The Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia, once a distant country shrine far outside the city of ancient Athens, today appears on maps to be even more remote, standing almost forgotten on the far eastern side of the Greek capital?s sprawling modern airport now occupying the intervening flatlands of central Attica. In antiquity, however, the sanctuary was an important cult center that played a key role in the religious life of especially Athenian women.
Every four years during the Arkteia festival, a procession of worshippers left Athens and walked or rode the 25 or more kilometers to the sanctuary along a via sacra (sacred way) that would bring them to the spot believed to have been where Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, with the help of her brother Orestes, took refuge after escaping her intended sacrifice by her father before the Trojan War. Classical 5th-century BC authors told the story of Iphigenia in plays, including Aeschylus? ?Agamemnon? and Euripides? ?Iphigenia in Aulis,? while Aristophanes? archetypal feminist character Lysistrata, proclaiming she has fulfilled the socioreligious rites of passage expected of young Athenian women, alludes to the important worship of Artemis in her sanctuary at Brauron (now known as Vravrona).
Today, although the wooded site of Brauron with its sacred spring, cave shrines and partly re-erected Doric stoa (colonnaded portico) is a familiar, cherished site among archaeological specialists and students, the sanctuary and sparkling-new Brauron Museum seem largely overlooked by lay visitors who may be seeking cultural gems outside Athens. Contrary to making Brauron more remote, however, the construction of the new airport and its associated roads have, in fact, increased the Artemis sanctuary?s accessibility, since visitors are now able to reach the quiet spot northeast of Markopoulo much more quickly on the Attiki Odos ring road. Best of all, according to archaeologist Vassiliki Skaraki of the Second Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, the Brauron site — in the past frequently closed due to staff shortages — is now open again.
Brauron stood almost beside the sea in ancient times. After centuries of coastal silting, however, the sanctuary now lies some 400 meters inland, separated from the shore by a reedy marsh filled with birds. Coastal places with ready supplies of fresh water were always important to seafarers and Brauron with its natural spring and proximity to the local Erasinos River may have been a known, convenient stop on ancient sea routes that followed the eastern Attic coastline. A fortified prehistoric settlement on a hill southeast of the sanctuary was occupied from Neolithic times (circa 3300 BC) but especially in the Middle and Late Bronze ages (ca. 2000-1600 BC). Abandoned circa 1200 BC, the area was reinhabited in the 9th or 8th century BC.
Iron Age peoples establishing the cult of Iphigenia on the site of the later sanctuary focused particularly on the clear spring and shaded, cave-like hollows of a nearby hill. Archaeological excavations in the late 1940s through the early 60s by the Greek Archaeological Society revealed votive offerings dropped into the spring and preserved in its mud, including bronze mirrors, rings, gems, wooden spindles and spindle whorls, delicate bone tools and other objects indicative of female worshippers. The preservation of such ordinarily transient organic materials, now displayed in the Brauron Museum, is particularly impressive.
As the worship of Artemis rose through the Archaic era, with Iphigenia eventually becoming her priestess, the goddess?s first stone temple was constructed at Brauron in the 6th century BC — at about the same time that a small sanctuary dedicated to Artemis was also established on the Athenian Acropolis. The Persians appear to have destroyed the sanctuary in 480 BC on their way to Athens but in the 420s there was a new building period. The temple was repaired and construction began on a three-sided Doric stoa (the earliest known to have such a Greek-Pi shape), which housed nine ceremonial dining rooms ? each able to hold 11 dining couches. These rooms at Brauron are some of the best, most evocative examples of Greek dining rooms ever recovered, complete with offset doorways, elevated zones for couches against the walls, notches cut in the floors (some still containing traces of lead joinery) to stabilize the couches? feet, central stone tables and bronze door pivots and stoppers.
Portions of the Brauron stoa were restored in 1961-62 by architect Charalambos Bouras, now chairman of the Committee for the Restoration of the Acropolis Monuments. The architecture of the stoa is noted for its individuality, including an unusually wide intercolumniation and, in the entablature, the use of two triglyphs between columns rather than the canonical one as seen, for example, in the Parthenon.
Inscriptions at Brauron refer to other buildings that probably still await discovery outside the excavated area, including a palaestra and gymnasium. A uniquely preserved 5th-century BC stone bridge spans a stream just west of the stoa, its upper surface scarred with the ruts of ancient carts.
Artemis? cult was particularly important to women, since she was considered a protectress of childbirth. Young girls in Classical times also worshipped the goddess with rituals that marked their transition into puberty and womanhood. Athenian girls about 7-10 years old were sent to Brauron to serve as Artemis? attendants, called arktoi (she-bears). They lived in the sanctuary for a year, during which they participated, either ceremonially dressed as bears or naked, in sacred dances, races and sacrifices.
Finally abandoned in the 3rd century BC, the Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron may have fallen victim to unrest in the Attic countryside caused by marauding Macedonians or to the flooding of the Erasinos. With the sanctuary now about to reopen, and the freshly renovated museum already receiving visitors, one of Attica?s most intriguing archaeological sites will soon once again be fully accessible.
Referring to traditional religious duties performed by young Athenian women in the 5th century BC as they matured and reached adulthood, Aristophanes? Lysistrata declares:
?…I have been a sharer in all the lavish splendor 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,? 638-647)