Wednesday, 25 November 2009

How the astronomical alignment of Greek temples reflects cultural and ethnic identities

by Kathryn Hadley
Historians and archaeologists have long sought to establish links between the positions of classical temples and cultural and religious practices. Many have speculated that classical temples may have been aligned with respect to sunrise and argued that temples could be dated from their astronomical alignment. There is no consensus, however.

Dr Alun Salt, from the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester, explained the controversy:
‘There are quite a few temples in Greece which don't face sunrise. So a few
archaeologists have suggested that there is nothing significant about the number
that face east. The problem is that no one has ever said what a 'significant
number' would be.’

Salt has recently conducted a survey of archaic and classical Greek temples in Sicily and Greece. Through a comparison of the alignment patterns of temples in the two countries, he sought to determine the extent to which Greek culture differed in Sicily and Greece. His study was published last week, on November 19th, on the website PLoS ONE in the article ‘The Astronomical Orientation of Ancient Greek Temples’.

Do the alignments of Ancient Greek temples in Sicily and Greece reflect astronomical intentions? How do they reveal different pressures in the expressions of ethnic identity? How far are they evidence of a degree of cultural continuity across the Mediterranean?

Applying mathematical principles of probability to his survey, Salt discovered that many classical temples in Sicily were built to face the rising sun. Indeed, of a total of 41 temples surveyed in Sicily, only one faced west. He explained how in Greece, however, the situation is ‘quite complicated’.
‘It would be like spinning a roulette wheel and finding that half the time the
ball bounces out of the wheel. But when it does land, 90% of the time it'll be
on red. That looks odd to me.’

According to Dr Salt, the results may imply that there is an ‘astronomical fingerprint’ for Greek settlers in the Mediterranean. If all the temples founded by Greek settlers were built following similar alignment patters this may help to distinguish between the sites settled by people following the Greek religion and natives who adopted Greek style through trade, but kept their own culture.

There remain a number of unanswered questions, however. Salt explained:
‘What’s really interesting are the temples which don't fit. The temple of
Hekate, a lunar goddess, at Selinous faces west. If every other temple in Sicily
faces east, then what is special about that one?’

In Greek Archaeology from Schliemann to Surveys Graham Shipley considers how new archaeological discoveries and techniques are progressively refining our views of Classical Greece.

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