Heroic Offerings: The Terracotta Plaques from the Spartan Sanctuary of Agamemnon and Kassandra

Heroic Offerings: The Terracotta Plaques from the Spartan Sanctuary of Agamemnon and Kassandra

by Gina Salapata


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Friday, December 21

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472119165
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 09/30/2014
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Gina Salapata is Senior Lecturer in Classical Studies, Massey University, the University of New Zealand.

Read an Excerpt

Heroic Offerings

The Terracotta Plaques from the Spartan Sanctuary of Agamemnon and Kassandra

By Gina Salapata

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2014 the University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-11916-5


The Sanctuary at Agia Paraskevi, Amyklai

The Kome of Amyklai

Modern Amyklai, a village about six kilometers south of Sparta, is located in the middle of the fertile Eurotas valley and extends on both sides of the road to Gytheio. The name Amyklai was given during the last century to a group of small settlements in that area, the two most important being S(k)lavochori and Mahmoud-Bey. Their names are still used today by the local people: S(k)lavochori refers mainly to the area west of the road, and Mahmoud-Bey refers to the area to the east, near the remains of a Turkish tower.

The ancient kome of Amyklai took its name from the mythical founder Amyklas, son of Lakedaimon and Sparta, who was a descendant of the indigenous Lelex (Paus. 3.1.1; Eust. Il. 293, 25–30). The most important archaeological site in the area is the sanctuary of Apollo Amyklaios on the hill of Agia Kyriaki, nearly one kilometer northeast of Mahmoud-Bey. In historical times, Apollo was worshiped there together with the hero Hyakinthos. The Amyklaion was already a cult center in Late Helladic IIIB, and it remained one of the most important Lakonian sanctuaries until Roman times.

In Mycenaean times, Amyklai was a major center of the "hollow Lakedaimon," together with Pharis and, later, Therapne. Amyklai is also mentioned in the Homeric Catalogue of Ships (Il. 2.581–87), among the cities of Menelaos' kingdom. The location of the Mycenaean town and, therefore, its relation to the sanctuary have been disputed for many years. The discovery of a Late Helladic IIIA–B necropolis of chamber tombs at Spilakia, close to the Agia Kyriaki hill, and of a contemporary settlement at the foothill to the southwest confirmed Bintliff's supposition that the Mycenaean settlement was situated very close to the Amyklaion, extending from the foot of the hill into the plain.

The general desertion of the prosperous Mycenaean centers in the area at the end of the thirteenth century apparently did not include Amyklai, as witnessed by the continuation of the cult on the Amyklaion through the Late Helladic IIIC period. However, a hiatus in the material record until the Protogeometric period may imply that the sanctuary was finally abandoned, an assertion supported by the literary tradition of the return of the Herakleids and the coming of the Dorians. Nevertheless, one can also argue for a continuation of the cult, with Hyakinthos being worshiped by a small remnant Mycenaean population through ceremonies and perishable offerings.

The ancient literary tradition provides two versions of the "Dorianization" of Amyklai. One suggests that Amyklai became Dorian at the time of the return of the Herakleids; the other, during the reign of Teleklos (around the middle of the eighth century), when Amyklai was added as the fifth kome to Sparta, which had originally consisted of Pitana, Kynosoura, Limnai, and Mesoa (Paus. 3.2.6). Since, on archaeological grounds, nothing in the early Iron Age differentiates Amyklai from Dorian Sparta, Amyklai was probably conquered early but only incorporated completely into the Spartan state in the eighth century; or it may have been part of the same community from the beginning.

Although historical Amyklai was certainly located near the right bank of the Eurotas (Xen. Hell. 6.5.27–30), there was no clear evidence for its exact location until relatively recently. The main source is Polybios (5.19.2), who says, in his description of the invasion of Philip V in 218, that Amyklai "is situated about twenty stades from Lakedaimon" and that the precinct of Apollo located also in this area "is situated with regard to the city in the parts inclining towards the sea."

Bölte and, subsequently, other scholars concluded that the Amyklaion was located on the side of the city looking toward the sea, with Amyklai located to the north or northwest of the sanctuary. This assumes that Polybios' reference to "the city" applied to Amyklai. Following the same interpretation of the text, Cartledge suggested that the town might have extended in an arc from the hills to the north and northwest of the Amyklaion to the modern village of Amyklai.

However, this interpretation of Polybios' text is incorrect. As Fiechter noted, the "city" referenced by Polybios is surely Sparta; therefore, whether Polybios talks about the sanctuary's or Amyklai's relation to Sparta, the only reliable information from this source is that Amyklai — some twenty stades (3.7 km) from Sparta, according to Polybios — is to the south of Sparta. However, as will become clear later, there is now indisputable evidence that the kome of Amyklai was located in the area of Mahmoud-Bey, perhaps extending partially to the north.

The Discovery of the Deposit Near Agia Paraskevi

In 1955 a schoolboy of Amyklai, Sarantos Antonakos, found hundreds of terracotta objects in his aunt's orchard. He presented these to the Sparta Museum, and his discovery led to the investigation of an area several meters to the north of the church of Agia Paraskevi in the southern part of the modern village and near the tower of Mahmoud-Bey. The excavations, directed by ephor of antiquities Chrysanthos Christou, were carried out over three seasons between 1956 and 1961.

