Review of Classical Archaeology

Classical Archaeology is the study of Mediterranean (mainly ancient Greek and Roman) society on the basis of cultural material including artifacts, features, and ecofacts. Archaeologists study this material in an effort to develop culture history. This process always involves careful description and categorization of the objects as well as a series of inferences about the dating of the objects and their original use. Classical archaeologists often focus their attention on specific features such as temples, theaters, stoas, or palaces. It is often difficult to identify these, and sometimes a building cannot be identified with certainty unless an specific inscription or artifact is found. The shape and size of a building is an important clue to the identification of a building, but the kinds of objects found in and around a building are also particularly significant: thus, expensive objects such as gold and luxurious furnishings indicate a place of special importance, while simple cooking pots or handmade pottery may identify a more mundane structure. Archaeologists constantly seek to use these bits of information to understand details about life in the past; and in particular how people lived their lives in antiquity.

(Figure 10.1) Temple at Delphi.You should note how these goals contrast strikingly with the popular conception of archaeology as a hunt for valuable "treasures." The image of an Indiana Jones is very far from the reality of what classical archaeologists do: instead of the "Lost Ark" or pots of gold, real archaeologists search for information to help them understand the people of the past.

Archaeologists always try to gather all the information possible in order to understand what the archaeological artifacts were and how they were used. A particularly important aspect of this is what is called the archaeological "context." This refers to where the artifact was found and any other material found with it. This creates a particular importance for exhaustive record keeping. Yet despite all the detail and the often-tedious field work, the activity of the archaeologist remains an exciting enterprise.

The Greeks and their Environment

The Greek landscape in the ancient world included both urban and rural areas. Whereas we usually think of cities only as urban centers, the Greek concept was that of the city plus its surrounding land as an integrated whole. Most Greeks lived and worked in the countryside. While it is true that many people lived in the urban center and commuted daily to work in their fields, the archaeological evidence suggests a wide variety of settlement patterns and most social levels of society were involved in the production of food that was needed to support the population inhabiting the urban unit.

(Figure 10.2) Walking the acrokorinth and the coastal plain.The geography and the climate of Greece preferred some regions to others and as a result, provided limited economic opportunities for varying city-states. This resulted at many points in forced specialization and trade. Cities often exploited what was the most befitting to them based on the land they possessed, since geography had assigned variegated access to resources: timber, rich soils, building material, precious minerals, clays, and harbors. In many ways, the history of ancient Greece is the story of how environment and geography shaped the ways that communities and individuals would interact with each other.

The site of Isthmia gets its name from its location on the Isthmus, the narrow stretch of land separating the Peloponnesos from mainland Greece, and bridging the eastern and western seas. The Isthmus was a heavily trafficked crossroads, and all land traffic between central / northern Greece and the Peloponnesos had to pass via the Isthmus. The passages from Athens to Korinth, Sparta, Olympia, Nemea, and Argos took place along this route. In addition, the closest and safest connection between Italy and the Eastern Mediterranean was via the Isthmus. Ships could dock at one of Korinth's two harbors, and pay a fee to have their cargo transported across the Isthmus by the Diolkos.

The coastal plain of the Korinthia, which lay along the Korinthian Gulf between Korinth and Sikyon, was one of the richest agricultural areas in Ancient Greece. The Isthmus itself was a plateau of thin rocky soil but still contained fairly flat arable land that was useful for cultivating barley, olives, and grapes.

Greek Mythology

(Figure 10.3) Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi.One of the most enduring legacies of ancient Greece is the collection of stories that tell the tales of gods and heroes, collectively known as myths. Our earliest sources for Greek myths are Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Later examples of epic include Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica, which tells the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Pindar made frequent use of myth, and Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Eurpides, employed myth extensively in their plays.

