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Reset in Stone: Memory and Reuse in Ancient Athens

Reset in Stone: Memory and Reuse in Ancient Athens

By Sarah A. Rous. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 2019. Pp. xviii + 366. $99.95. ISBN 978-0-299-32280-9 (cloth).

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In 1997, Dale Kinney described the study of spolia as a “growth field in art history” (“Spolia: Damnatio and Renovatio Memoriae,” MAAR 42, 117), and in the time since, publications on the phenomenon of reuse continue to increase in number and variety. Unfortunately, for all this progress, the subject of spoliation remains a niche subfield that borrows much, promises an equal contribution in return, but rarely manages to make inroads into the larger study of the social, political, and economic history of the ancient world. This makes Rous’ Reset in Stone: Memory and Reuse in Ancient Athens a potentially influential work. Instead of engaging in the usual debates around spoliation, this book breaks with a number of traditions in order to demonstrate the relevance of reuse practices to the study of social memory. For example, Rous avoids the problematic “spolia,” preferring instead “upcycling” as a more flexible and less encumbered term to describe the act of “intentionally meaningful reuse” (6). Next, she chooses monuments that predate, often by centuries, the period of late antiquity, thus demonstrating the arbitrary nature of the chronological limits traditionally placed on the study. Moreover, most of these monuments have already been published in detail, leaving Rous to do the more complex and interesting work of discussing the impact of these reuse practices on the formation of memories of the past. As she states, “Upcycling may prove to be just the concept we need for robust interdisciplinary investigation of the dynamics of social memory” (17). Further still, Rous’ book may prove to be just the study we need to demonstrate the value of engaging with reuse practices in more mainstream discussions of the ancient Mediterranean.

The core of this book relies on an intensive examination of episodes of upcycling, organized in three chapters according to the “visibility of the trace” of reuse, its intended effect, and its reception. In “Creating Social Memory Through Reuse That Accentuates,” Rous engages in an effective comparison between the Themistoklean wall, which she argues is not upcycling, and two other Athenian fortifications: the so-called post-Herulian wall and the north wall of the Acropolis. Particularly refreshing here is Rous’ argument that the post-Herulian wall, with its visual connection to the North Acropolis Wall, should be seen not as the end of the classical city but as part of cumulative series of episodes of civic defense testifying to a tradition of Athenian resilience in the face of invasion. Rous next discusses the reuse of the fifth-century BCE Temple of Ares, highlighting D. Steuernagel’s thesis that this project was the work of a reestablished Areopagus council intent on demonstrating Athenian control of its cultural heritage (“Romanisierung und Hellenismós: Drei Fallstudien zur Gestaltung und Nutzung griechischer Tempel in den römischen Provinzen Achaia und Cyrenaica,” JdI 124, 2009, 279–345). The argument is convincing, but Rous might have considered more fully the effect that reuse had on Pallene, the temple’s original location. The prior decline of this Attic deme raises an interesting question whether such reuse might have been perceived as denudation as well as renovation of disused spaces, as argued by I. Jacobs (Aesthetic Maintenance of Civic Space: The “Classical” City from the 4th to the 7th c. AD, Peeters 2013.).

In “Perpetuating Social Memory Through Reuse That Preserves,” Rous engages in a detailed assessment of the literary evidence for the continued use of the Old Athena Temple following the Persian sack of the city. This interpretation, revived by G. Ferrari (“The Ancient Temple of the Acropolis at Athens,” AJA 106.1, 2002, 11–35), has been debated for decades. Thus, in place of new evidence, Rous focuses on the way the temple may have functioned at the center of a network of associations that shaped Athenian memory. Again, the discussion is compelling, but a virtual reconstruction of the complex physical relationship of the Athena Polias temple to the Erechtheion would have been useful.

