Report on the 1989 Season

Elizabeth R. Gebhard, Director

A long season of excavations took place this year in the Sanctuary of Poseidon at Isthmia. They were conducted under the auspices of the University of Chicago and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and were supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanites matched by contributions from private donors. Much new information towards reconstructing the history of the sanctuary was revealed by the exploration of the stratigraphy and monuments surrounding and including the Temple of Poseidon. Further clearing on the Rachi, a low ridge immediately south of the sanctuary, uncovered a wealth of information about life in a small industrial community during the Hellenistic period. (Figures 1-4).

The staff included a number of senior scholars, Virginia Anderson-Stojanovic, Karim Arafat, Julie Bentz, John Hayes, and Catherine Morgan, who are working on the final publication of the ceramics from Oscar Broneer’s excavations of 1952-1967 as well as from new work at the site, 1980-1989. A team of 9 students and two professional members served as trench masters with an excavation crew of experienced Greek workmen. A conservator and photographer completed the group. The fine results obtained from the excavations are due in great measure to the care and patience that everyone devoted to their tasks. Fritz Hemans served as chief architect and assistant director, and I was the field director and principal investigator.

The Sanctuary of Poseidon was discovered by Oscar Broneer in 1952 and excavated under his direction until 1967. Five volumes of the final publications have appeared, four of them in the Isthmia series. Some years ago, however, it became apparent that the development and history of the sanctuary could not be understood without further excavation. As a political meeting place with a panhellenic athletic festival modeled on the Olympic Games the Isthmian shrine was one of the earliest and most important religious centers in the Greek world. In order to explain the formation of the cult place and its expansion in succeeding centuries we needed a well-documented account of the layers of earth surrounding its central area with a detailed record of the artifacts deposited in those layers. Analyses of ash, bone, carbonized plant remains and pollen would give us information about the environment. Separate from the sanctuary but partially explored in the first excavations, the settlement on the Rachi ridge provided an unusual example of a small community in the period immediately following the death of Alexander the Great. Further excavation was needed to understand the architecture of the individual workshop complexes and the organization of the entire area. We knew that the pottery recovered from both the sanctuary and Rachi settlement would be important for the general chronology of the Corinthia from the Iron Age through the Roman period. Questions of stratigraphy and ceramics analysis, then, formed the goals of the excavations of 1989.

The Sanctuary as a roadside shrine

The region of the Corinthian Isthmus has always been, by its nature, one of passage both by land and sea. The Sanctuary of Poseidon lay at its eastern end, less than a mile from the shore and next to a well-travelled road that seems to have been the main route between Athens, Corinth and the Argolid (Map Series). The ancient traveler approaching the Isthmus from the east would have hugged the shore of the Saronic Gulf until he came to what is now the Corinth Canal. Then, with the acropolis of Corinth as a landmark, he would have headed towards the plateau that was later to hold the Temple of Poseidon. We found a portion of the road he would have followed along the northwest side of the temple plateau. Although its earliest surface belongs to the years around 600 B.C., the more ancient path would have lain in the same area. The same road with a series of surfaces continued to be used throughout Roman times. Farther east in the region between the Isthmus and the sanctuary plateau, a preliminary survey showed that the broken contours of the terrain narrowed the ground available for easy travel. Deep gullies cut through the land on the north and a line of ridges block passage to the south. Thus, until reaching the spring of Kyras Vrisi west of the sanctuary, our ancient traveler would have followed generally the route shown in Figures 1,2,4.

The close relation between the sanctuary and the road continued throughout its history. We have uncovered no boundary marker that separated the space sacred to Poseidon from the secular area of the highway. The idea thus presents itself that the cult of Isthmian Poseidon had a special meaning for the traveler by land, at least as strong as its ties to the sailor at sea. Its position on the Isthmus at a most strategic point in Corinthian territory would have given the cult place a public, political role as well as one devoted to securing Poseidon’s favor for the Corinthians.

The Iron Age Sanctuary (1100 to 700 B.C.)

The Isthmian sanctuary as a whole has produced about 100 kg. of Iron Age pottery, of which 80% consists of cups that can be dated between 1100 and 700 B.C. The majority of the pieces occurred, mixed with burnt animal bones, in layers of ash that had been moved from their original position and redeposited in terraces east and south of the sanctuary plateau. The quantity of burnt bones and the fact that they were combined with dining ware suggest that they are the remains of sacrifices that were accompanied by a feast. On the basis of the earliest cups we can say that the rites began about 1100 B.C., some fifty years after the end of the Mycenaean kingdoms. The ash would have accumulated at the place of sacrifice, which was very likely on the southeast edge of the central plateau near the greatest concentration of ash in the later terraces (marked “altar” in Figure 5). In their quantity, uniformity and simplicity the cups reflect the use of standard dining ware from the beginning of ritual activity. The lack of abrasion on many of the fragments that were found in the ash is an indication that the cups were broken at the time of sacrifice and left there, possibly as a gift to the god. Other dedications are absent until the end of the 9th c. Catherine Morgan is preparing a monograph on the Iron Age sanctuary for the Isthmia series.

