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The Topography & Monuments of Athens: A Brief Introduction

What is "topography"?

When archaeologists use the term "topography" in their work, they usually mean a combination of several different subjects, including
  • the geography & natural resources of a country
  • the architectural form of a city as it develops over several centuries or even millenia
  • the study of different functional areas within a city or its countryside, such as sanctuaries, civic centers, marketplaces, workshops, private houses, & cemeteries. 
A student of "topography" must be prepared to delve into subjects such as architecture, art, literature, history, epigraphy, numismatics, religion, politics, physical anthropology, and geology, as well as having an understanding of the methodologies of archaeological excavation and regional survey.  Hence, "topography" can be a truly interdisplinary adventure, full of all the things that make archaeology and history such fascinating fields to study.

Why study the topography and monuments of Athens?

Just as there are many different ways of looking at artifacts, there are many different ways to study archaeological sites. For example, archaeologists may focus upon
  • regional analysis and how a site fits into larger social, political, and economic systems
  • individual settlements, shrines, or cemeteries and the human communities who used them
  • specific types of buildings, such as houses or temples, and their function within the community
  • specific features (e.g., wells, hearths, graves) and artifacts (e.g., tools, jewelry, pottery, art)
  • issues of typology, technology, chronology, ideology, social stratification, trade, artistic achievement
  • and much more.
In studying the topography and monuments of Athens, we are looking at the development of an ancient city-state that played a very important role in the formation of European civilization. Athenian accomplishments in art, architecture, politics, philosophy, literature, and drama are well known.  But have you ever wondered where Greek drama was actually peformed? Where did the Athenian democratic assembly hold its meetings? What was the "visual message" of the Parthenon and how did it relate to other buildings and dedications on the Acropolis? Studying the topography and monuments of Athens helps us to understand the context of these achievements and institutions more completely. 

Moreover, ancient Athens was a complex society that passed through numerous stages of social and cultural development, with several "high" points as well as several "low" points in its long history.  So, by exploring the monuments of Athens and the development of the city, we can study both cultural history (e.g., the influence of Athenian artistic and architectural forms in our own "modern" world) and social archaeology (e.g., how the archaeological record reflects the rise of state and the organization of society through time).

What are the main sources of information for the topography and monuments of Athens?

The main sources for our study are, obviously, the monuments themselves, as preserved from antiquity and as revealed by the archaeological excavations begun shortly after Greek independence from the Ottoman empire in the 19th century and continuing to the present day.  Also, much new information has been discovered during recent programs of cleaning, restoration and partial reconstruction -- interventions necessary to help preserve the monuments for future generations.

In addition to the actual monuments and archaeological remains, we are fortunate to have a wide variety of ancient texts which help bring to life more fully the peoples and cultures we study.  In the case of ancient Athens, we have the preserved writings of numerous Athenian poets, playwrights, politicians, philosophers and historians.  Euripides, Thucydides, Plato, and others give us key insights into the form and development of their native city.  Sometimes the clues they provide are merely allusions (such as the references to cults and shrines on the North Slope of the Acropolis mentioned by Euripides in the tragedy Ion -- but then, again, the Athenian audience would have understood exactly what he meant even if WE don't!).  Sometimes the sites and monuments are mentioned as the setting for important philosophical dialogue (such as Plato's various accounts of Socrates in the Agora ).  Sometimes the written sources (or literary testimonia) focus on the intangible human elements that are often missing from the imperfect archaeological record  (such as Thucydides' vivid account of the plague which struck the severely overcrowded city during the Peloponnesian War). Moreover, since the ancient Athenians tended to record important public decrees on stone slabs displayed for all to see, we also have some of the actual records of the working of the Athenian state, including, for example, the building accounts of the Parthenon. These inscribed sources (or epigraphical testimonia) not only provide us with very precise absolute dates for the construction of the building and its cult statue (447-432 BC), but they also allow us to begin a more informed exploration of such issues as technology (How did they actually build a temple?), economy (How much did it cost? How did they pay for it?), society (Who paid for it? Who worked on it? Did they have slaves?).  That is, the combination of archaeological, architectural, & artistic remains, along with textual sources, allows classical archaeologists to understand the cultural context more completely and to develop more sophisticated interpretations of the past.

One of the most important sources for the topography of Athens (in particular) and Greek archaeology (in general) is an eye-witness account written by the traveler Pausanias in the 2nd century A.D.  Pausanias spent several years traveling throughout Greece and he recorded many fascinating details about the famous cities, temples, and monuments -- which were already considered ancient even in his own day.  Athens was one of the first places he visited on his journey and his description of the city provides us with some invaluable clues about the location, form, decoration, function, and historical significance of many prominent monuments. (It provides us with some problems too, since the evidence from modern archaeological excavation does not always readily agree with what Pausanias records. Is it a matter of physical preservation? Or a problem with our methods of archaeological interpretation? Or could it be that sometimes Pausanias and/or his tour guides got a few of the "facts" mixed up -- a phenomenon all too familiar to any modern traveler who has tried to absorb all of the sights & sounds & history of one of the great cities of the world.).

