Archaic Temple at Isthmia

The Archaic Temple at Isthmia: Techniques of Construction1

By Elizabeth R. Gebhard

(This article originally published in:  Archaische Griechischen Temple und Altagypten, 2001and is made available electronically with the permission of the editors.)

The monumental size, sturdy colonnade and tile roof set the Isthmian temple apart from contemporary buildings.2 The structure was conspicuously broad and low to the ground with its width almost one third of its length and its height approximately one half of the width. In terms of its effect on the viewer the peristyle and hipped roof gave the building an unusual three-dimensional appearance, inviting the visitor to approach it from any side.

Figure 1. Preliminary axiometric restoration of the Archaic Temple at Isthmia, F. Hemans, 1997

The walls covered with a thin coat of plaster presented a smooth, continuous surface that was broken only by a series of pilasters responding to the rhythm of the colonnade along the outside of the cella. The visitor would not have realized that the stone masonry behind the plaster and the terracotta tiles adorning the roof marked important innovations in building technique.4 Standard-sized ashlar blocks were laid in isodomic courses to the roof line, and the mold-made tiles were designed with respect to the spacing of columns and timber framing. The building thus embodies a unified system using standardized parts. Before construction began, the dimensions of the blocks, roof tiles and timbers would have been worked out with respect to the projected building.5 Since about 20% of the wall blocks have been recovered in the excavations and about 40% of the roof tiles, as well as cuttings for the walls and stylobate, it is possible to gather a considerable amount of information about the design and mode of construction used in the building.6 Its date surely falls in the 7th century. Various elements of the architecture and furnishings have been used to place it more precisely within the period.7 Excavations in 1989 yielded pottery of ca. 690-650 in the lowest levels of the peripteron. Thus, the latest date for beginning construction is the middle of the 7th century. However, the terracing between the facade and the long altar was in place by that time, so the temple was very likely finished before mid century.8 The building and the architectural ideas it embodied should be seen as products of the first half of the 7th century. Even before the blocks were quarried the general plan would have been worked out in some detail.

The Isthmian temple did not stand alone. In the city of Corinth at about the same time or a little earlier another temple, commonly attributed to Apollo, was erected on a low plateau overlooking the Lechaion Valley. The close similarity in materials and construction techniques used in the two shrines is a sign that the two buildings stemmed from one or two generations of Corinthian masons and coroplasts. 9 While it seems reasonable that the first temple of the new type should be built in Corinth, followed by another at the Isthmian sanctuary, there is no archaeological evidence to support the sequence. One difference is the addition of a small triangle of clay at the lower edge of the roof tiles along the eaves (see Figure 7 and discussion of tiles below). In light of present knowledge it is probably best to place both temples in the first half of the 7th century. At Corinth, however, the loss of the foundations and of much building material leaves many questions unanswered regarding its plan and the details of construction. For that reason reference is made here primarily to the temple at Isthmia, although it should be borne in mind that both temples had many features in common.

The following discussion concerns the place of the Corinthian temples within the architectural traditions of Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Early Iron Age and the beginning of the Archaic period. J.J. Coulton pointed out some years ago that the form and dating of the temples at Corinth and Isthmia occupy a central point in any discussion of the extent of Greece’s debt to her eastern neighbors, especially Egypt.10 The fact that both temples can be assigned to the first half of the 7th century minimizes the likelihood that Corinthian masons drew immediate inspiration from Egyptian building practice since there would have been limited direct contact with the area before ca. 660,11 but the debate continues. In his recent book, The Eastern Side of Helicon, Martin West sums up one view of the early history of the Greek temple as follows: “A temple in the sense of a grand house for the deity who was present in the form of a unique imposing effigy was first established in Greece in the 8th century and rapidly spread. There was at first no single architectural model; a more uniform style developed in the 7th century. But the principle of the temple came from the Near East where it had been established since early times. It reached Cyprus several centuries earlier than it was taken up in Greece.” 12

Alexander Mazarakis Ainian sees the Greek temple as a local Greek phenomenon, the product of an expansion and elaboration of the chieftain’s house in a community of the Dark Age, perhaps ultimately derived from the Mycenaean megaron in which the wanax performed ceremonies on behalf of his people. 13 Walter Burkert draws a distinction between small temples with interior hearths that were apparently used for feasts (e.g. Temple A at Kommos) and larger sacred buildings with exterior altars (e.g. the first temple of Hera at Samos). He suggests that the small images in the earliest shrines represent an older tradition deriving from the Bronze Age, while the use of large images is a custom imported from the Egypt and the Near East. The scale of the building was thus planned in relation to the statues displayed within it. Kopcke stresses that alien forms were not copied, but the idea of a monumental temple with a statue, while derived from the Near East, became adopted with approval “as if it had been self-generated.”14