One of the distinguishing features of Greek myth is the close interaction that takes place between gods and mortals.The Greeks assembled their most important gods into a pantheon of twelve. Not all lists have the same twelve gods, but a fairly standard compilation would include: Zeus, Hera, Athena, Artemis, Apollo, Poseidon, Dionysus, Demeter, Aphrodite, Hephaistos, Hermes, and Ares. The twelve Olympian gods do not exhaust the Greek Pantheon that also includes lesser gods and heroes.

The Mythology Concerning Isthmia

The four Panhellenic festivals - the Olympic Games and Nemean Games in honor of the god Zeus, the Pythian Games in honor of Apollo, and the Isthmian Games in honor of Poseidon - were perhaps the most popular events in Greek religious life. The Isthmian games have their mythological origin in the story of Palaimon. Reincarnated as a god by Poseidon, Palaimon is sometimes depicted as a drowned body carried by a dolphin and at other times as a happy, living dolphin-rider, reflecting both the tragic and triumphant aspects of the story.

The myth of Palaimon explains why Poseidon is honored at Isthmia. However, there are other obvious reasons for holding festivals and games to the god at Isthmia. Poseidon was god of the sea, and the narrow neck of land that separated the Korinthian and Saronic Gulfs was the ideal spot for a temple to Poseidon. Poseidon was rescuer of ships and helper of fisherman, and like Palaimon is often depicted in art alongside dolphins. Poseidon was also believed to cause (and prevent) earthquakes, which often occur in the Aegean; and he was also the tamer of horses, and thus popular among the Greek aristocracy.

Like most mythical stories, there are several versions of the founding of the games at Isthmia. According to Apollodorus, Sisyphos, the sly king of Korinth, established the games after Palaimon's body was brought ashore. Plutarch, however, recounts an Athenian version that attributes the institution of the games to Theseus, their national hero.

A Brief History of Isthmia

Isthmia was first used as a center for religious activity during the Dark Ages, but it was during the Archaic Period that a small shrine near the Isthmus was replaced by a large Doric temple to Poseidon. The first Panhellenic festival was founded in the eighth century at Olympia. Isthmia, as the crossroads of Greece, was a perfect place to host a similar festival; thus some time after the construction of the temple the complex was expanded to include a stadium, and games were organized there by the Korinthians. The traditional date of the founding of the Isthmian Games is 584 BC.

(Figure 10.4) Layout of the Temple to Poseidon.Around 480 BC the archaic temple was destroyed by fire. A new and larger temple was constructed about 465. In 390 the games were disrupted when a Spartan Army marched on the Isthmus. The temple was damaged again by fire. Toward the end of the fourth century, Isthmia was the location of meetings by both Philip and Alexander of Macedon; and by the end of the century, Isthmia was recognized as one of the centers of Greek unity. Although typically imposed by leaders of considerable power, such meetings added to Isthmia's already considerable prestige and attracted even more visitors.

At the beginning of the second century BC Greek political life was forever changed by the entry of Rome into Greek affairs, and the consequences would be disastrous for Isthmia. Rome arrived in 200 BC to liberate Greece from Macedonian control; one of the garrisons they took was Korinth, but in the process their armies damaged the temple of Poseidon and destroyed the village on the Rachi. Later, with the conclusion of the war, the Roman General Flamininus announced the complete liberation of Greece at the Isthmian Games in 196 BC. Fifty years later, during the war against the Achaian League, the Roman General Mummius ordered Korinth to be destroyed. Isthmia was not spared. The Altar of Poseidon was destroyed, and the Isthmian Games were transferred to the control of Sikyon. Korinth was refounded as a Roman Colony by Julius Caesar in 44 BC, and the city-state regained control of the games about forty years later; however archeological evidence suggests that the games did not return to Isthmia until about 50 AD. At that time, the temple and the facilities for the games were repaired, and in 67 AD the Emperor Nero took part in the Panhellenic games -- many of which were rescheduled in his honor.