Next, Rous turns to the Nike bastion, where her analysis of the archaeological evidence moves between the always visible Bronze Age walls and the now hidden Archaic-period remains of the Nike sanctuary. In the first case, Rous demonstrates that a visual connection to the bedrock and Cyclopean walls was instrumental in Athenian self-promotion as autochthonous. In the second case, the evidence is less convincing. Rous discusses the reuse of a dedicatory inscription and two limestone blocks below the floor level of a small naiskos and associated altar, which, alongside the still visible destruction debris, were intended to commemorate the Persian sack. Continuity of cult was clearly a motivating factor, but the invisibility of the reused elements draws a stronger parallel with the Themistoklean wall than with the archaic structures at Kalapodi that she references. To be fair, Rous is effective in demonstrating how the remodeling of this sanctuary at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War reflects an effort to reshape it into a monument to victory, but she misses an opportunity here to explore the captured Spartan shields that covered the bastion as an equally interesting, and more diverse, example of upcycling.

In “Altering Social Memory Through Reuse Meant to Be Invisible,” Rous uses statue bases as examples in which “the invisibility of the act of reuse itself was meant to effect a change in an existing social memory” (126, emphasis original) of Athenians who faced ever larger regimes of external control. Her study of modifications to the Altar of the Eponymous Heroes, based on the work of T.L. Shear, Jr. (“The Monument of the Eponymous Heroes in the Athenian Agora,” Hesperia 39, 1970, 145–222), is the most convincing. The effort to maintain the appearance of the monument clearly resulted in a consistent misperception of the statues as a collective whole, in spite of modifications. This makes the incongruous incorporation of Hadrian that much more fascinating, and Rous could have spent more time considering the complexities of this final alteration.

Rous then considers the first-century BCE tradition of rededicating honorific statues, which for some was an alarming change in customs of euergesia. The contemporary concern over the loss of honor certainly applies to the Attalid pillar monuments, which were completely erased and rededicated to Roman rulers. Yet the upcycling of smaller monuments often retained or recarved the original inscription beside the new inscription. This discussion would benefit from a more consistent interpretation of this untapped body of evidence. In the case of the Attalid pillar monuments, it is unclear how a complete erasure intended to alter social memory draws power from a previous dedication. For the smaller statue bases, the clearly visible alterations raise the question of whether the act of upcycling has here replaced the “visibility of the trace.” Perhaps these instances of upcycling might be better classified as “reuse meant to augment”?

In the concluding chapter, Rous switches to a diachronic survey, demonstrating how these examples of upcycling served as one option among many in various Athenian attempts to make use of the past to forge a common identity. She shows that shaping social memory consistently, although not exclusively, on the Persian sack of the city was eventually successful in establishing Athens and its traditions as the paradigmatic example of Greek culture well into the Roman period. Yet as Rous is careful to note, at no time did the city become a static museum display. Rather, Athenians continued to take an active role in using their formidable cultural legacy in an effort to shape their own future.

Here we see most clearly the innovative nature of Rous’ approach; by focusing on the formation of memory through upcycling in one urban setting over time, she has identified a middle position between excessively generalizing surveys that are not sensitive to geographic and historical variability and overly specific case studies of reuse that are of limited utility in understanding the phenomenon across time and space. This raises what is perhaps the most important question when it comes to evaluating the impact of Reset in Stone: can Rous’ study be replicated elsewhere? Rous does not seem to believe so, as she finds the “concentration of examples at Athens . . . remarkable—more so than can be accounted for simply by differences in the survival of material evidence or by the combination of that material evidence with the relatively rich available evidence for cultural, political, and social context in Athenian history” (177). I suspect, though, that the real difference between Athens and many other ancient cities has more to do with the outsized attention we have given it in our scholarship.

Regardless of whether others follow her specific methodology, I hope that Rous’ work will encourage those outside the field of “upcycling studies,” as we may now call it, to recognize the ubiquity of practice—spatially and chronologically—and the need to integrate this evidence into their own studies of the history of the Mediterranean. Rous has described her work as an “extra turn of the kaleidoscope” (26, 211), but it is striking just how much she models the practices she studies. By taking a wide assortment of scholarly works from the fields of spolia and social memory and reassembling the evidence, she has created a “new-old” structure of her own. And in the same way the Temple of Ares led to the construction of other “itinerant temples” in Athens, this work hopefully will inspire historians and archaeologists more generally to engage with upcycling.

Jon M. Frey
Michigan State University

Book Review of Reset in Stone: Memory and Reuse in Ancient Athens, by Sarah A. Rous. Madison
Reviewed by Jon M. Frey
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 4 (October 2020)
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1244.Frey

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