Figure 3 – Restored plan. F. Hemans

No consensus has been reached on the degree to which the Archaic temple was influenced by sacred buildings that Greeks encountered elsewhere or whether it evolved almost entirely from indigenous architectural forms. The scale of the Corinthian and Isthmian temples is not the principle innovation, since the shrines of Hera on Samos, Apollo Daphnephorus at Eretria, Apollo at Halieis, and Artemis at Ano Mazaraki were hekatompeda.15 The major advances that led to the classical Greek temple came in the design, construction techniques, and materials. It was the introduction of isodomic ashlar masonry to form a single-skin wall, the creation of a low-pitched, hipped roof covered with tiles, and a change in proportions that widened the building in respect to its length that marked a new era in Greek architecture.16 The decorative colonnade around the exterior shows a conception for the building that went beyond what we currently know of contemporary temples.17 The existence of a peristyle at Isthmia was confirmed in 1989 by the discovery of the bedding for the southern stylobate, although Broneer had already recognized stylobate blocks and published a restored drawing showing the colonnade.18 We need to ask to what extent the features and the construction techniques at Isthmia have local parallels or antecedents; or do they seem to appear without warning on the Greek landscape. The implications of the influences that might have been at work on building methods during the second half of the 8th and the first half of the 7th century for the new architectural forms evident in the Corinthian and Isthmian temples are the subject of this paper.

We begin with an examination of the stone masonry in the walls of the temple. Discussion of the tile roof follows with an account of the manufacture of the tiles. Finally a brief overview of the few largescale Greek temples belonging to the 8th and early 7th centuries will show in what ways the Corinthian and Isthmian temples differed from their predecessors and from contemporary buildings.


Limestone of the type used at Isthmia and Corinth was readily available in the vicinity of the temples so that quarrying, transport, and finishing of blocks could have been accomplished with relative ease. Although no quarries have yet been specifically linked to the Isthmian or Corinthian temples, it is likely that the blocks were cut from nearby outcrops.19 On the basis of several unfinished pieces it appears that they were quarried to the approximate dimensions desired for the finished block after the rough outer surface was cut away. The method of quarrying very likely followed the Egyptian practice of cutting a channel around the block to a depth equal to its intended height.20 Corinthian quarries of later times show signs of such techniques. The same method is found in other areas of the Near East and on Crete and could have been observed by visiting Corinthians in any number of places.21 The tools and process of cutting the stone are not technically complex, but the production of blocks in the quantities required for the temples would have necessitated an organized work force and a well thought-out method for hauling them to the building site.

Figure 4: Hypothetical scene of finishing and setting wall blocks in the Archaic Temple at Isthmia, F. Hemans, 1989

The design of the masonry marks a departure from previous building practice in that the architect envisioned the walls as a uniform skin for the building. There was no outside and inside facing with rubble packing between. No base of orthostates supported an upper section made of mud brick or field stones with timber framing. The entire wall, in a manner familiar from classical buildings, consisted of blocks cut to uniform dimensions in height, width and, to some extent, length. They were set in the wall as isodomic through courses Figure 2, Figure 4. Their longest dimensions lay along the run of the wall and the medium dimension was equal to the width of the wall. One smoothly finished vertical face comprised the outer surface and the parallel face the inner surface. Rising joints were perpendicular to the top and bottom faces of the block, and the joints were finished in a manner that ensured closure on both inner and outer faces.22 Nearly all blocks were laid as stretchers. This type of construction could be called a one-skin wall in contrast to the two-skin walls, of ashlar or orthostate construction, that are commonly found in the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age architecture of the Eastern Mediterranean.23

Blocks were carefully planned in relation to their place in the building. It appears that the architect, when designing the building, made the walls of the cella ca. 0.55 m. thick, while the shorter walls of the north and south sides of the pronaos had a thickness of ca. 0.65 m.24 The courses were ca. 0.27 m. high. The length of individual blocks varies, but the average is ca. 0.825 m., which produces a ratio of 3:2:1 between length, width and height. The stylobate blocks have a uniform width of 0.825 m. Thus, before construction began, the dimensions of the blocks were fixed. That the finishing took place near the building site is evident from the large quantity of stone chips that were found beneath the floors of the temple.25

Our next task is to compare the stone work of the Isthmian temple with ashlar masonry in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ashlar blocks with rectangular, carefully finished outer surfaces and roughly cut inner faces are found in many structures of the Bronze Age in Egypt, North Syria, Palestine, Cyprus, Anatolia, Crete, and mainland Greece, and they would have been visible to a traveler of the 7th century- While the shape of individual blocks in these earlier buildings often approaches true ashlar, rarely are the blocks of consistant height and depth and cut with all six faces at right angles. 26 Particularly fine stone work occurs in buildings on Minoan Crete where the front of the block is finished and the vertical and horizontal joints are well-fitted, but the back is usually irregular or chiselled off obliquely. 27 The builders do not seem to have aimed at an isodomic style, although walls occur with almost identical course heights. 28 In terms of the structure of the wall, the finished blocks were used as facing and they did not extend through the thickness of the wall. In simple terms, the walls had two skins.

