Inscribing Temples in Greece and Asia Minor: A Diachronic View
It was a hot day in 2015 at the sanctuary of Zeus at Labraunda when a beautiful marble block was painstakingly freed from the dirt that had surrounded it for centuries. The archaeological team had spotted that most thrilling of finds carved on its face: a Greek inscription! Spectacular gold treasures may be more eye catching and have broader popular appeal (and can themselves impart much information about antiquity), but no artifact offers such a direct connection to ancient individuals and communities as their very words recorded on stone. In this case, the inscription dated to the Hellenistic period (I.Lab. #137, c. 220-200 BCE) and recorded the letter of a local dynast, Olympichos, in his conflict with a city over control of the sanctuary.
The text had been inscribed on the temple, but the excavation uncovered it in a nearby building, in a layer dated to the postclassical period, when the rise of Christianity had put a stop to the worship of Zeus Labraundos. Moreover, a deep groove on the top of the block indicated that someone had tried to cut off the inscription face, presumably to preserve or display it. This block raised many questions for me. Was it common for ancient temples to hold such texts on their walls? What was the typical late antique (fourth to seventh century CE) Christian response to these older inscriptions on temples? How did the treatment of pagan inscriptions compare with early Christian attitudes towards ancient pagan statues, which were often censored (for nudity) and occasionally defaced or destroyed?
My larger project therefore investigates the role of inscribed texts in defining and re-defining temples from the ancient periods through the early Christian era, with a focus on late antiquity. My research treats inscriptions simultaneously as texts and as material objects, taking into account their archaeological/architectural contexts and the trans-temporal nature of these stones. An article I have written on another project inspired my thinking on contextualizing inscriptions: I argued that painted texts in a Byzantine apse program drew on a local oral tradition and interacted with the surrounding Christ in Glory scene to inspire a reaction in viewers. Inscriptions do more than simply record the words of ancient people; they in turn shaped how viewers saw the surrounding architectural spaces.
From the data collected in my dissertation (2017), I have identified around seventy temples in mainland Greece, the Aegean islands, and Turkey that bore inscribed texts on their walls, architraves, or columns; select case studies demonstrate the fate of these inscriptions when Christians converted the temples into churches or reused them for other purposes. My first monograph will explore this early Christian reception of pagan inscriptions.
But first, while here at the CHS, I am writing an article on the Hellenistic and Roman habits of inscribing temples, which sheds light on the chronological and regional development of this epigraphic practice, as well as the types of texts that were inscribed on sanctuaries. For example, like the Olympichos inscription mentioned above, many inscriptions on temples had little to do with religious matters, but rather focused on civic territorial rights and royal or imperial directives. The temple was not a tabula rasa for displaying texts, but rather a charged location for highlighting certain local connections, individuals, and privileges. The CHS is proving to be the ideal place for me to write this article, thanks to the library resources, staff, and the opportunity to dialogue with colleagues from a variety of backgrounds and countries.
Anna Sitz’s PhD at the University of Pennsylvania focuses on the habit of writing inscriptions on temples from antiquity to the early Christian period in Greece and Asia Minor. Her research interests combine archaeology with epigraphy and span a broad expanse of time, with a focus in late antiquity. She spent two years at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens and one year in Munich as a guest researcher at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. Anna has published an article documenting inscriptions in Byzantine Cappadocia and arguing that a local oral tradition lay behind these texts. She has excavated at Corinth (Greece) and Alabanda (Turkey), and currently at Labraunda (Turkey). She has previously received a CAORC Mediterranean Fellowship and a Phi Beta Kappa Sibley Fellowship. At the DAI/CHS Anna will prepare a catalogue of temple inscriptions for publication and integrate these texts with their architectural and spatial contexts.