Greek Architecture and the Near East

Posted in: AIAR, ASOR
Tags: AIAR, Anthropology, Archaeology, ASOR, Humanities, PA, Philip Sapirstein, University of Pennsylvania Museum
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Philip Sapirstein, University of Pennsylvania Museum of
Archaeology and Anthropology
National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow
W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research

Philip Sapirstein

Philip Sapirstein

I have pursued several projects this year during my time as an NEH Fellow at the Albright. As a specialist in the architecture of ancient Greece, I came to the Albright to examine the evidence for influences from the eastern Mediterranean. One topic has been the origins of the barrel vault in Greece, which first appears in a series of aristocratic Macedonian tombs some time after 350 B.C. While the identity of the occupants of these tombs and their exact chronology is controversial, my focus is on the origins of the vaulting technique. Greece has no barrel-vaults before these tombs, even though sophisticated vaults had been built for millennia in the Near East. The Greek technology most closely resembles an advanced type of cut-stone vault with radial joints developed in Egypt after the 9th century B.C. and used throughout the Late Period in tombs. The lack of antecedents in Greece for the Macedonian vaults is a strong argument that the Greeks directly adapted this Egyptian technology via one of a number of possible conduits.

My primary focus at the Albright has been to explore the evidence for Near Eastern influences in an earlier period, during the formation of Doric and Ionic architecture around 600 B.C. The dependence of the early Ionic style on Near Eastern models—in particular the volute capital—has long been known. I have instead focused on the Doric style, which develops somewhat earlier in mainland Greece and its colonies in southern Italy.
Unlike Ionic, Doric architecture has been understood by specialists in Greece as an autochthonous style rooted in local Geometric and Bronze Age traditions. However, this model of Doric origins has been challenged in recent decades, especially with new reconstructions of key monuments from the 8th through early 6th centuries.

A good deal of my work this year has been sorting out the evidence from pre-Doric Greek monuments. I have completed the text of a book on the problem, “The Old Temple at the Argive Heraion and the Origins of the Peristyle in Greek Architecture.” One conclusion is that the first fully realized Doric temples are preserved not in the Greek mainland—as has been long assumed—but rather in the colonies in Italy. The Doric style appears to have developed very rapidly, as if the decorative and structural components were worked out in just a handful of building projects—or even a single, influential temple. The Temple of Apollo at Syracuse is our best surviving representative of these initial experiments.

This examination of Doric innovation in Sicily is important to the subject of Near Eastern origins because Sicilian temples reveal particularly strong connections to Egyptian architecture. Some of the best visual parallels, like the form of the Doric column, have been long debated; the significance of other Greek adaptations of Egyptian forms, like the Sicilian cornice molding, has been largely ignored. However, I find these parallels to be rich and compelling. In light of evidence that Ionian builders—as well as Greek painters, sculptors, and philosophers—drew heavily from the Orient, it is natural that the builders of the first stone Doric temples also looked east for inspiration. Before my fellowship I planned an article on this topic, but I have since expanded the investigation into a monograph, “The Orientalizing Greek Temple: Origins of Doric and Ionic Styles ca. 650–550 B.C.” I will continue work on this project at Tel Aviv University next year as a postdoctoral fellow.


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