The Significance of Soil in Ancient Greek Architecture

A recent discovery may shed light on why the Ancient Greeks chose certain locations for building their temples.  In 2008, Professor Gregory J. Retallack from the University of Oregon at Eugene performed a study in which he analyzed samples of soil from eighty-four Greek temples. What he found was logical and yet still surprising- the ancient Greeks appeared to build their temples on soil that directly related to the god or goddess the temple was honoring.

Gods and goddesses in Greek mythology had specific spheres of influence in which they exerted their power.  Retallack discovered that the soil on which their temples were built reflected these spheres.  Temples built to honor Aphrodite and Poseidon, both gods that had strong ties to the ocean, were built near harbors and on soil unsuitable for cultivation.  Hunting grounds, characterized by a certain soil type, were the sites of temples to the gods Artemis and Apollo.   And Dionysus and Demeter, gods whose influence was primarily agricultural (wine and the harvest), both had temples over extremely fertile soil ideal for planting crops. Other gods, whose influence might be more difficult to equate with one type of soil, such as Hades or Persephone, still had temples located in areas that related to their influence.  Hades and Persephone, whose influence was over the underworld which they ruled together, had temples in their honor mostly located in caves and other dark, underground locations. 

Retallack’s discovery emphasizes the fact that ancient Greek architecture was clearly related to the natural landscape, and temple locations were chosen carefully and with regard to their deities.  The people that worshipped at these temples probably had ways of living similar to the gods they were worshipping (for example, worshippers of Demeter being farmers or other people working in agriculture), their local temples and deities relating to their own sources of livelihood.  As archeologists continue to explore what life was like in ancient Greece and try to understand exactly why architectural structures were located in certain places, Retallack’s soil samples could offer important clues.  Although soil type was certainly not the only consideration that ancient architects made when chosing where to build their temples, it was clearly an important one.    

Sources:

Flores, Graciela.  “How Ancient Greeks Chose Temple Locations.”  31 Jan. 2009. Web. 28 Sept. 2011.  <http://www.livescience.com/5284-ancient-greeks-chose-temple-locations.html>

Retallack, Gregory J.  “Rocks, views, soils and plants at the temples of ancient Greece.”  Antiquity.  Sept. 2008.  Web. 28 Sept. 2011.  <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb3284/is_317_82/ai_n31390608/>

Viegas, Jennifer.  “In Ancient Greece, Soil was Sacred.”  Discovery News, 7 Oct. 2008. Web. 28 Sept. 2011. <http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/10/07/greek-temple-soil.html>

 

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2 Responses to The Significance of Soil in Ancient Greek Architecture

  1. tmbyrket says:

    I really enjoyed this article. I had never heard of this soil-based selection of temple sites before. To be this is perfectly believable. It has always been known that the Greeks integrated religious life with their daily life. It only makes sense that this process begins literally from the ground up. It also reminds me of all the other examples of art based off the natural environment that we have studying this semester.

  2. nsivakumar says:

    It is extremely interesting to find out that the Ancient Greeks integrated religious worship with the way of life. The way the temples are set up makes it so that different people can worship their God’s, who would help them to prosper in their activities. So, this is a reflection of a culture, where the day-to-day life was combined with the environment, with faith as the guiding factor. I feel that this common faith could have brought harmony between peoples of different skills and professions.

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