Egyptian masonry stands somewhat apart because of the massive scale of buildings and the techniques used to handle and set the huge blocks. A trapezoidal shape for blocks is common. Courses are stepped or notched into each other. The size of individual blocks shows considerable variation, and several types of masonry can be found in the same building.29 Finished blocks normally serve as facing for a core of rubble or rough stones.30 The lack of regularity in Egyptian masonry is attributed to the custom of covering the wall with plaster and decoration. Economy in stone is considered another factor. In contrast, Minoan buildings where coursed ashlar is used preserved the pattern of the individual blocks and plaster was used only to cover and seal the joints.31

In the Early Iron Age, closer to the period of the Isthmian temple, examples of true ashlar masonry occur in monumental structures in Palestine, often accompanied by Aeolic or Proto-Aeolic capitals. The sites include Tel Dan, Hazor, Megiddo, Taanach, Beth-Shean, Samaria, Ramat Rahel, Jerusalem, and Gezer.32 In building practice the region seems to have been more closely linked to Egypt than to Mesopotamia, although other evidence of Egyptian influence or borrowing is limited.33

In the most regular and integrated form of Israelite ashlar masonry, as seen at Samaria and Megiddo, blocks of a more or less uniform dimension are grouped in twos or threes and set as headers across the width of the wall. They alternate with a similar number of stretchers, and both sets of blocks stand on edge. The length of the blocks is equal to the width of the wall.34 A key feature in such an arrangement is the uniformity of the blocks that allowed them to be used interchangeably as headers and stretchers. Another characteristic is the relatively small size of each block that enabled it to be quarried, transported and set into a massive wall with relative ease. A similar standardization of block-size is one of the conspicuous features of Isthmian masonry, although the blocks were handled in a different way.35 The Israelite blocks are sometimes but not always finished on six sides, and they weigh ca. half a ton, while the Isthmian ones are about one half the size. Other similarities in masonry technique include joints closed only at the faces with the rear portion splayed inwards, vertical joining and horizontal bedding, omission of clamps and dowels, and finely finished surfaces. It is not clear to what extent the blocks in Palestine were dressed in situ, as was the custom in Egypt and at Isthmia. Only in buildings of singular importance were the walls built with such precisely cut blocks set in isodomic courses. A major difference between Israelite ashlar walls and those of the Isthmian temple, besides the scale and method of setting the blocks, is the former’s use of wood. It is not certain how the upper sections of the Israelite walls were finished, possibly in field stones with timber framing. There are also signs of a wooden course set into the stone at intervals.36

The source and chronology of Palestinian ashlar masonry and the associated Proto-Aeolic capitals are contentious subjects. Naumann concludes that antecedents of the style might be sought in Canaanite territory, originally expressed in wooden forms, and then later passed through North Syria to the East Greek cities of Ionia and Aeolia.37 Betancourt, while noting that no stone prototypes are known for the Proto-Aeolic capitals, likewise posits a lost tradition in wood but seeks rather a source in Phoenicia where some of the same masonry techniques are found at the end of the Bronze Age.38 Mitford also favors a Phoenician source for both the masonry and capitals, and places an emphasis on the fine ashlar masonry at the Omrid capital of Samaria and Ahab’s close ties with Tyre. The historical situation supports his conclusion although archaeological evidence from Phoenicia is lacking.39 Kempinski and Avi-Yonah look rather to North Syria for the major influence on Palestinian architecture. The plans of royal citadels (Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer) follow North Syrian models as seen at Zinjirli and Tel Ta’yinat in the 9th and 8th centuries, while the designs on Proto-Aeolic capitals stem from Egyptian architecture of the Late Bronze Age.40 Shiloh, on the other hand, argues that the ashlar masonry and Proto-Aeolic capitals were local innovations. A North Syrian origin is rejected because buildings there show a long-standing tradition of orthostate construction with a superstructure of wood and field stones.41 Canaanite inspiration is similarly rejected for the same reason, since the major buildings of the Canaanite centers, as typified by structures in Megiddo (strata VIIIB and VIII-VIA, 15th-12th centuries) employed well-fashioned orthostates.42An orthostate style is seen also in Phoenician architecture as represented by Temple I in the Phoenician colony at Kition on Cyprus, that was settled sometime after the middle of the 9th century- The masonry of the temple, however, was not brought in by the colonists but rather the shrine was rebuilt on foundations of the preceding period, reusing earlier blocks.43 Shiloh concludes that it was a scarcity of wood that led to the extensive use of stone in the Israelite buildings, although, as mentioned above, there is no evidence that the walls were in fact completed in ashlar masonry. Drawing on biblical sources he suggests that Phoenician craftsmen working in Israel and in cooperation with local artisans produced the true ashlar style of masonry and Proto-Aeolic capitals. On the other hand, direct evidence for ashlar masonry has now been uncovered in a late 9th-early 8th century domestic context at the Phoenician city of Sarepta on the coast between Sidon and Tyre, so Phoenicia may be its source after all.44

