The lost Temple of Artemis Agrotera

As long as the ruins stood undisturbed, crumbling slowly into heaps of raw building material, no one seemed to pay any attention, since these unremarkable stones and timbers were merely the remains of empty, run-down houses probably less than 100 years old.

In early 2010, however, as bulldozers summoned by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Tourism moved in to clear the abandoned properties at the corner of Ardittou Avenue and Koutoula Street ? an elevated, panoramic spot in central Athens that looks out over the swimming facility, the ancient Olympeion, and the Acropolis ? people in the area sat up and began to take notice. But thanks to a court order acquired by the plots? neighbors, according to archaeologist Aris Koronakis of the Third Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, all works on the site have been stopped, including further demolition and the commencement of archaeological investigations. What are the petitioners concerned about?

Apparently not the fascinating history of the site, nor the proper ministerial management of any culturally significant remains that might still be found there, but rather the preservation of their magnificent view.

The derelict, inner-city plots at the corner of Ardittou and Koutoula streets seem an unlikely place for an important archaeological site, with only a few ancient blocks protruding visibly from the hillside beside the street, an endless stream of smoke-belching traffic whizzing by, and rude but colorful graffiti scrawled everywhere.

Only by peering between spray-painted signatures might passers-by read the Ministry of Culture?s signs and realize that this was once the site of the Temple of Artemis Agrotera, the virgin goddess of the hunt who in ancient times was associated with uncultivated places and wild animals.

The setting for this small sanctuary of Artemis was indeed rural, in an area called Agrai or Agra outside ancient Athens, on the far bank of the Ilissos River. Pausanias, the 2nd-c. AD Roman traveler, visited the district and recorded a few tantalizing notes: ?When you cross the Ilissos, you come to a place called the Fields and a temple of Artemis-in-the-Fields. This is where they claim Artemis first hunted when she came down from Delos, and for this reason the [cult] statue [in the temple] has a hunting bow.?

The Ionic-style temple that once stood on the site was constructed of gleaming white Pentelic marble.

It was small, amphiprostyle (meaning it had a column-fronted porch at the front and rear), and bore a remarkable similarity to the better known Temple of Athena Nike that overlooks the entrance to the Acropolis. Partial excavation of the site in 1962, however, revealed a retaining wall with earthen fill piled up behind it that included pottery fragments dating to the mid-5th century BC. Based on this ceramic evidence and other small votive vessels found during the excavation, archaeologists determined that the temple above the Ilissos dated to 448 BC ? one year before the start of construction on the Parthenon and about 20 years before the erection of the Athena Nike temple.

Artemis? temple functioned into Late Antiquity when it was converted ? like so many other pagan temples ? into an Early Christian church in the mid-5th century AD.

How do contemporary specialists know so much about the Artemis temple?s original appearance and ground plan, since today the building seems to have vanished beneath asphalt streets and modern housing?

Because two great architects, James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, meticulously recorded the temple?s well-preserved remains in the 1750s. Thanks to their careful work, much of the temple and its architectural and artistic decoration can be understood at least on paper.

After the Athena Nike temple was uncovered on the Acropolis in 1834, archaeologists recognized the resemblance between that shrine and the Temple of Artemis on the Ilissos ? both of which may have been constructed by the Classical architect Callicrates. By the early 19th century, however, the Artemis temple was no longer standing. It had already been leveled in 1778 and its blocks carted away as building material for a new city wall then being built around Athens.

The temple?s association with Artemis Agrotera was first suggested in 1897 by William Dorpfeld, an architect who had become the assistant of Heinrich Schliemann, an identification later supported through interpretation of the building?s sculpted frieze panels.

Only a few of these decorative panels are preserved today, retained in Berlin?s Staatliche Museum. Several other small architectural fragments, including two Ionic column bases, are now stored in the collections of the Greek Culture Ministry.

Once the present legal dispute over the site of Artemis? ancient shrine has been resolved, and archaeological investigation can resume, perhaps more valuable traces of this lost, once-great temple can be recovered.

Architects James Stuart and Nicholas Revett noted the importance and beauty of the Artemis Agrotera temple during their visit to Athens in 1751-53:

?On the southern bank of the Ilissos… stands a little Ionic temple, the mouldings of which differ much from all the examples of that order, hitherto published; their forms are extremely simple, but withal so elegant, and the whole is so well executed, that it may doubtless be reckoned among those works of antiquity which best deserve our attention.» (Stuart and Revett, ?The Antiquities of Athens,? Volume l, 1762, Chapter 2, Page 7)

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