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Dreams, Pausanias, and Archaeology

Since Frazer’s translation and commentary on Pausanias’s Description of Greece, scholars have recognized the importance of this work for understanding Greek religion of the Roman period.  Pausanias’s punctuated his travels around the Greece with descriptions of temples and shrines, rituals, and stories of religious experiences.  In fact, Jas Elsner has argued that readers should understand Pausanias’s work as the description of a religious pilgrimage to sites of importance to Greek culture and works to ignore (and subvert the visible features of Roman rule (J. Elsner, “Pausanias: A Greek Pilgrim in the Roman World,” Past and Present 135 (1992), 3-29.).

Dreams feature prominently in Pausanias’s Description, and in a number of places he ties dreams to archaeological activities.  The best know example of this comes from Book 4 where he describes the founding of the city of Messene.  A dream prompted the Argive general Epiteles who had fought beside the Thebans under Epaminondas to liberate Messene from centuries of  Spartans domination,  to excavated at a particular spot on Mt. Ithome: ” wherever he found yew and myrtle growing on Ithome, to dig between them and recover the old woman, for, shut in her brazen chamber, she was overcome and well-nigh fainting.” (Paus. 4.26.7).  These excavations revealed a brazen urn which Epiteles took to the Theban general Epaminondas.  In the urn was a piece of rolled tin inscribed with the rites of the Sacred Mysteries (of Andania) which would protect the Messenians from future danger.  The great Messenan general and hero Aristomenes had buried this “secret thing” on Mt. Ithome some 300 years previous while fighting a desperate war against the Spartans. An oracle, predicting defeat, had prompted him to bury this “secret thing” because if it was lost, the Messenians would likewise “be overwhelmed and lost forever” (4.20.3-4).  The discovery of this urn by Epaminondas and Epiteles prompted the (re)founding of the city of Messene on the slopes of Ithome and, according to Pausanias, inspired the mysteries conducted at Andania well into Roman times.

This episode of Dream Archaeology has fine parallels with latter examples of this phenomenon (described here, here, and here on this blog).  In fact, S. Alcock already recognized the significance of this story and Book 4 in general, and treated Pausanias’s account of the Messenian past in some detail in her “The Peculiar Book IV and the Problem of the Messenian Past” (in S. E. Alcock, J. F. Cherry, and J. Elsner, Pausanias: Travel and Memory in Roman Greece. (Oxford 2001)).  She noted that the dream had linked the recently liberated Messenia to their pre-Spartan past, and this link was made tangible through the physical act of excavation and commemorated through the Sacred Mysteries at Andania.

The dream archaeology recorded in Pausanias also ties the Messenians to the soil of Mt. Ithome through the excavation of their “secret [and sacred] thing”.  In this way, they share a kind of autochthonos character common to other Greek groups throughout Pausanias’ narrative (Elsner 1992, 16 esp. note 49). Moreover, as Frazier noted, buried talismans like the “secret thing” often served to protect cities or even regions against outside threats thus linking the safety and ultimately the integrity of a community with a kind of archaeological artifact hidden and buried beneath the surface (Frazier 1898 [1913], 4.433-434)

Thus Dream Archaeology in the case of Messenia tied the reborn Messene with its past prior to Spartan domination and reinforce the link between the community, the soil, and the sacred protection provided by the “secret thing”.  The act of dreaming transformed excavation into a sacred act that re-established continuity in an interrupted history.

Categories: Late Antiquity
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