The second issue surrounding the masonry of Palestine in the Iron Age is one of chronology. Most scholars, including those cited above, see monumental architecture beginning in the 10th century as a product of the united monarchy under David and Solomon. Biblical accounts of events are used to date archaeological remains in the major centers. The description of Solomon’s building activities in Jerusalem, i.e. the temple, his palace, and the city’s fortification as given in I Kings 6, 7, 9:15 and 11 Chronicles 2-4, are discussed in relation to the palaces (6000 and 1723) and piered gate at Megiddo (stratum VA-IVB) as well as the gates using the same plan in other cities. A connection has been made between the dressed blocks of true ashlar and the biblical term “measures of hewn stones” (I Kings 7:9). Solomon’s founding of administrative centers at Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer (I Kings 9:15) is used as evidence that the architecture of their major structures is characteristic of his period .45 The idea of Phoenician involvement in Palestinian monumental construction owes much to biblical texts about the King of Tyre’s role in Solomon’s building program. However, questions have recently been raised about the sources of the biblical narratives and the date of their composition. Auld, in a detailed critique of the texts, concludes: “Why Kings and Chronicles should offer different… details a-bout the Lord’s house… is hard to explain… The more we come to realise that Kings no less than Chronicles may be a post-monarchic, post-exilic, creative text of the Persian period, the more we will have to cope with the possibility that Kings like Chronicles is attributing to the early monarchic period the origins of what is or at least should be the situation in its own time. [The texts] may equally reflect either a Persian reality contemporary to the time of writing [late 6th century] or an ideal to be striven for in that period.46 On a separate track, Finkelstein has challenged the ceramic chronology that would place Megiddo stratum VA-IVB and related phases at Arad and Beer-sheba in the 10th century. A date in the 9th century seems more likely, contemporary with Samaria that was built as the new capital of the Omrid Dynasty.47 With this in mind, the buildings of Hazor (stratum VIII) and Ramat Rahel (stratum VA) find a place in the 9th century, contemporary with the excellent ashlar masonry of Samaria.

The origins and chronology of monumental architecture in Palestine will undoubtedly remain controversial for some time, but a review of the theories is instructive for the light it sheds on historical approaches to architecture and the inherent dangers. It is useful to note again that only the lower parts of the buildings are preserved, and there is no evidence that the entire wall was continued in the same type of masonry. Furthermore, wood was undoubtedly used in the construction.48 The unusual aspect of the Palestinian masonry is the standardization of a relatively small block size and the way in which the ashlars were laid. In its most perfect examples, the blocks bound together both faces of the wall. Such a technique required careful planning as well as skilled masons. Its relevance for our discussion of the Isthmian temple lies in the area of the architectural concepts and practices it involved, such as quarrying to size and viewing the fabric of the wall as an integrated entity. While techniques of stone cutting and finishing were probably derived from Egypt, the practice of setting the blocks on edge in a lattice pattern is unusual.

It may not be possible to find a direct connection between buildings in the Eastern Mediterranean and the early temples of the Corinthia. As noted above, Egyptian techniques for quarrying and dressing blocks were widely known and could have been learned from any number of places. In respect to the use of a standard sized, six-sided ashlar block, it is impossible to say whether the Corinthians took the idea from elsewhere or they came upon it themselves. The way in which the blocks were employed to form a single skin wall seems to be a local innovation. By the mid-8th century the Corinthians were already making stone sarcophagi from single blocks of limestone or from individual stone slabs, so they had evidently acquired considerable skill in quarrying, transporting and finishing large rectangular blocks.49 Keith Dickey in his recent study of early Corinthian burials notes that a sarcophagus was used in 65% of 386 burials belonging to the period ca. 1100 to 550. Of the six Geometric examples, the oldest certain monolithic sarcophagus is Early Geometric and a second belongs probably to the Middle Geometric I period. These are to his knowledge the earliest stone sarcophagi in the Greek world.50 To produce blocks of this size, reaching perhaps 1.79 m. in length, would have required considerable expertise. The proportions of the sarcophagus in Grave GC-2, 1:2:3.3, may be a sign that the mason was accustomed to cutting blocks to a given dimension. Approximately the same ratio occurs in the blocks of the Isthmian temple. Since too few examples of the sarcophagi are recorded and they are not available for study, little more can be said about the degree to which the stone-working techniques are similar to those used in the temples of the 7th century.

Figure 5: Stone pier, side face, from Geometric Well 1972-2 in Corinth (A-72-31)

Figure 6: Stone pier (A-72-31), rear face, from Corinth Well 1972-2. Photo by I. Ioannidou and L. Bartzioti, courtesy of the Corinth Excavations

That Corinthian masons at the same period were fashioning more elaborately shaped, cut-stone elements for architectural use appears from the discovery of several limestone blocks in a well that was filled in the third quarter of the 8th century (Figure 5, Figure 6). The fill consisted of carbonized wood, mud brick, cut stones with light burning in places, field stones, and burned bones; the pottery reflects a domestic mix of fine and coarse wares, cooking pots, and storage vessels. The material taken as a whole appears to be debris from a building or buildings after a fire.52

One block is six-sided, with the broadest face evidently intended to stand against a wall. The front is cut in five facets decreasing in width from front to back.53 The cutting of the facets is fairly consistent. The front face and the upper half of the two flanking facets have been smoothed to remove the tool marks, while overlapping strokes are evident on the narrower strips at both edges. The same tooling is seen on the side of A-72-31 Figure 5. On the back are marks ca. 0.06-0.08 m. wide that show the full width of the tool.54 Thus, all three stages of finishing are present, and, while the fragment in its present state appears rough, it was cut and finished by an experienced stone mason. The piece appears to be part of a five-sided pier that stood against a wall.

