Delphi: Excavations Question What We Thought We Knew About the Sanctuary of Pythia

Delphi, a tourist resort

From Athens, the road to Delphi takes some time to reveal its charm. By car or bus, it unfolds for two hours under its monotonous band, crossing industrial zones and soulless villages. Then, shortly after the city of Livadiá, the dam begins to rise and meander. The landscape is becoming more beautiful. At every turn, the traveler drowns in the soft green of the hillsides and the turquoise of the Corinthian Sea. You still have to cross Aráchova, a mountain town 970 meters above sea level, at the foot of Mount Parnassus, once peaceful but now invaded by tourist trap shops, ski rentals and noisy cafes.

About ten kilometers further on, Delphi’s pan-Hellenic shrine finally appears. There, in antiquity, Pythia delivered prophecies dictated to her, it was believed, by the god Apollo. To discover the places where the oracle took place, pay 6 euros and walk up the sacred road. This paved path, surrounded by cypresses and ruins, waves to the Temple of Apollo, of which only the bottom of the walls remains, six Doric columns on the facade and, near the entrance, the altar on which oxen or goats were sacrificed.

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The oracle and the will of the gods

In the 6th century BC. was the sanctuary of Delphi the center of the Greek world. Not only because Zeus decided to plant omphalos (navel, in Greek) there, a white stone sculpted in the form of an ogive, which today’s superstitious visitors caress when they think no one sees them. But because generations of pilgrims from as far away as Sicily, from the shores of the Black Sea, from Armenia or Syria went here waiting for their turn to enter the temple to question the oracle – except for some privileged, if we are to believe an inscription in ancient Greek still visible at the base of the altar, which explains that “the people of the island of Chios offered this stone and obtained the privilege of being received in priority”. “They came to ask Apollo through the oracle about burning issues that touched them closely: should I get married? Should I leave my country? Is it a child my wife is expecting from me?” Explains French-Greek archaeologist Nicolas Kyriakidis, a lecturer at the university. in Paris.But the questions could be more innocent: Is it Aristophanes who stole my coat?

States also sent embassies to know the will of the gods. The latter was not always very clear: to the Persians who were preparing to invade them, in 480 BC. BC Pythia advised the Athenians in the minority to build … a wall of wood. Words that General Themistocles fortunately knew how to interpret. He assembled the Greek ships – wood! – like a rampart, by the Strait of Salamis. And won the victory. Then the ancient Greeks were tired of their turbulent Olympic gods and the jokes of Zeus, who constantly changed their appearance to raise peplos mortal, enthusiastically embraced the new religion that arrived from the Roman province of Judea. In the early years of Christianity, Pythia fell from grace, and the sanctuary became the target of theft, looting, and burning. By the fourth century, the oracle was over. And Delphi. At least it was believed until the recent excavation campaigns of the French school in Athens.

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New discoveries shake up the timeline

In 2017, Nicolas Kyriakidis, who has worked on the sanctuary for fifteen years, first dug walls beyond the small bastion from the 4th century BC, which until then had been considered to mark the city limits. Another find: a temple from the 5th century BC. Nothing has yet made it possible to determine which god it housed. More importantly, between 2017 and 2021, excavations revealed important fortifications, tombs and an entire neighborhood that no one suspected existed, dating from the 6th century AD .. “200 years after the disappearance of the Oracle!” Nicolas Kyriakidis emphasizes with enthusiasm. In one of the excavated villas, archaeologists have dug one polycandelon, a flat, suspended luminaire on which oil contained in glass containers was burned. “This object could only be found in a prosperous city, bigger and stronger than we thought, the expert continues. With these discoveries, all our knowledge is put into doubt.” The hiker can already stroll through the remains of this new district and follow the path between the modern village of Delphi and the Parnassus massif, which overlooks it.

It was Théophile Homolle, a Hellenistic and Parisian archaeologist, who began the great excavation of Delphi between 1892 and 1903. A challenge then: it was necessary to move the village of Castri, installed on the old site, to dig up the ruins covered by modern constructions, and carry out with revenge a project that is planned to last only ten years. Result: some disappointments – Temple of Apollo appeared very dilapidated – but also happy surprises, the stadium, the gym, the theater and a wealth of treasures, these small temple-shaped buildings, built in honor of the divinity installed in this enchanting environment, after killing an ugly snake. “The teams went from discovery to discovery, and certain statues have become references: the Argive twins, Antinoüs and the Pillar of Dancers, and so many others,” explains Véronique Chankowski, director of the French school in Athens. Protected wonders, along with other artifacts found at the site – bronze helmets, terracotta satyrs, heads of griffins and lions … – in the 2,270 m2 of the Archaeological Museum of Delphi, a stone parallelogram on the facade of white stone. In room no. 13, standing on the most beautiful feet ever sculpted in Greek art, stands the star of the collection: the haulier.

The young haulier, winner of the race at the Pythian Games in 478 or 474 BC. J.-C., was excavated in 1896 north of the Holy Road, between the Temple of Apollo and the theater. Its 182 centimeters made it the first life-size bronze statue from the classical period (5th and 4th century BC) so well preserved. Ironically, it was a disaster that protected her: during an earthquake in 373 BC. J.-C., whole sections of Phédriades (the Shining), two rock walls of Mount Parnassus, which embraces the sanctuary on the north side, broke away to bury the hero, thus protecting him for two thousand two hundred years.

Of his hitch, only two front legs, a hoof and a ponytail, as well as pieces of reins were found. The driver was complete except for his left arm, draped in his long chiton, the usual attire of hauliers, the forehead encircled with victory headbands, and above all endowed with a glance from the depths of time: brown eyes, of stone and glass, shaded by eyelashes carved into the metal, with a disturbing realism. New analyzes, mobilization of state-of-the-art techniques – endoscopy, gamma-ray, spectrometry, ultrasound … – are underway to try to get the master to “speak”. Perhaps discover from which quarries came the metals, copper, tin, silver, of which it is composed, and the workshop that made use of them.

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A sudden inexplicable collapse

“The profession of archaeologist requires knowledge and imagination,” says Nicolas Kyriakidis. The ruins he discovered coincide with the time when the Western Roman Empire ended up falling. The Justinian plague hit the Mediterranean, and the slaves conquered the Balkans. So to protect their families, the archaeologist believes, the Delphians built a great defensive wall in the 6th century. Two generations later, however, the city was emptied and turned into a deserted place. Why ? Under what pressure? To answer these questions, archaeologists will have to dig further, and Nicolas Kyriakidis will have to use his imagination. Pythia remains silent on the subject.

➤ Article published in GEO magazine, No. 518, April 2022.

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