In the middle of the 8th c. the sacrificial area on the plateau was enlarged to the east and south by means of a terrace, designated by hatched lines in Figure 5. The new area seems to have been connected with a change in the level of cult activity and its spacial organization. In three trenches we found hard-packed floor surfaces embedded with fragments of pottery, but the types and quantity of vessels varied. In the east section the presence of amphora fragments and other utility vessels in addition to the cups suggests that people were dining there on a rather larger scale than formerly. Farther to the west near the place of sacrifice we uncovered four postholes and a curved groove that was cut into bedrock and covered with pieces of charred wood (Figure 6). Such remains are extremely rare for that early period, as indeed is the entire sanctuary, so we can only imagine what arrangements they may represent. The possibilities include a small fence to mark off a sacred space, a small shelter, or a table for offerings. What does seem evident is that, in the second half of the 8th c., a separation was made between the place for offerings or activities near the altar and the area reserved for dining.

Dedications increase in number and quality at this time. There are more elaborate ceramic vessels, and the addition of tripods and armour suggests a considerable elevation in the investment accorded the shrine. Although most vessels used at Isthmia were Corinthian or came from the other side of the Isthmus, evidence for Laconian imports together with an increased amount of Argive monochrome vessels that bear no relation to dining activity provide evidence of the dedication of pottery for its own sake.

Archaic Temple of Poseidon

The major monument of the Archaic sanctuary was the great stone temple erected to Poseidon on the rocky plateau adjacent to the sacrificial area of the Iron Age. Broneer discovered blocks from the temple and portions of its floor under its Classical successor, but excavations this year revealed that much more is preserved than he had realized. Foundation trenches were found at the west, north, and east ends of the building, and there is another trench, partially conserved, at the south (Figure 7). As shown on the plan, the outer foundations can be assigned to a peristyle colonnade, an important feature for so early a temple. Well-preserved portions of the original earthen floor laid at the time of construction contained no pottery that need be dated later than the middle of the 7th c. We can thus place the construction of the building in the second quarter of the 7th c. A second floor carried within it pottery from the 7th to the mid-6th c., and the final surface seems to have been laid down shortly before the temple was destroyed by a catastrophic blaze. The date of that fire can now be placed in the years around 470 B.C. on the basis of heavily burnt pieces of Corinthian and Attic pottery studied by Julie Bentz. Fritz Hemans is preparing a new study of the Archaic temple.

Eastern Terraces

After construction of the Archaic Temple and its long altar, we found that most of the ceremonial activities were probably confined to the surface of the rock around the altar and the temple because the eastern terrace bears little sign of use. It was only in the mid 6th c. after the founding of the Panhellenic Isthmian Games that more and greater terraces began to be created east and south of the temple plateau. A major portion of the excavations was devoted to these terraces. We found that, between the second quarter of the 6th c. and the late 4th c B.C., seven terraces had been built one over the other and extending ever farther to the east. Each was supported upon fill taken from nearby areas of the shrine and served to enlarge the area available for ceremonies such as the sacrificial meal. Five terraces belong to the early periods (Figures 8-9). Two more were formed in the following centuries: one after the Archaic Temple was destroyed by fire about 470 B.C. (Figure 10), the other after its Classical successor was badly damaged in 390 B.C. (Figure 11). We discovered that a second road was built at that time to connect the sanctuary with some point to the southeast, probably the harbor town of Kenchreai.

The Early Stadium (Phases I-III)

The first stadium together with Terrace 3 was built in the middle of the 6th c. B.C. to accommodate the crowds that flocked to the new Isthmian Games (Figure 9). It was not easy, however, to make a race-course 600 feet long amidst such uneven terrain. The west end of the track was cut into the rock of the temple plateau; the remainder was formed by trimming the Rachi slope and, where the ground dropped away, by adding great sections of artificial terracing (Figure 2). This season we explored the spectator embankment where it met and overlapped Terrace 3. A hard-packed surface on the terrace, shown in hatched lines in Figure 9, reveals the passage used by spectators as they moved from the sacrificial area to the stadium. On the other hand, the embankment where they sat to watch the games has largely disappeared. A layer of field stones (dotted) remains at the level of the track, but we should imagine that there was originally a gently sloping terrace. Later the embankment was enlarged with the addition of a retaining wall (Figure 10), and then with an outside ramp (Figure 11). The stadium thus steadily expanded at the expense of the sacrificial area until it finally became necessary to fence off the southern part of the altar by the barrier shown in Figure 10. Three large stone bases for tall masts, and the bedding for a fourth, have been found along the east side of the altar, and a set of four smaller posts occur at the south.