A second faceted block from the same well is larger but the design is not as well executed (Figure 5, Figure 6). The front has seven panels, also graded in width from front to back, but the central strip is not parallel to the back, nor is it centered on the vertical axis of the block. The result creates a lob-sided appearance when seen in section. Furthermore, the facets do not have a consistent width from top to bottom.55 The block may not have been finished. Two rectangular, limestone blocks that could have been used in a wall socle came from the same well .56 Whether the building was a simple private house, a more pretentious residence, or possibly a shrine cannot be determined; the pottery, if in fact it was associated with the structure, suggests food preparation and consumption. Although burned bones are mentioned in the excavation record, it is not clear whether they were small, completely charred pieces, as from a sacrifice, or larger, less charred bones that would have been left from dining.57 If a house, the presence of at least one ornamental pier may be a sign that the owner enjoyed a certain status.

In his study of the inventoried blocks from the well and other examples of tooling that can be assigned to the 8th century, Rhodes concluded that Corinthian masons used, in addition to a broad, flat chisel, an adze, probably a quarry hammer, and, rarely, a pointed chisel.58 Tooling marks on blocks from the Isthmian temple closely resemble those on the faceted piers from the well. The same three basic stages in finishing can be distinguished, and there is no apparent difference in the way that the work was carried out.59 Corinthian masons, then, were producing limestone sarcophagi and ornamental stone-work for buildings during the 8th century. Whether they learned through trial and error or through the help of visiting craftsmen, they were fully familiar with the tools and techniques for quarrying and finishing blocks of the local limestone. The advances seen in the Corinthian and Isthmian temples in the 7th century seem to have been of conception rather than the arrival of new technology.

In their conformity to a prescribed set of dimensions, the Isthmian blocks resemble the sun-dried bricks that had been the basic Corinthian building material from earliest times. In that respect, brick construction may have played a role in the development of Corinthian ashlar masonry although there are differences in proportions and scale.60 What does not seem to have played a part in the Corinthian scheme, however, is an aesthetic effect created by the patterns of the blocks as in Classical Greek masonry, since the walls were plastered, according to the fashion in Egypt and the Near East. The major innovations and the achievement of the architects lay in a new ambition for the building, one that entailed a significant increase in complexity of design, standardization of the component parts and permanence through use of non-perishable materials. The interrelationship of parts meant that all had to be planned in advance. We will see in the next section that the roof tiles were as carefully designed as the walls.

Figure 7: Restored view of one corner of the roof on the Archaic Temple at Isthmia. (= Fig. 3 in Hemans 1989)


Of the building’s elements, the most conspicuous innovation was the roof tile. Their manufacture was similar to that of bricks, in that clay was pressed into a mold, removed and sun-dried; the significant difference came in their being kiln-fired. Baked bricks were used in prehistoric structures in Greece and Mesopotamia, but they do not appear again on the Greek mainland until the Hellenistic period.61 In size and complexity of design the large, S-shaped roof tiles are unique Figure 7.62 Smaller, flat slabs of clay appear in architectural contexts in the Early Helladic and Mycenaean Periods but most roofs were flat and plastered or pitched and thatched.63, as represented in models of the late Sth and early 7th century.64 At Lefkandi a single flat pan tile was found in a Late Geometric context, but in shape and details it resembles the late Archaic Corinthian type.65

Before discussing the Corinth and Isthmian roof tiles, we need to consider a roofing system that Winter designates the Argive-style.66 The fact that the tiles were found in connection with an early temple of Apollo at Halieis, perhaps belonging initially to the end of the 8th or early in the 7th century, raises the question of whether Argos took the lead in the development of terracotta tiles.67 The system includes separate pan and cover tiles and eaves cover tiles that end in simple, broadly triangular antifixes with “horns” (Hörnerantefix). In form they appear to represent a development of the Protocorinthian style at Isthmia Figure 7.68 Other examples of the tiles are found at the Argive Heraion, Mases, at the sanctuary of Aphaia on Aigina, Delphi, Olympia, Kombothekra (near Olympia), and Nemea.69 Only at Olympia have fragments been recovered in datable contexts: (1) a well filled in the mid or third quarter of the 7th century; (2) the foundation of the older Sicyonian Treasury built ca. 600.70 Heiden, convinced that the well deposit cannot be contemporary with the destruction of the roof, suggests that the tile was discarded there during construction.71 He sees the Isthmian eaves tiles, especially the small peak in the center of the pan tiles, as predecessors of the “horn” antefixes, and the latter as beginning in the second half of the 7th century.72 At the Argive Heraion, although none of the fragments have an archaeological context, Pfaff argues that the most obvious building for the tiles is the first temple of Hera which he places in the last quarter of the 71h century.73 Since most of the buildings with which the tiles of the Argive-system are associated seem to be later than the construction date for the temple of Apollo at Halieis, the tiles found there probably belong to a second roof that replaced an original covering of thatch.74 The archaeological arguments for the beginning of the Argive tiles place them for the most part in the second half of the 7th century, and there is no doubt that the effect of the roof would have been more decorative, more elaborate than that of the Protocorinthian tiles. Use of the system continued into the early 6th century, gradually acquiring surface ornamentation. On balance, it is likely that the type was developed after the earliest Corinthian tiles.