The excavations extended over an area six meters by two and one-half to five meters in the Antonakos orchard. A large deposit was discovered and produced more than ten thousand objects, ranging in date from the early seventh to the late fourth centuries; it included hundreds of vases of regular and miniature size, terracotta figurines and plaques, and a few metal objects. Two large terracotta reliefs, a disc akroterion, a few antefixes and inscribed fragmentary tiles, and the cylindrical base of a perirrhanterion with relief decoration were also discovered. It was established that the deposit consisted of votive offerings dedicated at a sanctuary, since rims from large vases were inscribed with the word ANEΘE[KEN (dedicated).

A small elliptical wall, dated to the fourth century, surrounded the votive dump to contain the objects. Trial trenches around the deposit failed to reveal traces of any kind of building belonging to the sanctuary as expected from the architectural terracottas. However, soundings made around the church brought to light some architectural remains dating to the Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman times. The cult building could thus be located exactly below the church or, more likely, to the west of it, either under the cemented courtyard or to the northwest in the Zarafonitis orchard, where architectural pieces were lying around. Indeed, in 1853 Vischer reported that when the people of Mahmoud-Bey excavated the nearby ground to obtain material for the construction of the small chapel of Agia Paraskevi — later expanded into the present-day church — they found many ancient worked stones close to the surface. Among them was one bearing the inscription [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Vischer concluded that the pieces must have been in situ.

However, the search for the sanctuary buildings was not continued, and the excavated area of the deposit was refilled at the end of the last season. Regrettably, many finds were reburied some distance away, near the outer wall of the Antonakos orchard. This has created many problems for reconstructing the plaques, leaving several scenes unidentifiable because crucial pieces are missing. Nevertheless, at the time of the initial excavation, the reburying seemed a reasonable solution in light of the sheer quantity of the finds, the limited space in the Sparta Museum storerooms, and the restricted means for transporting the finds from Amyklai to Sparta.

We now turn from the history of the excavations to the deposit itself. Occupying an extensive area (at least thirty square meters by two meters deep), it contained numerous offerings, mostly vases and terracotta plaques and figurines. The buried offerings span a long period (about four centuries) but were unstratified, which suggests that they must all have been deposited simultaneously, probably after a general cleaning or perhaps after a renovation of the sanctuary during the late fourth century, as indicated by the latest material. Interestingly, the votives were carefully deposited in a distinctive pattern. The terracotta plaques had been placed, relief-side down, in the center of the deposit, with the two large terracotta reliefs in the midst of the plaques. Nearby were three lead wreaths of the type common in Lakonian sanctuaries and two pieces from metal objects. Vases were grouped around the plaques more or less according to shapes: fragments of kylikes prevailed in the east, aryballoi in the west, lakainai in the south, and kyathoi in the north.

In 1998 a second deposit, containing thousands of similar offerings, was excavated in a field near the first deposit and to the north of the church of Agia Paraskevi. These finds greatly augment the number of offerings at the sanctuary. They remain unpublished, however, and cannot be taken much into consideration here.

Identification of the Sanctuary

The sanctuary in which the offerings from the two deposits were originally dedicated can be conclusively identified as the hieron of Alexandra/Kassandra. This identification rests on literary, archaeological, and epigraphical evidence.

In his account of the town of Amyklai, Pausanias (3.19.6) recommended a visit to the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (sanctuary) of Alexandra, which contained her [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (presumably the cult statue), an [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (representation) of Klytaimnestra, and a [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (grave) regarded as that of Agamemnon. He added, without necessarily agreeing, that the local people believed Alexandra to be Kassandra, the daughter of Priam. Pausanias' report has been corroborated by the discovery in the deposit of vase fragments — mainly rims from large vessels — bearing Archaic and Classical graffiti and dipinti of the names of Agamemnon and Alexandra, the earliest of which date to ca. 525.

The association of the deposit with Alexandra is supported by the discovery in 1878, also in a garden near the church, of an honorary decree. The well-preserved marble stele, topped with pediment and akroteria, consists of two parts: a relief scene on the top and a long inscription on the bottom. The letters and the style of the relief date the stele to the second or first century. The inscription (IG V.1, 26; SIG 932) is an honorary decree passed by the oba of the Amyklaians, one of the five territorial subdivisions of the polis of Sparta, for a collegium of three ephors (local magistrates) who served in a civilized and conscientious manner. The decree was originally set up in the sanctuary of Alexandra according to the provision in the inscription. This reference reinforces the identification of the sanctuary with that of Alexandra.

Ancient marble slabs that might have been used for the paving of a floor were reportedly found together with the stele. A similar stele found in the area matched the shape of the first one but lacked a relief; the few surviving words identify it as another decree of the Amyklaian oba. A fragment of a third decree found in the church must have again originated from nearby. Since none of the pieces were reused or incorporated into walls or seemed to have been transferred from elsewhere, it can be concluded that all these finds belonged to the sanctuary of Alexandra located in that area.

