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Paestum-Poseidonia, Italy

1981–1986, 1995–1998


1981-1986: John G. Pedley, University of Michigan, and Mario Torelli, University of Perugia

1995-1998: John G. Pedley, University of Michigan, and James Higginbotham, Bowdoin College

View of 1990s excavations and "stoa."

Paestum, the ancient Greek Poseidonia, is one of the better preserved classical cities of the ancient world. Located approximately 80 kilometers south of Naples, the site is renowned for its fine complex of Greek temples. Founded by Greeks at the end of the 7th century BCE, the town became a Roman colony in 273 BCE. The later remains of the Roman town include a forum, houses, baths, and streets.

Michigan's efforts concentrated in an area outside the city walls known as the località Santa Venera. The sector had been the focus of sporadic explorations in the 19th century, then in 1951 (prompted by the extension of a tomato paste factory), and again in 1974. This work produced significant quantities of terracotta figurines, architectural and sculptural fragments, and traces of several buildings, some of which were generally agreed to constitute an extramural sanctuary. The identity of the deity worshipped at the site, however, remained unclear. An intriguing fragmentary inscription suggested that, in the Roman period at least, the divinity worshipped may have been Bona Dea, a goddess associated with a significant mystery cult about which little was known. Armed with questions about the architectural and cultic history of the buildings, teams from the Kelsey Museum and the University of Perugia began excavations in the early 1980s.

These excavations were able to establish a reliable if complex sequence for the architectural phasing of several buildings and to confirm that the site was actively in use for nearly 1,000 years, from the 6th century BCE through the 3rd century CE. The main buildings included an Oikos (a type of religious building, usually rectangular in plan, without columns and with a single entrance), an adjacent Rectangular Hall, and a Piscina (pool) in front of the Rectangular Hall. The Oikos and Rectangular Hall were used and rebuilt several times during the Greek and Roman eras, while the Piscina was a Roman elaboration of 1st-century date.

The Oikos was probably the scene of sacrifice and related ceremony. The large Rectangular Hall contained a deposit of bird bones and votive objects during its Greek phase, suggestive of sacrifice and dining. Replanned in Roman times, the hall saw the addition of several unusual niches. While the precise function of these niches is not known, the excavators speculate that at least one possibility includes the use of the building as a kind of "Hall of Initiation." Statues or other religious paraphernalia may have remained hidden in the niches, to be revealed to devotees as time and circumstances decreed. The Piscina, or fishpond, reminds us that in other sanctuaries of the Greek world (e.g., at Samothrace) fish were regarded as sacred. Doubtless this was the case in the Santa Venera sanctuary, where an inscription has confirmed that the deity worshipped was Venus (with Aphrodite her predecessor during the Greek phase of the city's life).

In the 1990s excavations were carried out in an adjacent field, west of the Aphrodite sanctuary, where tombs of the Roman period were examined. No fewer than 18 burials were studied, ranging in date between the late 1st and early 3rd centuries of our era. Stone-lined cists covered with stone or roof tiles were used for the adults, while children were placed in wooden coffins or ceramic vessels. Excavation in this necropolis also revealed strata associated with an earlier Greek occupation. Beginning in 1997, study focused on an area where the remains of an archaic Greek building connected to cult practice were uncovered. The remains of limestone ashlar walls and sand foundations profile a rectangular building with the overall dimensions of approximately 10 × 13 meters. Excavations also suggest the general design of the structure, with a long narrow area (portico) facing the east and three rooms, side by side, at the rear. Unexpected finds include two votive Doric capitals (one remarkably preserved with the original paint) placed within the sand foundations of the building. Pottery and bones found within the building attest to frequent banqueting; and some of the vessels bear inscribed dedications. These include the earliest instance of writing in Greek yet found at Paestum-Poseidonia. It is now believed that the building's design and apparent function fit that of a stoa or portico that formed part of a larger sanctuary. Worshippers probably retired here to celebrate the fruits of religious rites and enjoy their portions of the sacrifices. Exact identification of the deity honored at the stoa awaits further research.