Where can I learn more about the topography & monuments of Athens?

The monuments of Athens are illustrated and discussed in numerous textbooks, guidebooks, "coffee table" books, and magazine articles. In addition, there is a small but growing number of WWW sites which focus on aspects of Greek art, archaeological sites, and museums.  For a university student, however, who is beginning a serious study of ancient Athens (such as for a class paper or assignment), or for a teacher looking for reliable, scholary sources to help develop a lecture, here are some excellent English language resources with which to begin:

  • Camp, J. 2001. The Archaeology of Athens, New Haven and London. (Most recent general account in English of the archaeology of Athens, presented in chronological order. The main narrative focuses on monuments in their historical contexts, while a smaller section surveys both Athens and other important sites in Attica, including excavation histories, notes on problems and controversies, and essential bibliography. Highly recommended.)
  • Goette, H.  Athens, Attica, and the Megarid: An Archaeological Guide, London 2001. (A detailed, up-to-date archaeological guide you can and should take with you on a trip to Greece, but not really a textbook. Most archaeologists who work, study, and teach on-site in Athens have a copy of this book in English or German.).
  • Travlos,J. 1971. Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Athens, New York and London. (You will probably NOT find this book at your local bookstore, since it has long been out of print. Most university libraries, however, will have a copy. Although somewhat out of date, this book is still the source to consult for most monuments, and has numerous high quality photographs and plans along with concise dictionary-style entries and bibliographies. Note, however, that this book will NOT include new information about discoveries, interpretations, or publications after 1971.)
  • Wycherley, R.E. 1978. The Stones of Athens, Princeton. (An authoritative and enjoyable survey of the main archaeological zones in Athens, with bibliography. Like Travlos' PDA , this work is somewhat out of date in some details and will NOT include new information about discoveries, interpretations, or publications after 1978.)
  • Hurwit, J. 1999. The Athenian Acropolis: History, Mythology, and Archaeology from the Neolithic Era to the Present, Cambridge. (Most recent discussion in English of the Acropolis and its importance in the ancient city of Athens. Organized in chronological order, from the prehistoric period right through to the modern era and the current program of restoration, including a monument-by-monument "Guide to the High Classical Acropolis." Thorough, balanced survey of scholarly theories and debates. Extensive bibliography. Highly recommended.).
  • Economakis, R., ed. 1974. Acropolis Restoration : The CCAM Interventions, London.  (A very nice collection of essays by many leading Greek archaeologists involved in the restoration of the Acropolis monuments. The essays discuss the technical details of the restorations, why such interventions are necessary, and present some of the new discoveries made in the process.)
  • Odysseus: WWW Server of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Links to short articles on museums, monuments, and archaeological sites in Greece.
  • Metis: A QTVR Interface for Ancient Greek Archaeological Sites (B. Hartzler) QuickTime Virtual Reality movies of archaeological sites in Athens (Acropolis, Agora, Pnyx and Philopappos Hill, Roman Agora), Attica (Brauron, Eleusis, Laurion, Sounion), and elsewhere in Greece. Very useful resource for teachers who are already somewhat familiar with Athenian topography and who want to incorporate QTVR in their class presentations.
  • Perseus Digital Library (G. Crane, ed.).Perseus is an interactive database of ancient Greek texts, translations, art, and archaeology developed by a large team of scholars and funded by the Annenberg/CPB Project and many other institutions and foundations, including the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. You can find, for example, an historical overview , or a site index (e.g. Athens) with hyperlinks to specific building descriptions & images, and English translations of ancient Greek texts. (Teachers and students are advised to consult other (print!) bibliographic resources for specific names, dates, and monuments before attempting to use Perseus for research.)
  • Athenian Agora Excavations. The official web site of the Agora Excavations of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Includes a brief overview and introduction to the history of the excavations, illustrated excavation reports (from 1996 on), an index and guide to the major buildings and features in the Agora, an interactive QuickTime Virtual Reality tour of the site and museum, and other resources.

NOTE: Advanced research on the monuments of ancient Athens will require some library work and a reading knowledge of several foreign languages. There are numerous scholarly journals that specialize in ancient Greek studies, and you will need some guidance from a professional classicist or research librarian. Some universities (and perhaps some public libraries?) subscribe to online databases that can get you started.