MUCH less publicised than the touristy destinations of Delphi and Olympia, Ancient Messene is by no means a poor relative. An important Hellenistic centre - often referred to as "the city of statues" for having yielded a rich crop of marble sculptures - the Peloponnesian city, founded in 369BC when Epaminondas restored Messenians to their country, has turned out to be an inexhaustible treasury that continues to reveal its secrets.
The ancient city is situated at the foot of mount Ithome, where an 8th-7th century BC settlement had already existed prior to Messene's founding. The mountain's summit is crowned by the Monastery of Voulkano, a 16th-century convent which was built over the strategically placed sanctuary of Zeus Ithomatas, Messina's patron god. Nestled between the mountain and the ancient site is the well-watered village of Mavromatti, the base since 1987 of an archaeological team that, under the auspices of the Archaeological Society of Athens and the supervision of Crete University professor Petros Themelis, has been conducting excavation and restoration works on the site.
"Pausanias is our main source," Themelis told the Athens News. The traveller and geographer who set foot in Messene in the middle of the 2nd century AD is known for his precise and detailed descriptions of the ancient cities of the Peloponnese, Attica and Boeotia. Nevertheless, there are a few inconsistencies which Themelis believes can be put down to the traveller's processing of his draft notes into a fully-fledged account of his impressions following the end of his wanderings. "Until recently we have been led to believe that the sanctuary of Messene [one of the principal deities of the city together with Zeus Ithomatas] was in the wider area of Asklepieion," said Themelis, "but now we have identified it in the Agora."
At the moment, restoration work is a priority because of the crew's commitments with the Third Community Support Framework which involve the site's delivery to the public by the end of 2007, complete with suggested routes, a ticket kiosk, snack bar and toilet facilities. Nevertheless, excavations continue in the Agora. Digs at the Agora's northern side that started four years ago have uncovered a colossal portico. The stoa is 186m long, its northeastern corner surviving in pristine condition. Approximately four times the size of the Asklepieion, the Agora, Themelis' team believes, is Messene's future and is expected to play a vital role towards the site's unification. "The Agora is vast. It is the only part that hasn't been excavated thoroughly and is open to future generations of archaeologists," said Themelis.
An important sanctuary which has been identified but has not been excavated yet is that of Isis, the Egyptian deity associated with fertility - and elsewhere the protectress of sailors - who was also adopted in the Mediterranean region. "We started digging," said Themelis, "but upon realising that this massive sanctuary - which is the size of Asklepieion - will yield hundreds of sculptures and other finds we decided to stop for the time being. We plan to return once the restoration work is completed and time will not be as scarce." Two sanctuaries on the slopes of Ithome, one attributed to Artemis Limnatis, the other still unnamed, are also expected to reveal more about the ancient city in the future.
The team came across new cults - such as the one of Dionysus - which are not even mentioned in Pausanias' writings. Among the Hellenistic sculptures that adorned the mainly Roman theatre was the pedestal of a now lost bronze statue whose inscription revealed that it was commissioned by a Dionysia contest organiser. "We have been searching for a Dionysus sanctuary in the vicinity of the theatre as we have indications that the theatre often hosted performances in the god's honour," said Themelis.
As opposed to the lesser known finds, Messene's monumental Arcadian gate, which has been repeatedly depicted on engravings, is one of the city's landmarks, providing an outstanding example of 4th century BC military architecture. Consisting of an outer and an inner gate - the former one being protected on either side by two square-shaped towers - the city's north gate, which connected Messene with Arcadia and Megalopolis was recently given the Europa Nostra award for outstanding conservation work. As part of a restoration project set to be completed in the next two years, a German team of helpers is currently surveying Messene's 9.5km-long fortifications.
The city's uniqueness lies in the fact that unlike other archaeological sites like Olympia and Delphi whose role was confined to adoration purposes, Messene was not a religious centre alone but a fully-developed city with a social and political life of its own. Furthermore, its habitation was permanent throughout the centuries despite its apparent decline in the 4th century AD. "Messene knew prosperity even in the devastating Roman times," numismatist Kleanthis Sidiropoulos who has been working with Themelis for over two decades now told the Athens News. Though it was no longer a city by then, it continued to exist as a dispersed village even during the Frankish occupation. "Habitation in the ancient city ceased with the Ottoman occupation when the population moved to the modern village of Mavromatti," said Sidiropoulos.
Benefactors played an important role in Messene's prosperity during Roman times. In Messene at the time lived a family of great financial and political power which even gave birth to a senator. The Saethidas family financed the conservation of the 3rd century BC marble and granite Hellenistic theatre whose capacity can be compared to that of Epidaurus, restoring it, thus, to its past glory. An inscription which runs in the form of a sequel on two neighbouring pedestals documents the family's contribution to the revival of the theatre and other public buildings.