After the second century AD, our literary sources for Isthmia decrease in number, and it is harder for us to find out what life was like at the temple site. By the end of the fourth century Christianity was the only legal religion in the Empire, and it is almost certain that no more games were given in honor of Poseidon. By 400 the sanctuary to Poseidon was an abandoned relic to a bygone era. In the reign of Theodosius II (AD 408-50) a wall was constructed across the Isthmus. The Hexamilion (six-mile) wall required an enormous quantity of stone to construct, and many abandoned buildings were plundered for stone. The temple was torn down to its foundations. Isthmia itself may have been sporadically abandoned between the late 7th century and the 11th or 12th century AD. However, the Isthmus continued to be an important strategic location during the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods.

Fieldwork at Isthmia

The excavations at Isthmia have taken place nearly continuously since the mid-1950's, but much of the site still remains unexplored. Currently, the Excavations at Isthmia is the largest of OSU's Archaeological Projects in Greece, and many areas of the site, including the Byzantine Fortress and the Roman Bath, have been or are currently being published, while other areas are still under study.

(Figure 10.5) Clearing brush at Tower 14.The Roman Bath was built in the mid-second century AD on the foundation of an earlier Greek pool that dates back to at least the fourth century BC. Archaeological remains have shown that the bath continued in use until its abandonment in the late fourth century AD, after which it fell into decay and finally collapsed in the late sixth century. Bathing in Roman times was a lengthy social event involving a trip through most of the complex including the caldarium, tepidarium, and frigidarium. The central room of the Roman Bath at Isthmia and the main gathering place for visiting bathers, is particularly notable for its recently restored large monochrome mosaic (20m X 8m).

The restoration of the monochrome mosaic allowed for a closer inspection of the Greek pool, partially located beneath the area of the mosaic. The construction of the pool dates to the fourth century BC and represents one of the largest Greek bathing facilities known in the ancient Mediterranean. With a depth of about one meter and walls approximately 100 Greek feet in length, the pool was able to hold 1,275 cubic meters of water, suggesting a sizable feature at the Sanctuary of Poseidon. The pool was lined with waterproof cement and still held water after 2500 years.

The Hexamilion and the Fortress are continued points of interest and study for OSU Excavations at Isthmia. Recent work has centered on recording the numerous spolia used as construction material in the Wall and Fortress. When the fortifications were being constructed, the builders made use of the cut stone and marble that had originally been part of Temple, Bath, Theatre, and athletic structures. The study of the spolia has focused on locating, identifying, and recording blocks that originated from these structures at Isthmia.


Many archaeologists complement subsurface excavation with surface survey -- the visual examination of a landscape for variations in ground surface or the distribution of artifacts. The cost effectiveness and ease of "field walking" has made survey archaeology a valuable method of understanding the past. Moreover, surface survey does not destroy the area under investigation in the same way that excavation does. Survey is also important in that it provides an entirely different kind of information about an area. While excavation may reveal detailed information about the use of a site through time, survey illuminates past utilization of countryside, landscape, and regions. And where excavation in the Mediterranean has traditionally been concerned primarily with only one kind of past activity area (the ancient city), survey reveals a great variety of sites, from overnight camp spots to small-scale settlements to ancient agricultural fields.

(Figure 10.6) Taking survey measurements.Surveys generally aim to discover the kinds of artifacts and features present (or absent) over an extensive region. Walkers spaced at equal distances walk as a group across a field, counting artifacts and flagging representative pieces for later analysis. A second, more involved and intensive phase may be necessary for areas with high artifact concentrations.

In the first phase of survey, projects often incorporate a nonsystematic component. If the survey is systematic, walkers will be spaced at regular intervals across the field, thereby covering a representative area. Artifacts are collected according to the research design and project goals, and a collection strategy is decided before survey begins. In every survey project, it is necessary to record additional information about survey conditions, such as procedures, field conditions, artifact patterning,and weather -- especially important are notes concerning ground cover.

Many projects undergo a second phase of survey that will explore more intensively an area discovered in the first phase. Strategies might include, but are not limited to, further geomorphological study, intensive collection within a grid, preliminary excavation, sketching plans of relevant features, or geophysical survey. The particular strategy depends upon the research design.