Although the elder Pliny (NH VII. 195) attributes the first fired roof tiles to King Kinygras of Cyprus, there is no archaeological evidence for early tiles on the island.75 Judging from our current knowledge, we may conclude that the Protocorinthian, S-shaped roof tile was a Corinthian invention of the first half of the 7th century.76 They appear at three sites in the Corinthia and at Delphi where the Corinthians were active in the 8th and 7th centuries.77 The chronology of the series rests on evidence from Corinth and Isthmia where the tiles can be identified with deposits related to specific temples. At Corinth attempts have been made to date construction of the building on the basis of the tiles.78 Stylistic variations between the two sets of roof tiles, e.g. at Isthmia the addition of the triangular peak and the absence of paint, have led to the suggestion that the Isthmian roof was a development of the roof in Corinth. While it seems likely for many reasons that the Isthmian temple followed the one in Corinth, it is entirely possible that the differences in the tiles merely represent variations for separate roofs of the same period.79 Color seems to have played an important part in the effect created by the roof at Corinth, since about one in six of the tiles that have been recovered bear a black glaze and a few were painted red. Robinson suggests that some portion, though not all, of the roof may have had a checkerboard pattern of predominately black and yellow squares with red accents.80 No painted tiles have yet been found at Isthmia. Although the plan of the building at Corinth is not preserved, the tile roof makes it likely that it was rectangular with stone walls to the roof line, although no blocks from the wall crown have been recovered.81

Protocorinthian tiles are also found in the Corinthian Sanctuary of Hera at Perachora.82 Protocorinthian tiles are also found in the Corinthian Sanctuary of Hera at Perachora. In fabric and finish the pieces most closely resemble those from Isthmia, although they are smaller in scale. None of them is well enough preserved for a restoration of the full dimensions. To what building the tiles belonged is unclear. They seem too large for the structure on the upper terrace, that was probably a dining-room. The building was only 9.50 m. long and 5.60 m. in width, and, judging from the socle, the walls were made of sun-dried brick.83 It is more likely that the tiles belonged to a temple of Hera Akraia that preceded the 6th century shrine by the shore, but virtually nothing of an earlier building has been found.84 In any case, a structure of some size and importance at the Heraion had a hipped roof made of Protocorinthian tiles, unless they were carried there at a later period from Corinth or Isthmia.

The fourth site where Protocorinthian tiles are found is Delphi.85 Corinth’s presence at Delphi at that period is attested, by Geometric and Protocorinthian pottery in the sanctuary.86 The Corinthians may well have built an early treasury for which they would have supplied the roof tiles, either importing the finished tiles or, more probably, sending the materials and workmen for manufacture at the building site. Some blocks have been found that could belong to such a treasury.87 Its dimensions, however, would have been not unlike the dining-room at Perachora, which raises the same question in regard to the use of such large roof tiles on a relatively small building. The other alternative is a temple to Apollo in the 7th century, presumably on the site of the later temples.

Since nothing is known of the buildings at Perachora and Delphi, nor even the plan of the temple at Corinth, we must look to Isthmia for the way in which the tiles were related to the architecture of the building. Their design is complex and carefully worked out. It shows a sophisticated approach to the problems posed by fitting the large, double tiles onto a hipped roof Seven or eight different types were used, each one of which was made in a different mold. The most numerous were the pan-cover tiles (left and right-hand), then the eaves tiles (left and right-hand), hip tiles, and finally ridge tiles (possibly also left and right-hand).88 In each horizontal row, the adjoining cover portion of the tile overlapped the pan on the next tile, and the amount of overlap is marked with an inscribed line Figure 7. Ascending the roof, the horizontal rows also overlapped, and a system of notches locked the horizontal rows to each other.89 From the marks of fitting and trimming before firing on many of the tiles, it appears that they were made in relatively small batches close to the site, dried to leather hard, fitted in place, and then taken to a kiln for firing.90 Such a process would have been too laborious to continue for long, and it is not surprizing that the heavy, ungainly Protocorinthian tile was soon abandoned. It was an inflexible system and difficult to fit to the roof even with pre-fitting. Separate pan and cover tiles are found almost immediately in the Argive and Laconian systems, while the Corinthians continued to manufacture combination tiles but with pans and covers in the form that was later standard for Corinthian roofs.

