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23 Jul 2013

The Byzantine Mysteries

Posted by hsmagh. No Comments

Commanding a majestic view of the central sanctuary, the Winged Victory of Samothrace (Nike) would not have been left exposed to the elements up in her precinct.  We believe that she was surrounded by a superstructure but what this building looked like, or even if it was roofed, remains a mystery.  The superstructure appears to have been made from two different types of sandstone: one medium grained (“calcareous”) and one coarse grain (“calcareous pebbly”).  Very little of it remains in the precinct.

Nike Stone is easy to identify because its texture, color, weathering patterns, and inclusions and it is quite unique as a building material.  Its inclusions (“clasts”) consist of basalt, jasper, quartz, magnetite, and fossil fragments.  After investigating the material of all the buildings which could have been constructed with the calcareous sandstone, such as the Hestiatorion, we concluded that the Nike Precinct is the only known structure containing the calcareous sandstone found in the Byzantine Industrial Complex.

Partial plan of the Western Hill with the Byzantine Industrial Complex shaded red.

Partial plan of the Western Hill with the Byzantine Industrial Complex shaded red.

The Byzantine Industrial Complex was exposed during the excavation of the Neorion in 1986-1987.  Built in the 10th century C.E., the complex is slightly earlier than the nearby Byzantine fort, although its use was roughly contemporary.  The complex served an agricultural or industrial function; it contains a possible kiln or oven from Late Antiquity in the first phase of the building.  The second to fourth phases of the building are Byzantine.  It likely went out of use during the late 10th century C.E. around the same time as the Byzantine fort.  The final destruction of the building appears to be intentional; it was filled with debris from both itself and the Byzantine fort in an effort to level the area.  The building and debris include fragments of various monuments.  Many stones from the sanctuary were reused in the heavily mortared walls including pieces of sculpture (notably a fragment of the hull of the Nike ship) and inscribed blocks.  While some of the reused blocks in the Byzantine Industrial Complex’s walls originate from the Stoa, Hieron, Propylon of Ptolemy II, and Hall of Choral Dancers, numerous fragments have not yet been associated with a particular building.  We have identified many of these unclaimed blocks as belonging to the superstructure of the Nike Precinct.  The easternmost and westernmost chambers in the Byzantine building have only a few traces of the calcareous sandstone while the central chambers have a significant amount.  It appears mostly in medium sized blocks in the superstructure of the chambers.

Hannah and Zach measuring a Nike Stone in the easternmost chamber.

Hannah and Zach measuring a Nike Stone in the easternmost chamber.

We began our catalogue of Nike blocks in the Byzantine Industrial Complex by photographing the interior and exterior of each wall.  While photographing the walls, each stone in the complex was analyzed and the ones determined to be the calcareous sandstones associated with the Nike precinct were marked with tape.  The photographs were put into greyscale in photoshop, printed, and taken back up to the site.  Once on site, we traced the blocks in each wall in sharpie to make them more visible on the paper.  We then traced the blocks on tracing paper back in Hall E to get a clearer view of the stone structure of the wall.  After tracing the blocks we noted their worked surfaces and measured the height, width, and length of each marked stones. We took preserved measurements where they were available and visible measurements when mortar or other stones were obscuring the preserved surface.  A total of 535 wall blocks and some stones lying in the surrounding area were measured. We proceeded to catalogue all our notes and measurements of the Nike stones.

Jess, Hannah, and Zach describing a Nike stone wall block.

Jess, Hannah, and Zach describing a Nike stone wall block.

Jess, Hannah, and Zach measuring a Nike stone outside the Byzantine building.

Jess, Hannah, and Zach measuring a Nike stone outside the Byzantine building.

The numbers obtained from our measurements are consistent with our observations that the Nike Stone blocks in the Byzantine Industrial Complex are medium-sized, likely because a single man could have carried one from the Precinct down to the intermediate terrace.  The complete lack of wall course blocks in the Precinct is best explained by the re-use of the blocks in the walls of the Byzantine Industrial Complex.


