By Gigi Marino
In ancient Greece, the sanctuary of Ismenion Apollo in Thebes embodied myth and ritual, dance and song, poetry and awe. The poet Pindar called it “the true seat of the seers,” and its temple is said to have rivaled the famed sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi.
One of the challenges that archeologists and historians face when trying to reconstruct ancient sites is that over the millennia, these sites have been plowed under, built over or pillaged. The Ismenion hill in Thebes is, in comparison, relatively pristine — not only has the site not been built or paved over, but it also has never been fully excavated.
“The importance of the Ismenion hill as a site for exploration cannot be overestimated,” says Associate Professor of Classics Kevin Daly. “The site is of monumental architectural, literary and cultic interest for periods from the second millennium BCE onward.” Daly and Associate Professor of Classics Stephanie Larson have been working with Greek archeologists to coordinate the first U.S.–Greek dig of the site, which has been only partially excavated in 1917 and 1967. Largely funded by a grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and Bucknell, the professors and Bucknell students began excavating the site two years ago in 2011. In November 2012, Larson, Daly and their students presented the first of their findings on the Thebes Excavation to a Bucknell audience. The highlights included beads, coins, tombs, graves and a sequence of letters on a clay roof tile that could have easily been missed.
Before any excavating began, the team used G.I.S. (Geographical Information Systems) technology to map the site. Daly explains that the site needed to be mapped in three dimensions — “a particular challenge has been getting firm fixed points on a truly local grid.” New maps were generated using an iPad application, electromagnetic imaging and measurements to sea-level.
In a foundation trench to the eastern side of the last of three temples that stood on the Ismenion hill, a red clay askos was found dating to the late fifth century BCE, the heyday of classical Greece. An askos is a type of pot, similar to a teapot, and this artifact is an example of fineware painted with scenes involving sphinxes. Says Larson, “Sphinxes were heavily involved in the mythology concerning Thebes, particularly in the mythic story of Oedipus, king of Thebes, who, according to legend, killed the Sphinx that plagued the city.” Larson says the find helps to re-contextualize Thebes as an important Classical city in the Boeotian region of the Mediterranean.
The Bucknell group is planning its third season and is seeking donations. To learn more about the project, go to www.bucknell.edu/Thebes.
Noel Lampazzi ’13, a student participant, says, “This dig is more than just an effort to study and preserve the past. It’s a way for American archeologists to make a good name for ourselves today and to set the stage for our relationships with the Greeks in the future. We were all thus part archeologist, part college student and part diplomat.”