In 1978-1979 a project was undertaken at Isthmia to analyze the technology and tools that were needed to produce the Protocorinthian tiles and to replicate the steps in their manufacture as closely as possible. The results are summarized here.91 The rough underside of the tile retains the marks of tools used for hammering, cutting, and smoothing; the smooth upper surface was shaped in a mold. Once the original mold was made, probably of wood since clay or stone would have been prohibitively heavy, the tiles could have been produced rapidly by a few men. The fabric reveals an understanding of coroplastic principals. Mud-stone from Acrocorinth was added to reduce shrinkage, and clay was levigated to produce a fine slip for the upper surface. The stiff clay mixture for the tile would have been hammered into the mold. The fabric is similar to that found in Corinthian Type A amphoras, the production of which began at about the same period as the tiles. While the amphoras were built up by hand, their slip and fabric, including the mudstone temper, resembles that of the roof tiles.92 It seems likely that the potters and tile-makers, if not the same people, learned from each other.

The notches in the bottom of the tile were first cut by hand before firing, and then, in a number of examples, they were enlarged when the tile was fitted onto the roof. At the time of setting, the edges and bottom surfaces of the overlapping portions were also trimmed.93 In the experiment, we found that after the tile was formed, to avoid cracking, it had to stand on end to allow both faces to dry simultaneously. The Corinthians could have discovered this procedure by trial and error, as we did, or they may have had help from someone skilled in molding largescale terracottas. In a small kiln built of sun-dried bricks and holding only four tiles, we found that the firing took about 14 hours and the cooling process about four days.94 The firing time together with the size of the kiln would have constituted the major limits to productivity. The roof of the temple held ca. 1,820 tiles. In a very general estimate of the necessary manpower and with all the raw materials available in an area no farther away than Acrocorinth, we suggested that the tiles for the Isthmian roof could have been produced by seven workmen within the space of two years.

What impetus led the Corinthians to create a tile roof? The advantage of tiles over a covering of thatch or clay has been much discussed. Schwandner suggests that the ability of tiles to channel and carry off rain water was the main impetus behind their introduction and progressive modification. He proposes a line of evolution from separate pan and cover tiles of the Laconian type to the double Protocorinthian tiles and then back to separate but ornamented Corinthian pan and cover tiles.95 Wikander points out the ability of tiles in contrast to thatch to withstand fire.96 Control of rain water and reduction in the danger from fire were undoubtedly factors in the mind of the temple architect. There was also the effect of the roof as a decorative element. In the end tiles made a more durable and impressive covering for any important building.

The next question is from what quarter did the Corinthians learn the technique of producing moldmade tiles? The molded figurines for which the city was famous do not appear in quantity until the second half of the 7th century. There is, however, an indication of earlier production that perhaps copied imported terracottas. In the excavation of the 7th century fortification wall, just south and west of tower 3, a mold for a relief placque was found with Late Protocorinthian pottery of the mid to third quarter of the 7th century.97 The mold was made from Corinthian clay but the original placque from which it was cast represented the head of a woman with decidedly oriental features. Stillwell notes that the enlarged, prominent eye and representation of the eyebrow by two thin parallel lines are features characteristic of heads from Nimrûd. She suggests that the mold was locally made from an imported placque and that the craftsmen were working under the direct influence of foreign works of art. Although the mold appears quite fresh and was excavated in a Late Protocorinthian context, Stillwell places its manufacture some years earlier. The molds used to make the roof tiles represent a considerable increase in scale over the mold for a small placque, but the purpose was- the same and embodies the same idea of mass production. Whether or not Corinthian workmen in the-first half of the 7th century learned coroplastic techniques from foreign craftsmen, possibly from Syria, they obviously mastered the skills necessary for making roof tiles. I am not certain that the idea of the mold-made roof tile did not evolve from brick-making where simple rectangular molds were used.

The type of roofing material chosen for the building would have been closely linked to the shape of the structure and the materials used in the construction of the walls. These features must have been already determined when the tiles were designed.98 The lines inscribed after the tiles were slipped but before they were fired show that they were designed for a roof of specific dimensions,99 and the amount of exposed surface would have been calculated beforehand. The lines then guided the workmen in setting the tiles.100 The area most critical for error was the lateral dimension, from the outer edge of the cover to the opposite edge of the pan, and it was important that each finished row reached the desired length Figure 7. The first row of tiles on each side of the building rested on a horizontal member, probably of wood.101 Placement of the row above was less problematical because of the interlocking system of grooves. In each succeeding row the number of pan-cover tiles was reduced by two, following the line of the hips Figure 7. For this reason the exposed length and width of each tile had to be more or less consistent throughout. Thus the exact length and width of the building must have been decided before the molds were made. Even more than the use of a standard sized wall block, the tiles bear witness to the precision of the architect’s plan.

The weight of the tile roof, at Isthmia about 53,000 kilograms, would have been an important factor in designing the building, not only for the wooden framing that supported the roof but also for the walls.102 The weight would have been difficult to sustain without stone walls and a heavy superstructure of wooden rafters and planking (Figure 1, Figure 2).103 It is clear that the peristyle, too, would have played a significant role in supporting the roof.


