The shrine of the Valley of the Muses: an archaeological, historical and literary topos revisited
Sometimes the most important archaeological discoveries don’t come from new excavations, but from the study of old excavations and the material they have produced. The Shrine of the Muses in Askra is one of the best examples of this phenomenon. The Valley of the Muses in Boiotia, site of the Mouseion, the first shrine of the Nine Muses, is one of the very few places in Greece where the landscape has remained pristine and we can therefore still aspire to combine philology, epigraphy and archaeology in order to better understand an important Greek sanctuary. The shrine’s study in modern times has been subject to the eventualities of the history of Greece and, in general, Europe. The shrine was first located in the mid-19th century by Greek and European travelers and archaeologists. Systematic excavation began only at the end of the 19th century under Paul Jamot, a prominent member of the French School at Athens (EFA). Digging for three consecutive years (1888-1890), Jamot discovered the altar of the Muses, an Ionic stoa as well as the shrine’s badly-preserved theater. He also found a good deal of smaller monuments, primarily statue bases inscribed with epigrams and prosaic inscriptions in honor of the Muses, the mythological poet Thamyris and the imperial family.
Wider historical developments had a negative impact on the study of the shrine of the Muses. Towards the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the French School excavated two major archaeological sites in Greece: Delphi and Delos. Interest in these two major sites overshadowed any ongoing projects and previously excavated sites were nearly forgotten. By the time the EFA decided to return to the Valley of the Muses, World War I erupted and archaeological activities ceased for another decade. The area excavated by Jamot had already been covered by soil and the shrine fell into oblivion. Very few archaeologists could visit the site since there was little of interest to be seen.
Self-evidently scholars continued to work on the inscriptions found by Jamot and on the history of the sanctuary. In particular, the statue base with the epigrams for the Muses was thoroughly studied by some excellent scholars, like Preuner, Peek, and more recently Höschele. Others turned their attention on the topography and other archaeological aspects of the shrine, most notably Roux and Robinson. By means of their epoch-making 1980s survey, Snodgrass and Bintliff contributed to a better understanding of the topography and diachronic habitation patterns of the Valley of the Muses. Two problems remained, however: the shrine was still largely covered by soil, and most of the finds remained inaccessible in the Museum of Thebes and in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
To tackle these problems the Ephorate of Antiquities of Boiotia of the Ministry of Culture of Greece and the French School at Athens launched a new project in order to examine anew the shrine of the Muses. The goal of this collaborative project is to study and prepare the final publication of the excavations of Jamot. The construction of the new Archaeological Museum of Thebes gave me the opportunity to rediscover Jamot’s inscriptions in the dark storerooms of the Museum and to present after autopsy, for the first time since its discovery by Jamot, the great base with the epigrams in honor of the Muses signed by the famous Corinthian poet Honestus. In collaboration with my French colleague G. Biard, an expert in sculpture, and the director of the Ephorate of Boiotia Al. Charami, we presented our results in an article that just appeared in BCH. In our lengthy analysis, we managed to establish firmly the interaction between the epigrams and the individual statues of the Muses, on the basis of the traces of the statues’ feet, thus ascertaining the ekphrastic character of the epigrams. Many other inscribed statue bases from the shrine of the Muses need to be studied from a similar archaeological perspective. Bases bearing epigrams, in particular, merit a full study.
In the summers of 2018 and 2019, a French-Greek team directed by myself excavated the monumental altar of the Muses that was already discovered by P. Jamot in order to prepare a detailed plan that will facilitate understanding of the altar’s architecture. This excavation was financed by the French School at Athens and the French foundation Archéologie et patrimoine en méditérannée. The first results are promising and we will return to the site next year. The ultimate goal of our project is to understand better the topography and history of the entire shrine. A substantial aspect of our analysis consists of the abundant literary testimonia, from Hesiod to the Hellenistic and Imperial poets, that need to be collected with commentaries. Another important group of testimonia consists of the numerous epigrams found in the Valley. The epigrams of the Corinthian poet Honestus, in particular, comprise a unique collection of lapidary poetry that can provide better insight into the shrine and its literary perception during the Imperial period. It is my intention to collect these testimonia and accompany them with detailed commentary in an online publication. In order to carry out and successfully complete my study of the Thespian Mouseion, I cannot think of a better place than the Center for Hellenic Studies.
Yannis Kalliontzis received his BA in Archaeology from the University of Athens, his Master’s from the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne, and D. Phil. in Ancient History and Epigraphy from the Universities of Paris IV-Sorbonne and Neuchâtel. He has worked as a curator of the epigraphic collections of the Museums of Thebes and Chaironeia in Boiotia, and has recently published a synoptic catalogue of the inscriptions from these Museums. He was the principal investigator of the research project “Corpus of the Inscriptions of Central Boiotia,” which concerned the epigraphy and history of the city of Thebes and the surrounding region. The project was organized by the French School at Athens and the Inscriptiones Graecae project in Berlin, and financed by the French ANR and the German DFG. Apart from his research on Boiotia, Yannis has published on the history and epigraphy of Attica and Euboia. He is currently working on a new study of the shrine of the Muses in Ascra in Boiotia. This important sanctuary was excavated by the French School at Athens at the end of the 19th century, but was never fully published because of the difficult historical circumstances of the first half of the 20th century.