Excavation is the exploration of cultural material located below the surface in an effort to reveal the types of cultural activity that took place at a site over time. The excavation of a site is a tremendous endeavor and the development of a careful research design as well as a serious dedication to the publication of the results should be firmly in place before undertaking such an effort. Further, responsible and accurate recording is perhaps the most essential component of any project, and excavation is meaningless without written and visual records. Therefore such exploration requires the shouldering of considerable responsibility.

(Figure 10.7) Excavation in the Roman bath by Sam.Modern archaeology is scientific and systematic in its approach to vertical and horizontal space. Since the end goal of research is always to interpret the data in meaningful ways, spatial control is essential to any excavation. The guiding principle in all scientific excavation is stratigraphy, the study and interpretation of strata (layers) in order to understand the historical processes of site formation. Because each stratum resulted from specific kinds of depositional processes at work over time, it is possible to chronologically relate the position of one layer to another. According to the law of superposition, since sedimentary layers accumulate upward through time, the oldest layers will always be the lowest vertical levels, while the most recent layers will be the highest vertical levels. This rule is not without its exceptions however, and secondary processes can make the process of understanding strata more convoluted.

A stratum (a single layer) represent a discrete period of time and so artifacts within the layer can be used to date the entire stratum. Artifacts from the same layer are assumed to represent the same period of deposition and to have entered the layer at the same time; generally, the most recent artifact dates the entire layer. When the artifact is an inscription or coin, a date of some precision can be assigned to the layer. Pottery also provides a very effective means for dating in the Mediterranean. Absolute dating techniques are generally not used in classical archaeology since they tend to provide less precise dates than the relative dating of artifact types.


We refer to the processing and interpretation of the cultural remains collected through archaeological fieldwork as analysis. Artifacts, ecofacts, and features say little themselves, but researchers can make meaningful inferences about these when they are studied closely and in detail. Analysis therefore is the examination, description, classification and identification of that material, as well as a consideration of its broader meaning.

(Figure 10.8) Archaeological research.Processing is the management of archaeological material, beginning with decisions about how much to sample and ending with cleaning, sorting (preliminary analysis), inventory, and storage. Processing decisions begin with the research design and the goals tailored for each project. At Isthmia, artifacts must be cleaned before any real study begins. Artifact cleaning is usually followed with a preliminary sorting of the material into broadly distinct classes. Most artifacts are given a relatively quick description, with a focus on providing a date for an excavated stratum: these artifacts are called context material, and they are kept in boxes for possible later investigation. Certain artifacts may be selected for inventory, where they are assigned unique numbers by which they are referred in subsequent analysis and discussion. Artifacts may be analyzed in terms of 1) surface attributes, 2) attributes of form, or 3) technological attributes. Each kind of artifact characteristic provides different information.

Ceramics are the most common type of artifact found in Mediterranean archaeology since clay pots were usually the primary means of storage, cooking, and transport during ancient times. Analysis of ceramics at Isthmia begins with an initial sorting into broadly periodic (e.g., Roman), functional (e.g., fine ware), typological (e.g., pottery), morphological (e.g., rim sherd) classes for each lot. Inventoried artifacts, however, are analyzed much more closely.

Lithic artifacts are rarely found in excavations at Isthmia but are commonly discovered in the Eastern Korinthia Survey. Stone tools were more typical in prehistoric times but were sometimes used well into the classical period. The analysis of lithic artifacts is in some ways similar to that of pottery. Artifacts are sorted into various classes that reflect the process of manufacture or the function of the artifact; counts and weight are taken for these classes. Again, inventoried artifacts are analyzed more closely.

Artifacts are only one class of material that provides information about past human cultures. In order to provide a fuller picture, archaeologists must also examine ecofacts, the environmental and organic remains that reveal past ecosystems, climate, and ancient diet. Floral (plant) and faunal (animal) remains are a necessary and significant part of archaeological analysis.