17 Jul 2013

The Topography of Sacred Space

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Even a casual glance at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods will reveal that it is situated in a ravine so that the central sanctuary is flanked by one hill to the west and another to the east. How the topography of the landscape enhanced the Sanctuary’s effect on initiates and supplicants is less obvious. In order to understand the relationship between the landscape, the buildings, and the viewer, as well as to obtain highly accurate maps of the site, a Geographic Information System (GIS) survey project of the Sanctuary and surrounding area was instigated several years ago . Although the general survey is now complete many details remain to be filled in.

Much of this season’s investigation revolves around the Nike statue. Consequentially Alexander Myers, Josh Miller, and I began an extremely precise survey of the Nike Precinct. Using a total station, we first took points mapping the elevation changes across the Nike Precinct and the surrounding retaining walls. Then we focused on the foundations, mapping each ashlar block individually. Once the foundations were surveyed Alexander and I moved onto the large boulders of basalt within the Precinct. Smaller fieldstones, also basalt, were used as packing between courses of the ashlar blocks. In many areas, especially the eastern wall, few ashlar blocks are extant; the packing, however, is still present and gives us a visual guide to where the foundation once stood. Josh and I surveyed many of these packing stones, some no larger than a closed fist, to generate points for a digital section of the Nike foundation. We also captured points across the packing which once served as part of the support for the Rhodian marble ship base of the Nike statue.


Zach using the total station with the Hieron in the background.

The points measure elevation, latitude, and longitude and contribute to building accurate 3D models of the Sanctuary in programs such as AutoCAD and Rhino 5.0. Detailed surveys, like that of the Nike Precinct, allow us to analyze small areas accurately. For example, the Nike Precinct slopes down from east to west: not only are the western foundations slightly lower than their surviving eastern counterparts, but the surrounding retaining wall begins at a lower elevation on the west. By capturing points across the Precinct we can not only establish the overall slope from east to west, but also the minute changes in that slope.


Alexander in the Nike Precinct holding the prism, bouncing the laser back to the total station.

The points further function as a digital map. We have been comparing this map with drawings of the Precinct made in the 1950s and 1980s as well as with earlier sketches by Austrians and French excavators. Since the Nike’s discovery 150 years ago many blocks of the Precinct, present on the earliest sketches, have disappeared. As an investigative and reconstructive tool of the original Precinct, the digital map offers a level of precision and flexibility unavailable to previous excavators. It reveals architectural lines which were unclear and reassesses lines drawn in the 1950s and 1980s. Such lines provide spatial clues as to where courses, crosswalls, and the statue base could have extended.

Another area of GIS focus this season is the stoa on the Western Hill. The stoa is longest building in the Sanctuary, once thought to be ca. 104 meters, but found to be ca. 102 meters by a recent general survey. One purpose of our current survey is to firmly establish this length. Another is to capture points on every block, creating a highly detailed map similar to that of the Nike Precinct.

Much work remains to be done, but the earliest fruits of the surveying can be seen in video walkthroughs of the Sanctuary found at http://www.samothrace.emory.edu/visualizing-the-sanctuary/3-D-walkthroughs.

10 Jul 2013

Shading the Shellac: Drawing for Conservation

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As conservators, we examine objects in all kinds of ways: we touch, we smell, we tap with bamboo skewers. But seldom do we actually draw the objects we treat. In general, high-resolution photography serves as our visual documentation.

My classmate Kate Brugioni and I were delighted to discover that Samothracian objects often benefit from a drawing or digital diagram in addition to photography. Since we are usually re-treating previously reconstructed ceramics and glass, creating a drawing can be a very useful way to articulate how the object has changed since it was found in the Sanctuary.

For example, I recently began treating a ceramic vessel discovered in the South Nekropolis during the 1957 excavation season. Since conservation on Samothrace predates the invention of stable synthetic resins, early conservators often used shellac to reassemble broken fragments. Unfortunately, shellac (an adhesive made from crushed insect shells) is  a disfiguring dark brown color and will grow increasingly brittle over time. I will remove the shellac currently holding the vessel together and reassemble it using an inert, removable adhesive known as Acryloid B72.

 small pic for blog

Using Photoshop, I created drawings which outline and number the fragments present in the vessel. As I puzzle the pieces back together, the drawings will act as a road map, a pathway from parts to whole.


diagram for blog


These are not precise archaeological drawings like the lion’s head water spout from the Milesian dedication (see blog post “When it Rains it Roars”). Yet both types of drawings compensate in different ways for the shortcomings of photography. Where the archaeological drawing emphasizes the features salient to the archaeologist, the conservation drawing emphasizes the features salient to the conservator.

The experience of drawing, the act of taking pen to paper or cursor to screen, is just as useful as the drawings themselves. Bringing a three dimensional form into two dimensions gives the drawer a special familiarity with the object. It is an intimacy not unlike the intimacy which once existed between the ancient potter and the clay.


9 Jul 2013

The “Archaeology” of Samothracian Archaeology

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A key element in this season’s project of studying the architectural frame in which the Nike of Samothrace stood is the reconstruction of previous archaeological excavations in the area. Kirsten and I have undertaken this project of “excavating” the excavations of the 20th century.

Kirsten looks at the Plan of the Nike Precinct

Kirsten looks at the Plan of the Nike Precinct



To begin this work, we read through the old excavation diaries sentence by sentence in order to reconstruct their activities in the Nike Precinct and to map out all the trenches in the area that have already been dug. It was interesting to discover not only the extent of previous investigations that had been undertaken in the Precinct, but also the stylistic development of archaeological discourse over the past century. Both the loquacious excavators of the 1930s and 1950s and the scientific approach in the 1980s have been fascinating in terms of the larger history of American archaeological investigations in Greece.

photo (9)

Kantharos Fragments from the Eastern Hill

Before turning to the finds from the Nike Precinct, Kirsten and I familiarized ourselves with the sorts of vessels found in the sanctuary, especially those from the Eastern Hill. While we both specialize in Attic figured pottery from the Archaic and Classical periods, our work on Samothrace has expanded to include vessels of all fabrics from later periods. Among these new shapes, the Samothracian conical bowl stands out as a local yet extraordinary vase shape. These small bowls, found in an astounding number in the sanctuary, must have been essential to the initiation rituals undertaken here. As pottery people, the puzzle of identifying and joining fragments, like those of the stamped kantharoi seen below, is our favorite obsession.


Kirsten and AJ expertizing the pottery

Our goal is to examine all the pottery fragments from the Nike Precinct, paying special attention to those from the trenches that are significant concerning the original structure. So far, we have studied and catalogued all the pottery finds from the 1939 and 1950 excavations. These pottery fragments consist primarily of coarseware from the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The few examples of fineware from the precinct do not survive in very good shape. A second look at these important finds will allow our team to date the phases of construction of the monument and better understand its original appearance.

Kirsten and AJ are getting excited with the "puzzle" of coarse wares

Kirsten and AJ getting excited with the “puzzle” of coarse wares

A full reconstruction and understanding of our archaeological predecessors and their essential explorations of the Nike Precinct and its relationship to the sanctuary will be crucial to the whole team. It is only through a complete understanding of previous excavations that the architecture and small finds can be contextualized.

3 Jul 2013

Nike: Just (Trying To) Do It

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An imposing figure on her staircase in the Louvre, the Winged Victory (Nike) is one of the most famous statues to come to us from the Hellenistic world.  Charles Champoiseau discovered her 150 years ago, and as was the custom of the time, she was taken to the French capital to grace that city. The over-life-size statue of the goddess Nike stands atop the prow of a ship, dwarfing the tallest man.


The Winged Victory of Samothrace in the Musée du Louvre


As large as she is, she is far from complete.  Parts of the ship in particular are made of plaster.  Some of the missing pieces, however, are here on Samothrace, discovered in the 1950s and 1980s by American archaeologists.  During the coming months, the curators and conservators of the Musée du Louvre in Paris will be cleaning and restoring the Winged Victory.  We thought it would be the perfect time to see where our fragments fit in!  That’s where I come in.

Over the past year at Emory, I have been looking at photographs of the fragments from the Louvre and Samothrace and trying to place them visually on the ship.  This summer, I went to the Louvre and met Ludovic Laugier and Marianne Hamiaux, curators at the Louvre who are working on the restoration of the Winged Victory.  We went over the fragments in Paris and formed hypotheses as to where they could go on the ship.  Now Dr. Laugier and I have spent the last week and a half doing the same thing with the fragments here on Samothrace.

Like the fragments from the Louvre, some of our fragments are quite obvious and some are little (or a lot) more elusive.  With Dr. Wescoat and the Louvre’s architect, Nichalas Bresch, pouring over the fragments with us on the first day in front of a French documentary film crew, we were able to place a good number of fragments on the ship.  We think we have some exciting discoveries.

Now we are in the process of studying the ship’s large interior block that is here on Samothrace.  It was left behind in the 19th century, but it actually is the most important block for understanding the exact position of the Nike on the battleship.

The interior block of the ship outside the museum on Samothrace (photo B. Wescoat)

The interior block of the ship outside the museum on Samothrace (photo B. Wescoat)

Looking at these fragments in such detail has greatly contributed to our knowledge of monumental ship representations.  We can see how the ancient craftsmen changed certain designs from the real ships to work better in the stone representation.  This research on the Winged Victory’s ship will aid in the reconstruction of other ship monuments and help us learn more about real Greek warships.

3 Jul 2013

When it Rains it Roars: Drawing a Lion’s Head Water Spout

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Although the main focus of this season is the famous Nike statue and the precinct of the Sanctuary where she once resided, we are also simultaneous completing the study of other parts of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. One such project is the reconstruction of the so-called Milesian Dedication, a dining hall dedicated by a woman from the ancient city of Miletos. There are only a few more architectural fragments that need to be studied, photographed, and drawn before the building can be published. My first task on the island was to complete the drawing of a lion’s head water spout from this fancy building. It had a Ionic temple front façade with flanking wings where 15 lucky people got to feast after being initiated.


The Milesian Dedication is number five, the three-roomed building in green

Using archaeological reconstruction techniques, we know that the façade looked something like this:


The spout would have been part of a very fancy gutter system, in which rainwater would be funneled away from the roof through marble lion’s mouths. Several buildings in the Sanctuary had lions head water spouts, You can see how this would have operated on the building by viewing intact lions head water spouts, such as this one from 4th century BC from the Temple of Aklepios, Edpidauros, Greece.


photo Robert Consoli


photo Clare Mullins

Unfortunately the waterspout from the Milesian Dedication is not in great shape. Only the top half of the lion’s face is preserved, and none of the detail work in the mane or features survives. However, the dimensions of the lions head spout allow us to imagine what it may have looked like when it was complete. The fragment was photographed by Clare, our team photographer. However, it is also important to create a drawing of the spout.

The archaeological drawing corrects for the distortion in the photograph and uses visual shorthand to indicate the “character” of the block: intentional carving, as well as breaks, cracks, or worn areas. Multiple views of the spout are drawn so that scholars and architects who are not able to examine the fragment in person can study it.


In order to create the drawing, dozens of measurements were recorded from the block and translated to a scaled pencil drawing on graph paper. Then, after the lead architect and Dr. Wescoat approved the drawing, it was inked in pen. The final step will be translating the drawing onto a plastic mylar sheet using special drafting pens.  That final copy will be scanned and used for publication and study. The a fully reconstructed version of the lion’s head spout will be then added to the reconstruction of the Milesian Dedication. The location of the lions head waterspout is indicated by the red arrow below.


1 Jul 2013

A New Hope: Fragments of Marine Limestone and the Nike Precinct

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One of the biggest enigmas surrounding the famous Winged Victory of Samothrace is where she was located.  Her precinct – the original area where she was located – is perched on a high terrace at the extreme southern point of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods.  This position gave her a commanding presence, looking down over the theater and into the central sanctuary area with the Hieron and Hall of Choral Dancers.  What remains unclear, though, is what the structure around her originally looked like.


Jess examines the 1950′s plan of the precinct

One of our goals this summer is to determine if the Nike was housed inside a large roofed structure or if she was exposed, open to the air, and surrounded by a peribolos or fence instead.  In order to determine this, we must carefully evaluate the material remains of her precinct.  Jess and I started by “expertising” over 20 boxes of fragments of fossiliferous marine limestone, the material that was used in the Nike precinct.


