Home > Notes From Athens, Teaching > Lessons from the Borders of Attica

Lessons from the Borders of Attica

I spent Friday at the Border Forts of Northwest Attica (which I had scouted some weeks ago: Phyli, Panakton, Eleutherai, Aigosthena in the Rain).  The weather started out cold and cloudy, but by mid-afternoon gave way to bright sunshine.  I learned two important lessons leading the Regular Members on a day trip.

First, despite the relatively similar background of the Regular Members, they engaged the sites that we visited in very different ways.  (Most readers of this blog recognize my interest in ways of viewing the landscape.  If not here are some earlier posts: Four Views of the Corinthian Landscape, More Views of the Ancient Landscape). Some staggered around in a bit of fog.  Others ambled with the stooped gate of an archaeologist, while others still puzzled over buildings or spend time taking photographs.  Some didn’t appear to look at the site at all, finding a nice seat on some antiquity and smoke and chat or hung out on the beach taking in the dramatic scenery of the harbor at Porto Germano.  I tend to think about how I would go about documenting the site; that is, I tend to think about the site as an archaeological problem.

The penultimate site of the day, for example, Aigosthena is relatively undocumented and produced the widest range of responses from the Regular Members.  In an effort to inform their reading of the landscape, I provided the requisite textual description of the site, bibliography, and plan:



Unlike the nearby Eleutherai, Panakton, or Phylai, Aigosthena was a city under the control of Megara. The site nevertheless had strategic value as it controls the major route running along the north coast of the Corinthian gulf potentially. From Aigosthena a force could either continue south toward the Megarian ports of Pagai and Panormus or turn inland through the Villia Valley toward plain of Mazi/Oinoe and the major passes to the Athenian Saronic coastline. The most prominent feature at the site is the imposing early 4th-early 3rd century polygonal fortification walls. Ober has suggested that the Athenians helped to fortify the site during the 4th century. The polygonal masonry of the walls encompasses a low acropolis and extends south toward the sea in a technique reminiscent of the Athenian long walls. Towers to the south of the site linked Aigosthena to the vicinity of the mountainous region of the Vathychoria and a system of towers that would have communicated with the Mazi plain. Finally, the long walls would have provided Athens with a fortified naval stronghold on the gulf of Corinth.

The later history of the site is relatively undocumented. There is evidence for Roman activity near the coast with the remains of a cemetery and perhaps a villa. Orlandos excavated a large 5 aisled early Christian basilica some 100 m from the coast. It had mosaic floors and a cruciform baptistery to the south. The church shows multiple phases, but probably dates largely the late 5th  century. Atop the church is a triconch cruciform middle Byzantine church perhaps dating to the 12th c. with many in built inscriptions and spolia. The acropolis was clearly refortified at a “late date”; it is tempting to associate the rubble and mortar walls with the settlement of the Late Roman period. A Frankish date might also be possible and is perhaps more in keeping with the construction style.

The Venetian or Ottoman period saw a small group of buildings in the upper acropolis – including an olive press and a church of Ay. Georgios. It seems likely that the buildings on the acropolis which appear to be a monastic structure date from this period as well.

Benson, E.F., “Aigosthena,” JHS 15 (1895) 314-24.
Giannoulidou, K. “Aigosthena,” Platon 16 (1964) 143-172.
Sakellariou, M. and N. Pharaklas, Megaris, Aigosthena, Ereneia (Ancient Greek Cities 14; Athens 1972).
Orlandos, A. “Anaskaphi tis basilikis ton Aigsothenon,” Praktika 1954, 129-142.

Many archaeologists would argue, of course, that sites are a kind of text and that as individuals we engaged texts differently depending upon our own background.  The act of reading traditional literary texts, both in antiquity and the modern world, has even generated a considerable corpus of scholarship.  In contrast to the ways of reading literary texts, reading an archaeological texts can be a much more visible process.  There isn’t so much a correct and incorrect way of engaging an archaeological site (any more than there is a “right” way to read a text), although I suppose some have the training, experience, and interest to read a site more carefully and take more away from the experience. 

I gave the students about 2 hours at the site reasoning that it took about a half an hour to walk from the coast, where we had eaten lunch, to the acropolis.  So, another hour to look around and an hour of walking time would provide almost everyone with enough time.  Some students took the full time, others took only a small fraction of the time allotted. 


I am not sure whether the students who were done more quickly were bored or not, but I suspect that they were.  And this boredom (or “site fatigue”) perhaps explains the second lesson that I learned: When leading a trip, never leave anything to a vote.  We departed Aigosthena at around 3:30 pm, and I reckoned that it would take slightly over an hour and a half to get back to Athens.  5 pm is generally when we return to the American School, so if we stopped at another site — namely Eleutherai which was only a short detour on our way back — it would probably get back later than usual, probably after 6 or even (with traffic) 6:30.  So rather than unilaterally decided to return later than usual, I asked the Regular Members what they wanted to do.  It was a close vote but it seemed to me that the majority of students wanted to go to one more site and did not mind returning late.  So, we went to the site and since the vote was close, I asked that we visit the site quickly as a compromise to those who wanted to get back to Athens sooner. 

Here’s the interesting part.  The students who didn’t want to go Eleutherai decided not to go.  (This is like not paying taxes because “I didn’t vote for the guy!”).  Instead they stayed on the bus (or went to a nearby coffee shop for coffee).  My logic for putting the issue to a vote was because I felt that we would get back to Athens later than usual.  Sitting on the bus didn’t help us get back to Athens any sooner and replaced looking at another (relatively impressive site) with staring idly
at the inside of a rather generic tour bus or drinking coffee at an equally generic coffee shop.  That was an unanticipated way of viewing a site, indeed.

The opposite of the inside of a tour bus

  1. March 4, 2008 at 12:23 am

    What better way to experience Greece than to tour its many beautiful cafes?

  2. David
    March 4, 2008 at 6:56 am

    The American School should virtualize their trips so students don’t even have to leave their PC. Right!

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