We now turn to the design of the Isthmian temple and the closest parallels in terms of proportions and scale. Scale in particular has been defined as “an elaborate and complex coding system whereby things, by their sizes, can at one time be related to some whole, to each other, to other things like them, and to people… Scale can be a device which helps achieve a quality that all good buildings have: being at once like something (and having a general meaning) while also being special (and having a particular meaning)”. 104 The architect of the Isthmian temple seems to have related his building through its size to other large temples, the hekatompeda, while at the same time, by using a different set of proportions and introducing a colonnade, he created a wholely new type of building.

A predecessor can be seen in the temple of Hera on Samos that has been recently dated by Mallwitz to the end of the 8th century or early in the 7th , placing it not many years before the two Corinthian temples.105 Considering the close relations between Corinth and Samos in the 1h century, it is very likely that the building was well known to the Corinthians.106 The cella, without a peristyle in its initial phase, measures 32.86 m. by 6.75 m., a ratio of almost 1:5. In the absence of tiles, it is generally assumed that the roof was thatched. As noted above, the walls of unbaked brick rested on a two-skin, stone socle.107 The blocks, set on their intermediate face, had a uniform height but varied in length and thickness. and only the front, top, and bottom faces were finished. The rising joints, closed only at the front, were at right angles to the top and bottom of the block. While Corinthians of the 7th century may have been impressed by Hera’s grand new house, they aimed at a more imposing building. They widened the cella to a ratio of 1:4, and added a peristyle that broadened it even more (1:2.8). The low roof of heavy tiles gave the impression of mass spread out in .front of the viewer while Hera’s temple rose to the sky.

A building closer to home and assuredly familiar to the Corinthians was the temple of Hera at the Argive Heraion. While the earliest remains suggest a peristyle structure not unlike the Isthmian temple, the date of its construction may be as late as the third quarter of the 7th century.108 Little is preserved of Hera’s temple except for a portion of the stylobate with cuttings marking the placement of columns. The large diameters (ca. 2 feet) are comparable with the restored columns at Isthmia. The tooling on the blocks is very similar to’ that described above for the blocks from Corinthian Well 72-2 and the Isthmian temple. The exposed faces are covered with a thin stucco (now a cream color), applied directly to the stone, which resembles the stucco on the Isthmian blocks.109 On the other hand, the stylobate (over 0.20 m. above ground level) formed a step that occurs at Isthmia only at the east end. The sunken beddings for the columns cut into the stylobate and anathyrosis on the westernmost preserved block of the stylobate have no parallel at Isthmia. In general, as has been pointed out by Pfaff, the masonry techniques appear to be slightly more advanced than those on the Isthmian temple.110 Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the early Heraion as seen today is the massive terrace wall.111

No roof tiles are mentioned by the excavators as found with the temple, but Pfaff has suggested that three early Argive-type tiles may have belonged to it. As noted above, such tiles appear at Olympia in the third quarter of the 7th century. Taking the stone work and tiles together, the temple may be closer to 650 than 700.

Near the Heraion is an early temple at Tiryns built over and into the Mycenaean megaron, but the history of the building is not straight -forward. Evidence points to an initial construction date in the Late Helladic IIIC period followed by a period of abandonment until the building was refurbished as a temple to Hera in ca. 750.112 No roof tiles were excavated with the remains. While the building is somewhat smaller than the Isthmian cella (there was no peristyle), the proportions are wider, with a ratio of length to width of about 1:3. The design was very likely influenced more by the existing walls of the Mycenaean palace that were reused in the later structure than by an attempt to produce a new style of building. The structure was abandoned about the time the Isthmian temple was built.

The palace at Mycene was also the site of an early temple, perhaps to Athena. Initially excavated by the Greek Archaeological Society in 1886 and the British’ School in 1939, it has recently been re-studied by Klein.113 Very little of the temple remains, but pottery in the fill of the terrace that supported the building shows that it was constructed after ca. 730-690. From fragments reused in later walls, Klein restores a rectangular cella without a peristyle. The masonry, however, shows an advanced technique involving anathyrosis, swallow-tail clamps and bridge holes for hoisting blocks into place. Relief sculpture adorned the walls. One fragment of a pan tile with a central ridge seems to be reminiscent of the Isthmian tiles, leading to the conclusion that the first roof drew its inspiration from the Corinthia. This temple, too, was apparently a successor to the Corinthian and Isthmian shrines.


The Corinthian and Isthmian temples embody a new concept in architectural design that came to be widely copied and led to the classical form of the Greek temple. No direct models for the buildings are apparent, neither in terms of design, stone masonry, or tiling on the roof. The innovations in construction techniques may well have been inspired by masonry practices in the Levant and Egypt, but the routes of transmission remain obscure. Foreign craftsmen may have introduced the coroplastic skills needed to produce the roof tiles, but there is not much evidence for their presence in the city. The design of the tiles seems to be a local invention, as were the single-skin walls of ashlar masonry. Finally, it was the concept of designing the building as an integrated whole that opened a new era in Greek architecture.

The following abbreviations are used:

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