An offering discovered at S(k)lavochori must also originally have been dedicated at the sanctuary of Alexandra. It is a marble armless throne with a footstool represented in relief. Under the pedimental ending of the backrest is an inscribed dedication to Alexandra by Banaxeus, a member of the gerousia. The throne, dated in the first century BC or AD, bridges the gap between the decree and Pausanias' visit, thus confirming that the cult of Alexandra continued uninterrupted through the Hellenistic period and into Roman times.


Given all the available evidence, we can conclude that the sanctuary of Alexandra, reported by Pausanias as being at Amyklai, a short distance southwest of the Amyklaion, was situated near and possibly even beneath the church of Agia Paraskevi. It was worth visiting perhaps on account of its size or decoration. For the Amyklaians at least, it was an important center because it was a repository for official documents. Even though the dedicatory vase inscriptions and Pausanias mention both Agamemnon and Alexandra, the female figure was considered the main cult recipient at least by the Hellenistic period, as shown by the consistent attribution of the sanctuary to Alexandra (with no mention of Agamemnon) and by the major dedications, the decree and the inscribed throne, which referred to her alone.

A second firm conclusion is that the large votive deposit discovered in the area (along with the second more recently excavated one) contains offerings dedicated in that sanctuary. The identification is conclusive not only because of the location of the deposit but also because of the vase inscriptions. Further support is provided by the decree of the oba with the provision to be erected at this sanctuary and by the throne with the dedicatory inscription to Alexandra, both found in the same general area. The deposit was created in the late fourth century, when, after a general cleanup, dedications spanning almost four centuries were discarded, most likely within the confines of the sanctuary, as was usually the case. Finally, the identification of the location of the Alexandra sanctuary near the church also firmly places the kome of Amyklai in that area.

Terracotta Plaques in Lakonia and Neighboring Areas

More than twelve hundred complete and fragmentary terracotta plaques were found at the Amyklai deposit, and comparable numbers were reported from the second deposit. Similar or even identical plaques have been discovered at various other Lakonian sites, both as isolated finds and as part of comparable votive deposits (see appendix 1 and chapter 7). They have been found in more than forty different sites throughout Sparta, but with major concentrations to the south and east of the akropolis hill, especially in the kome of Limnai (map 1). Far fewer have been discovered in other Lakonian sites (map 2).

Objects found together with the plaques in the various sites include vases of regular and miniature size, terracotta figurines, lead figurines, and occasionally bronze snakes, spindle whorls, loom weights, and stone sculpture (reliefs and statues). Architectural remains, including walls and architectural terracottas, have been located in many cases in Sparta (app. 1:1, 4–6, 9–12, 14, 16, 17, 19, 27, 31, 33, 44, 45, and perhaps 3) and other Lakonian sites (app. 1:50, 54). In some cases, there is an association with an earlier burial (app. 1:3, 5, 6, 9–11, 21, 48, and perhaps 7). Unfortunately, in contrast to the Amyklaian deposits, only rarely is there any literary or inscriptional information about the sanctuaries in which these plaques were dedicated.

Many terracotta plaques have also been found in neighboring Messenia (app. 1:55–60). They were dedicated in shrines founded in the area of Mycenaean tombs, except for those from Messene that were associated with local heroes and perhaps Asklepios. Finally, a couple of isolated examples were found in sanctuary contexts in Arkadia (app. 1:61–63).


The Cult Recipients


As discussed in chapter 1, Alexandra was considered the main cult recipient at the Amyklai sanctuary, at least by the Hellenistic period. Her name, iconography and literary information provide insights into the personality of this seemingly obscure figure. Here I assess the evidence about her nature and character and show that she was the Homeric Kassandra from the beginning rather than a result of later syncretism.

Central to the story of the beautiful Trojan princess Kassandra was her relationship with Apollo, for whom she served as priestess and prophetess. For rejecting the god's sexual advances, she was deprived of the capacity to persuade. During the sack of Troy, Kassandra was pursued and assaulted by the Lokrian Ajax in the sanctuary of Athena. Subsequently allotted to Agamemnon as his war prize, Kassandra was apparently much loved by him for her prize, Kassandra was apparently much loved by him for her beauty and charm, although she did not reciprocate his feelings. Their relationship was doomed, because on returning to Greece, they were both brutally murdered by Klytaimnestra or Aigisthos (Hom. Od. 11.419–26; Pind. Pyth. 11.33).


Excerpted from Heroic Offerings by Gina Salapata. Copyright © 2014 the University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


CHAPTER 1. The Sanctuary at Agia Paraskevi, Amyklai,
CHAPTER 2. The Cult Recipients,
CHAPTER 3. The Terracotta Plaques: Life Cycle and Classification,
CHAPTER 4. Plaques with Seated Figures: Typological Analysis,
CHAPTER 5. Plaques with Seated Figures: Iconography,
CHAPTER 6. Plaques with Standing Figures, Riders, Warriors, Banqueters, and Miscellaneous Subjects,
CHAPTER 7. Votive Plaques and Hero Cult,
Appendix 1. Findspots of Lakonian and Messenian Plaques,
Appendix 2. Lakonian Stone Reliefs with Seated Figures,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews