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Programme code 04 – Archaeology in Eastern Attica for foodies : Vravron, Thorikos and the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion
Approaching the eastern coast of Attica almost 40 kilometres (25 mi) drive east of Athens , we reach the well-preserved remains of the Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia nestled in a wide valley close to the sea. It’s hard to believe that this was once the centre of an important religious cult centre that played a major part in the life of Athenian women.
This distant coastal location, in such a tranquil setting next to the Vravrona Wetlands nature reserve, was actually occupied from as far back as the Early Bronze Age. The sanctuary is said to be the place where Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia, with her brother Orestes, allegedly sought refuge after Artemis spared her from sacrifice by her father before the Trojan War. While the site is easy to reach by car now, just imagine how, on a four-yearly basis in ancient times, a procession of worshippers, especially women and children, would walk or ride from Athens along the sacred road to this sanctuary to take part in the Arkteia (little bears) festival.
Our visit to the site and the adjacent Archaeological Museum of Brauron will shed more light on the history of the cult of Artemis and give us a first-hand impression of what drew ancient peoples to settle and worship the goddess here.
Artemis, the daughter of Zeus and Leto, as well as being renowned as the goddess of hunting and wild animals, she was also the goddess of childbirth, protector of girls, but ironically both inflicted or cured women’s ailments. Some myths tell of Artemis being the first born and then playing the role of midwife to assist her mother to deliver her twin brother, Apollo. Not a bad achievement for a newborn!
Iphigenia was the daughter of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, and Clytemnestra. As the Greek city-states of the time had assembled to depart for Troy to claim back the fair Helen, wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, king of Sparta, Agamemnon got into Artemis’s black books by killing a sacred stag which belonged to her. The angry goddess demanded that he sacrifice Iphigenia in recompense. Agamemnon sent her with her mother to Aulis, where she was to be killed, pretending that she was to be married to Achilles. Fortunately for Iphigenia, when her father did send her to be sacrificed, Artemis came to her rescue. Her immediate fate differs in the telling, with some versions saying that she was taken to Tauris (now Crimea) where she stayed for a while in the worship of Artemis until escaping from there to arrive in Brauron.
Her mother, Clytemnestra, naturally never forgave her husband, and took her revenge years later by murdering him in his bath upon his return from Troy.
It is said that the clothing of women in labour was brought to Brauron: the clothes from those who survived childbirth were dedicated to Artemis, and clothes of those who died in childbirth dedicated to Iphigenia.
Classical Greek authors of 5th century BC, including Aristophanes, Aeschylus and Euripides told the story of Iphigenia in popular plays. Euripides’ feminist character Lysistrata spoke of her time at the Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron and the rites of passage:
“I have been a sharer in all the lavish splendour of the proud city. I bore the holy vessels at seven, then I pounded barley at the age of ten; and clad in yellow robes, soon after this, I was Little Bear to Brauronian Artemis; then neckletted with figs, grown tall and pretty, I was a Basket-bearer…” [Aristophanes’Lysistrata, lines 638-647]
During the Early Bronze Age (3500–2000 BC), it was one of the twelve ancient cities of Attica before Theseus unified these communities with Athens. Remains of a fortified prehistoric settlement found on a hill southeast of the sanctuary show this was inhabited in Neolithic times (around 3300 BC) and in the Middle and Late Bronze ages (ca. 2000-1600 BC).
Brauron was much closer to the coast in ancient times, but centuries of flooding and silting in the valley of the Erasinos River have left the sanctuary about 400 metres from the shore. With its natural springs supplying fresh water, and easy access inland along the local Erasinos River, Brauron was most likely a popular port-of-call on sea routes along the eastern coast of Attica.
For reasons unknown, the earlier settlements seem to have been uninhabited from around 1230 BC until about the 9th century BC.
Around the Iron Age (1200–600 BC), the cult of Iphigenia began on the site where the sanctuary was later built – the main attractions being the freshwater spring and the shelter of the caves on the small hill. The initial archaeological excavations by the Greek Archaeological Society from 1946 to the 1960s uncovered votive offerings, which had been preserved under the silt in the spring. Objects such as bronze mirrors, jewellery, wooden spindles and spindle whorls, delicate bone tools and combs were evidence of female worshippers.
As the worship of Artemis developed from Archaic times, Iphigenia become her priestess, then the first stone temple dedicated to Artemis was constructed at Brauron in the 6th century BC. Around the same time, a sanctuary to Artemis was built on the Acropolis in Athens.
The sanctuary at Brauron is thought to have been destroyed by Persians in 480 BC on their way to invade Athens, but it was repaired in Classical times around 425 BC, when construction began on the three-sided, Pi (Π)-shaped Doric stoa – making it the oldest stoa of this kind in Greece. The architecture of the stoa is includes an unusually wide arrangement of columns, with the use of two triglyphs between columns whereas those of the Parthenon had only one.
Restoration works began on the site in 1961-62. Some of the best examples of Greek dining rooms ever were found in this stoa. There were nine ceremonial dining rooms, each with a capacity of eleven raised dining couches against the walls surrounding stone tables.
From inscriptions discovered at Brauron, the sanctuary, like others of its kind, clearly included other buildings including a palaestra (wrestling school) and a gymnasium, which remain undiscovered and unexcavated to date.
The cult Artemis was particularly important to women, since she was considered a protector of women in childbirth as well as marriage and puberty. Young girls in Classical Greece (5th–4th centuries BC) also worshipped the goddess with rituals to mark their transition from childhood into puberty and womanhood. Athenian girls were sent to live in the sanctuary at Brauron for a year, during which they participated, either dressed as bears (arktoi) or naked, in ceremonial dances, sports and sacrifices.
The Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron was abandoned in the 3rd century BC, either due to the conflict between Athenians and the Macedonians or to the flooding of the Erasinos. So it was apparently overlooked by later invasions, and even Pausanias, the traveller, had little to say about it. He mentioned in passing:
[1.33.1] At some distance from Marathon is Brauron, where, according to the legend, Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, landed with the image of Artemis when she fled from the Tauri; leaving the image there she came to Athens also and afterwards to Argos. There is indeed an old wooden image of Artemis here, but who in my opinion have the one taken from the foreigners I will set forth in another place.
The Site Today
Along a path bordering the Wetlands past the museum, we enter the site that has recently been upgraded with walkways allowing visitors to view the ruins, while protecting them from further damage. Through the centre of the site runs the sacred spring, but what dominates the site is the colonnade of the partly rebuilt Doric stoa (colonnaded portico). The foundations of ritual feasting rooms are visible behind the columns of the stoa. On the floors, we can detect traces of notches that were cut in the floors to stabilize the feet the legs of the stone couches.
At the far west corner of the site, just beyond the stoa is a well-preserved 5th-century BC stone bridge across the stream that bordered the sanctuary. Amazingly, we can still see the grooves worn by of ancient cartwheels on its surface.
On the side of the small rocky hill at the other end of the site, near the temple of Artemis, are the remains of what was probably the shrine of Iphigenia. Above the temple is the small Byzantine church of St. George, from 16th century BC, which was probably built into the walls of a former cave.
Either before or after exploring the site itself, a visit to the Archaeological Museum of Brauron is a must. Here can view some of the finds from the site, including wooden tools for weaving and jewellery which were remarkably well preserved due to the sandy soil that had buried them when the river flooded its banks. The museum hosts an impressive collection of votive offerings, particularly statues of girls, and various representations of Artemis. There is also an informative display of the history of the region, plus a mock-up model of the site as it would have been in its heyday.
It is also impossible to ignore the adjacent Wetlands, which are worth exploring to observe and appreciate the flora and fauna native to this area.
Tickets: Full: €6, Reduced: €3
Valid for Archaeological Museum of Brauron and archaeological site of Brauron
Free entry days:
6 March (in memory of Melina Mercouri)
18 April (International Monuments Day)
18 May (International Museums Day)
The last weekend of September annually (European Heritage Days)
Every first Sunday from November 1st to March 31st
Other: Car park behind museum
By Nefasdicere at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5089410
Aristophanes Lysistrata quote: http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0019.tlg007.perseus-eng1:636-647
All images copyright Eric CB Cauchi / Eternal Greece Ltd, unless otherwise stated.