An impressive three-storey-high proscenium was added to the monument in the 2nd century AD, as it comes out from the pedestals of decorative sculptures representing members of the Saethidas family and Roman emperors. As part of the crew's restoration work in the theatre area, architectural fragments that have fallen in the orchestra have been numbered, photographed and transferred to the area behind the theatre so that they can be studied and eventually restored to their initial position. Many pieces had been broken and left behind. Missing parts which were stolen from the theatre when it was no longer in use were obviously incorporated into adjacent constructions like the nearby 9th century AD basilica.
This 'recycling' of construction material was particularly popular in the early Byzantine years. Heads of statues were chopped off and metal joints were taken from stones to be used anew. The Arsinoe fountain house, a public building of decorative character which consisted of three shallow cisterns, is a striking example of this widespread practice. "In the poor years of decay, fragments of the fountain and the theatre were used for the construction of a watermill which has a colonnade in place of a wall. We have even found the miller's savings, a hoard of 246 coins," said Sidiropoulos.
The recently identified sanctuary of the city heroine, Messene, has acquired political significance. The sanctuary was full of inscriptions associated with the founding of the city, the distribution of land and public life. The most important of these, which served as a pedestal for a bronze sculptural group of Dioscouroi, documents by means of four resolutions the collision between the inhabitants of Messene and Megalopolis over border disputes which required the intervention of judges from Miletus.
Another unusual find in the vicinity of the Messene sanctuary involved the uncovering of skeletal material that belonged to children and dogs together with fragments of the vessels in which they had been buried. When the cemetery in which they were buried was dissolved for reasons that Themelis' team of archaeologists is not aware of, the bones of the children and their companion animals were transferred to an area which was considered sacred so as not to disrespect the dead.
The greatest part of the Asklepieion complex, the site's best preserved area, was brought to light as a result of the excavation activities of Anastasios Orlandos from 1957 to 1974. A sanctuary of Demeter on the Asklepieion's northwestern side certifies to the area's use as a place of worship from as early as the 7th century BC. Built in honour of Asklepios - who was acknowledged not only as a healer but as the founder of the city - the sanctuary is a unified construction, with Asklepios' temple and altar at its centre, standing out for its symmetry. Nowhere else in Greece do we encounter a complex of stoas with an interior and an exterior row of columns which are both of the Corinthian type.
A Doric column, which was unearthed by Orlandos and was later studied by Themelis, was an offering by seven Greek cities, including Melos and Kythnos, in honour of Damophon. The most important sculptor of the late Hellenistic period in southern Greece Damophon had created all Asklepieion sculptures with the exception of a bronze statue of Epaminondas. At the eastern wing of the complex, the Bouleutirion was associated with the city's public and private life, while the most important room (oikos) of the western wing was dedicated to the cult of Artemis. The rectangular building at the south of the Asklepieion has been identified as a Hellenistic bath.
Forming a single architectural unit, the Gymnasium and the Stadium were where Messenian youth trained along with being instructed in mathematics, philosophy and poetry. Works carried out in the Gymnasium include the collapsed columns' restoration to their initial place and the shaping of the Stadium. Of particular interest are two funerary monuments which are currently being restored. Broken sarcophagi were found in one of these two monuments which was attributed to the influential Saethidas family. Protruding from the city walls like a bastion, "the Heroon functioned as a tower at the end of the city," said Sidiropoulos. "In the same way that the family was a tower for the city," he said, "their grave assumed the place of a tower in the fortifications." The other funerary monument is cone-shaped and resembles a Japanese pagoda. The monument was demolished by the so-called metal hunters but the dispersed pieces have been recovered including the stone door. Unfortunately the graves were partly looted.
Some of the city's most impressive excavated sculptures are exhibited at the Mavromatti museum. On display is a Roman copy of a Hermes statue from the west stoa of the Gymnasium - the original being attributed to the school of Praxiteles - and some of Damophon's statues such as the larger-than-life head of Theban Heracles and his left foot, and statues of the young girls who served as the initiates of Artemis. Also on show is a statue of Isis Pelagia (meaning from the Open Sea) depicted on the prow of a boat as the protectress of sailors, a Roman copy of Artemis Laphria (the Hunter) and the rare statue of a late Roman emperor (perhaps Constantine the Great), a globe in his left hand, the work of a local atelier which used a Hellenistic female statue as raw material.
"Excavations in the last 20 years have yielded 15,000 finds and are pretty soon expected to rise to 17,000 finds," said Themelis. "It's what we refer to as 'the revenge of the helots'. Though ancient Sparta is lost in time, Messene managed through its finds to re-emerge from the past." This figure does not include coins, some 8,000 finds. "Mostly Hellenistic and Roman coins were found either in isolation or in hoards and span a vast geographical area from Italy to Asia Minor and from Macedonia to Egypt and Northern Africa," said Sidiropoulos.
"At the moment we are flooded with finds and space is lacking in both the museum's exhibition and storage areas," said Themelis. "The only remedy is to dig less intensely," he said, adding that there are plans for a new 3,000 square metre museum outside the ancient city which will give the site the exposure that it deserves.