The Rachi Settlement

Five new complexes were excavated this season. They provide information about the planning and function of the structures, as well as material to place the date of their construction in the second half of the 4th c. B.C. and subsequent destruction by fire in the last quarter of the 3rd c. B.C. The areas appear to have been used to process cloth, and each complex had its own storage chamber cut out of bed-rock and roofed with Corinthian pan tiles. Although most of the contents appears to have been removed before the fire, a number of architectural pieces, perhaps awaiting reuse, amphorae, figurines, and much cooking ware and fine pottery were recovered from them. Food was evidently being prepared and consumed in the area, so, although the structures revealed in the excavations appear to be workshops, they must have included living quarters, possibly in a second storey. The high quality of the decorated drinking cups and plates suggests a prosperous community.

The East House illustrates the parts of a typical workshop complex (Figure 15). It includes rooms and a vat to the right and, at left, a basement room cut out of bedrock, over which there was probably a second story covered with a tiled roof. A rock-cut staircase led to a courtyard below.

Further study of the Rachi settlement made it clear that its orientation was definitely to the south, over-looking the road to Kenchreai. The bulk of the working complexes, connected by numerous staircases cut into the bedrock, are located on the south slope of the hill. They thus took advantage of the winter sun and were somewhat sheltered from the fierce north wind. Furthermore, the customers they very likely served would have been found on the road to the busy Corinthian harbor town of Kenchreai.


Excavations this season have produced sizable quantities of Proto-geometric and Geometric (early 11th c. to the end of the 8th c. B.C.) pottery from deposits in all areas, but especially in the southeast terrace. The large samples of sherds now available will provide the basis for a study of patterns of deposition and the quantitative distribution of vessels according to form, date and place of origin. Evidence for activity at Isthmia during the transition from the Bronze to Iron ages has been greatly increased with the recovery of Mycenaean III C and Sub-Mycenaean material. Significant new finds have also increased our knowledge of the Late Geometric and early Proto-corinthian periods. The predominately Geometric deposits associated with the southeast terrace have also permitted a close study of the less well-known coarse vessels used in the sanctuary .

The Archaic (beginning 7th c. to the end of the 6th c. B.C.) pottery recovered this year has broadened our understanding of the centuries associated with the building of the Archaic temple and the founding of the Isthmian Games. The overwhelmingly predominant shape is the kotyle, with associated kraters, indicating the feasting and drinking connected with sanctuaries. Constantly present in quantity are miniature vessels that were used as dedications. Although the earliest Protocorinthian period is well-represented, continuing the prosperity of the Geometric period, there does appear to be a lull until, towards the middle of the 7th c., when there is a rise in activity, both feasting and dedicatory. This is strikingly contemporary with the construction of the Archaic temple and the years leading to it. From then, activity seems to continue throughout the 7th and 6th c., only falling off after the first quarter of the 5th c., evidence of the effect of the fire in about 470 B.C. Karim Arafat is studying the Corinthian pottery for final publication.

For the Roman period new finds in a stratified context have clarified the early stages of development of the special series of ritual/votive vessels used in the cult of Palaimon. A date no earlier than ca. 50 A.D. for these is now indicated by associated fine imported wares; the main series spans little more than a century. Phialai with a slip coating predominate in the earliest phases (along with lamps of Broneer type XVI). By 100 A.D. they are outnumbered by the special wheelmade lamps made for the sanctuary. Precise dates have now been established for the various versions of the latter, enumerated by Broneer in Isthmia, vol. III; the earliest examples consistently bear a thick whitewash coating. New are a number of ornamental (animal head) handles from paterae, clearly copying standard Early Roman metalware ritual vessels.

In the northwest part of the sanctuary in connection with the road beds, sealed contexts have finally appeared for the 2nd c. B.C. relief bowls found scattered over the site. There are also some useful groups of the period 50-75 A.D. associated with the roads in the same area. Some earlier 1st c. A.D material is present here and elsewhere on the site, but the earliest structures do not occur until around the time of Nero’s visit in 67 A.D. These finds, like the other Roman pottery from the main sanctuary, are basically domestic in character, closely matching finds from Corinth.

The next years at Isthmia will be devoted to the study and analysis of the materials excavated in 1989 and previous seasons. Several monographs and articles on classes of objects are in preparation. Further studies will include the history of the site, its ceremonial activities, the relation between cult and athletics, contributions of the Hellenistic rulers to the sanctuary, and new cult practices and architectural development in the Roman period.