“Expertised” boxes of marine limestone

This meant unpacking and examining every single piece of stone that was collected by the excavators in the 1980s, in order to see if there were any fragments that might provide clues for what her structure looked like.  Marine limestone is quite friable and crumbly, so many of the fragments do not survive in good condition and this can make reconstruction difficult.


Zach examines an architectural fragment of marine limestone

Many of the pieces of this marine limestone seem to have been reused in other areas around the sanctuary.  One likely target was the Byzantine industrial complex that was built on top of the Neorion, or votive ship dedication.  We are in the process of examining this structure and inventorying the possible pieces of the Nike precinct.  It’s also been fun to read the excavation diaries from the 1980s, when they were excavating the Nike area, as well as the area around the Neorion and Byzantine complex.  This has helped us understand what the different areas looked like two decades ago, and how the buildings were originally revealed and studied.


Zach reads the 1988 diary of the excavation of the Neorion (Ship Monument)

27 Jul 2012

Parakseuis Name Day Festival

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According to Wikipedia, Yahoo, and numerous other (questionable) internet sources, July 26th in America is “All or Nothing Day,” a day in which extremes and going-for-broke are condoned as well as celebrated. Here in Greece, however, we celebrated the name day Parakseuis, which means “Friday” in Greek. Each day in the calendar is associated with a name, and certain important name days are treated as holidays.

Throughout the morning, sporadic church bells and an unusually large influx of visitors heralded the special nature of the date.  During our mid-day siesta, Desi, Becky, and I meandered down the beach to a little café where a festival was being held. Situated in a clearing in the trees, in the shadow of a cliff with an ancient tower perched atop, the space was both picturesque and ideal for social gatherings.

As the population of the entire island of Samothrace is under 3,000 people, a significant fraction of the community must have been gathered within the yard. Outdoor tables were crammed with people, and throngs of Grecians lounged under the shade of the trees. Multiple generations of families living on Samothrace came together to celebrate.

Smoke wafted from several cooking fires, carrying the scent of roasting meat. For five euros, we purchased an enormous plate of rice stewed in goat broth, two shanks of roasted goat, and a crusty roll to share between us. A delicious (second) lunch!

Serving freshly cooked goat to hungry Samothracians



As we ate, we chatted with several of the local Greek individuals and listened to traditional Samothracian music, played on string instruments.

It was an incredible opportunity to interact with members of the local community and experience Samothracian customs and traditional home cooking. Most of all, though my English undoubtedly advertised my foreign origin, I felt completely welcomed and accepted into the community!

-Kari Rayner, Graduate Student at New York University, Institute of Fine Arts, Conservation Center


17 Jul 2012

Wall Walk (Photo guide)

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Here are a few pictures of our walk along the ancient city wall.

17 Jul 2012

Cleaning Nature

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Imagine that you are standing outside and someone hands you a broom and tells you to sweep. How do you know when you’re done?

During our first week on the island, Bonna, Jess, Abi, Alison, and Vikki spent a morning cleaning the Nike Precinct to prepare the area for a gigapan photograph. Gigapan is a technology that allows us to take one large photograph which covers the entire area in great detail, which is useful because it lets us study the building when we are back in the United States.

The first thing we did was to start clearing away the plants and weeds that had grown over the winter. We did this with trowels and pruning shears. There were some pretty serious spiderwebs to be dealt with too, and those were delicately handled with a large stick, Shrek-style. Alison was given a plan of the building and she inventoried the blocks and boulders that make up the visible remains.

Abi and Alison sweep the rocks

While she was climbing all over the larger blocks, counting and pointing and assessing their locations, the rest of the team was wrangling weeds. This involved lots of clipping, pulling, and sweeping to make sure all of the plants were removed. This is important because when we take the photo, we’ll want to be able to see all of the blocks of the building clearly.

Vikki and Jess cleaning

It’s hard to know when a dirt floor is “clean.” You can sweep and sweep for hours and still not be done! By the end of the morning, though, we had made some good progress on cleaning the building. We all came back to the Museum thinking that we had nice tans, but to our dismay, it was just dirt that all washed away! Oh well, we can always go to the beach to work on our tans during the weekend!