2011, contains a detailed architectural study of sixth- and fifth-century B.C.E. monumental altars in the urban sanctuaries of Selinus, followed by general discussion of the architectural development of monumental altars in Sicily and Magna Graecia, including the altars in the extra-urban sanctuaries of Selinus.

Voigts examines a total of nine altars, of which only one (A) has previously been the subject of a detailed, published architectural study. Most of these altars are located in the main urban sanctuary: the large altar, C, on axis with the main front of Temple C (Voigts posits two phases: dated 580–550 and late sixth–early fifth century [NB: all dates herein are B.C.E.]); Altar C-North, a small, simple table altar immediately to the north of Altar C (dated 530–500); Altar D, the large, stepped altar abutting the east front of Temple D (dated 550–525); a small altar surrounded by a peribolos wall, in the northeast corner of the sanctuary (dated 550–540); a large triglyph altar northwest of the small one with the peribolos wall (dated 525–500); a small, stepped triglyph altar east of Building S (dated late fifth–early fourth century). The study also includes two structures previously identified as altars but for which the author suggests a different function: the South Building, most likely a theatral structure (see C. Marconi and D. Scahill, “The ‘South Building’ in the Main Urban Sanctuary of Selinunte: A Theatral Structure?” in R. Frederiksen, E. Gebhard, and A. Sokolicek, eds., The Architecture of the Ancient Greek Theatre [Aarhus 2015] 279–92), and two rows of steps between the front of Temple C and Altar C that, for Voigts, would have served to demarcate the area in front of Temple C from the one around Altar C. South of the main urban sanctuary, the study considers Altar P, the relatively small, simple table altar in front of Temple P (dated 550–525); the grandiose Altar A, built on a tall base featuring Doric columns and entablature and accessed by a large stairway, located east of Temple A (dated 460–450, a few years before Temple A); and, finally, Altar A-North, a small table altar immediately to the north of Altar A (dated 450–409).

This work, fully in the German tradition of Bauforschung, consists for the most part of a detailed description, reconstruction, and dating of the altars. The detailed description of these structures, for which the author deserves great credit, is based on a combination of text, photographs (both black-and-white and color), and drawings, including actual state plans and, when possible, state elevations, sections, and details of superstructure, complete with full measurements.

The reconstruction of the altars’ original phases and subsequent modifications—beautifully illustrated by restorations of elevations, sections, and details—was not an easy task. Few altars are well preserved, particularly the large triglyph altar and Altar D. The latter presents a number of cuttings, effectively highlighted by Voigts, that point to the existence of cult implements and votive offerings on the altar platform and against the altar’s sides. In other instances, reconstructions are bound to remain hypothetical, due to insufficient evidence, particularly for the elevation, but also because of the lack of more extensive archaeological excavations. For example, some may find the need for stratigraphic evidence to support the proposed two phases of Altar C. If it is true that the foundations of the stairs are placed on a higher level than those of the main body of the altar, it is also true that stairs are often simply added to the buildings to which they give access, as in the case of the neighboring Temple B.

The suggested dates for the altars could be seen as problematic, considering that very few of the buildings in the main urban sanctuary have been properly explored at the foundation level and have adequate stratigraphic dating. Take the suggestion that the first phase of Altar C dates to 580–550 and was on axis with a large predecessor of Temple C. Not only is the reconstruction of such a large predecessor based on a misinterpretation of the foundations of Temple C along the south side, but the design (if one were to accept the two phases) comes close to the altar of Malophoros, dated stratigraphically to 540. In addition, there is no need to think that Altar C preceded the construction of Temple C, as did Altars D and A. Last but not least, the dating of the construction of Temple C is not 550 but, given the style of its carved metopes, which provide a more precise range than architectural features, is 540 at its inception. If one accepts the theory of the two phases of Altar C, the first would more logically be associated with the start of construction of Temple C and the second with the completion of the temple ca. 510. In general, Voigts’ reconstruction of the development of Selinus’ urban sanctuaries between the sixth and fifth centuries (cf. figs. 2–5) could be seen as problematic in light of the available archaeological evidence.

Following this detailed study is a valuable discussion of the development of monumental altar architecture at a number of sites in Sicily and Magna Graecia, according to the sequence of types identified at Selinus: simple table altars first, then elevated altars with staircases, and finally altars with hybrid forms, incorporating elements of temple architecture. Ending this section is the persuasive suggestion that the addition of steps leading to altars, well attested in the west, depended on the practice of leaving ashes on the altars’ tables, which in the long run made it necessary to raise the ground for the officiants.

The last part of the book explores the relationships of the altars to the temples, when the two are clearly associated (Altars C and C-North, Altar D, and Altars A and A-North). The discussion is limited to spatial and chronological relationships, but it includes the convincing suggestion that the small altars north of the large altars C and A served smaller congregations such as families.

For a work focused on the architecture of Selinus, there are curious gaps in the literature cited, although the study takes into consideration publications up to 2014. For example, missing are a recent architectural study of Temple C (C. Amici, “Selinunte, Tempio C: Analisi tecnica per la ricostruzione,” Palladio 44 [2009] 11–30); preliminary publications of the architectural and archaeological study of Temple B (C. Marconi, “Le attività dell’Institute of Fine Arts–NYU sull’Acropoli di Selinunte [2006–2010],” in C. Ampolo, ed., Atti delle settime giornate internazionali di studi sull'area elima e la Sicilia occidentale nel contesto mediterraneo [Pisa 2012] 2:279–86) and archaeometric analyses of plaster (L. Lazzarini, “Indagini archeometriche sugli intonaci dei templi di Selinunte,” in C. Antonetti and S. De Vido, eds., Temi Selinuntini [Pisa 2009] 137–58).

Scholars interested in Greek religion and the archaeology of ritual may have an issue with the lack of interdisciplinarity in this study, which is in keeping with the approach of a Bauforschung. I would note also the lack of discussion of current knowledge about the cults in the urban sanctuaries of Selinus and the lack of full integration of disciplines essential for the investigation of ancient religious spaces, such as zooarchaeology and paleobotany.

Within its genre, however, Voigts’ work is clearly excellent, and the author, the German Archaeological Institute, and the publisher should be praised for producing such a handsome, informative volume drawing due attention to an essential feature of the sacred landscape of Selinus in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E.

Clemente Marconi
New York University and Università degli Studi di Milano,

Book Review of Selinus VI: Die Altäre in den Stadtheiligtümern. Studien zur westgriechischen Altararchitektur im 6. und 5. Jahrhundert v. Chr., by Clemens Voigts

Reviewed by Clemente Marconi

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 4 (October 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1234.Marconi

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