Why we should all get our roofs from Sparta*

Work on my Peloponnesian League book is finally starting to happen, so it’s time to dust off the blog again. I hope odd little things like today’s discovery will go here.

At the moment I am working on what might be the trickiest bit: figuring out what may have happened in the sixth and seventh century that made Greek cities start collaborating in the Peloponnese. There is hardly any written evidence, so it’s all about piecing things together from whatever is available.

This is how I came to spend a few hours today on roof tiles, specifically roof tiles from the ancient sanctuary in Olympia. Whether they really tell us anything about politics in the sixth century Peloponnese is something I have  yet to decide. But here is today’s chance find:

The oldest temple of Olympia is the Heraion, built around 600 BC – stone base, mudbrick walls, wooden columns and a nice terracotta roof in a Laconian style – the kind of roof they also used for temples in Sparta at the time.

Heraion at Olympia

Temple of Hera (Heraion) at Olympia – look closely: the three standing columns are all a bit different.

This building went through a few changes over time. As the wooden columns were rotting away, they were replaced, one by one – starting in the sixth century, just decades after the temple was built, until, in the second century AD, only one wooden column was left, and duly reported in Pausanias’ Guide to Greece (5.16.1). Pausanias, however, reports a much more intriguing story about the temple.

I must not omit the story told by Aristarchus, the guide to the sights at Olympia. He said that in his day the roof of the Heraeum had fallen into decay. When the Eleans were repairing it, the corpse of a foot-soldier with wounds was discovered between the roof supporting the tiles and the ornamented ceiling. This soldier took part in the battle in the Altis between the Eleans and the Lacedaemonians (Paus. 5.20.4).

I’d like to think that this was somebody Pausanias actually met, rather than an older guide book, so nobody ever even looked inside the ancient roof between c.400BC,when the battle took place, and sometime in the second century AD, over 500 years later.

But there is more about that roof: many tiles and roof decorations were excavated in the sanctuary. Looking at this material, the experts** conclude that apart from a few repairs, the original roof, with the original roof tiles, stayed on that building until c. AD300. That roof lasted 900 years and survived several earthquakes, while underneath it the temple was more or less rebuilt in a different material.

So, who wouldn’t want to hire a Spartan* roofer?

Leonides selling roofs

Irresistible (thanks to Rob Marshall)

*Laconia really. Or perhaps a Laconian-style roof made in Elis. No way of knowing.
** Joachim Heiden, who studied every single roof tile found in the sanctuary (how?!) concluded this based on the material.   [Heiden, J. (1995), Die Tondächer von Olympia, Olympische Forschungen 24 (Walter de Gruyter: Berlin, New York), 68].

This entry was posted in Archaeology, Greece, History, Peloponnese and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *