Shepherd's graffiti sheds new light on Acropolis lost temple mystery

By Jurassic JennJun 25, 2024 09:08 AMScience
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Shepherd's graffiti sheds new light on Acropolis lost temple mystery
Shepherd's graffiti sheds new light on Acropolis lost temple mystery. Source: theconversation.com

The Acropolis of Athens, renowned for the majestic Parthenon temple, continues to reveal its secrets. In a recent publication in the American Journal of Archaeology, an intriguing historical quest unfolds, revolving around a forgotten temple believed to have once stood in the same place as the Parthenon. The investigation was spurred by the unearthing of an ancient inscription graffitied by a shepherd.

Unveiled on a rugged marble outcrop situated 20 kilometers southeast of Athens, this minuscule artwork forms part of a larger collection of over 2,000 shepherd and goatherd graffiti carefully studied by Merle Langdon of the University of Tennessee. Dating back to the sixth century BCE, these etchings consist of both text and illustrations depicting scenes that include horses, ships, and even erotic imagery.

This newfound masterpiece consists of a primitive rock-cut illustration portraying a structure indicative of a temple, recognizable through its columns and steps. The drawing is accompanied by a Greek inscription that reads "To Hekatompedon … Mikon" signifying "The 100-foot building … of Mikon." Little is known about Mikon, aside from his likely occupation as a shepherd tending to his flock. The remarkable antiquity of the Greek alphabet employed in the inscription pinpoints the creation of the artwork to at least 50 years before the Parthenon's construction, which commenced around 450 BCE.

Of utmost archaeological significance is the use of the term "Hekatompedon" within the inscription. This Greek expression, meaning "100-footer," refers to an imposing structure of monumental size. Interestingly, it is also the historic name used for the renowned temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, typically known as the Parthenon.

The inference is that Mikon sought to depict a building on the Acropolis of Athens. However, the use of a Greek alphabet dating back to the sixth century BCE suggests that the drawing predates the Parthenon by several decades.

Delving further into the mystery, it has long been speculated that the Parthenon was not the earliest temple to grace the Acropolis. Verdant debates amongst experts concern the timeline, appearance, and precise locations of these enigmatic pre-Parthenon structures. Complicating matters, the Greek-Persian wars wreaked havoc upon the Acropolis in 480 BCE when a Persian army invaded Athens, ultimately destroying all the existing edifices.

Remarkably, the Acropolis Museum in Athens treasures extraordinary but fragmented sculptures representing tales from Greek mythology and scenes depicting the gruesome fate of bulls devoured by lions. Although originally embellishments adorning these ancient temples, these sculptures endured considerable damage, conceivably from the Persian invasion centuries ago. One cannot help but ponder whether the "Hekatompedon" sketched by Mikon represents one of these lost temples.

A pivotal clue comes in the form of an ancient democratic decree inscribed in Ancient Greek, predating both the Persian attack and the inception of the Parthenon. This decree references a "Hekatompedon" on the Acropolis whose purpose was ambiguously designated as a "treasure storage." While this document has long been acknowledged, archaeologists speculate about the true nature of the Hekatompedon alluded to within it.

Some experts contend that the Hekatompedon from the decree was, indeed, a temple, as Greek sanctuaries often housed precious offerings to deities. Conversely, many argue that Hekatompedon cannot denote a temple at all but refers instead to an open courtyard situated atop the Acropolis.

The recent graffito discovery by Mikon now assumes immense significance. If Mikon labeled his commemorative drawing as a Hekatompedon, it stands to reason that the same term in the decree pertained to a temple as well. Remarkably, the structure now celebrated as the Parthenon was once known as the Hekatompedon.

Even though Mikon's Hekatompedon has since vanished, it is plausible that certain temple sculptures displayed in the Acropolis Museum originated from this earlier now-lost structure, which previously occupied the same ground as the Parthenon.

Moreover, Mikon's inscription bears broader significance by challenging conventional assumptions about the intellectual capacities of shepherds during an era when literacy in ancient Greece was still disseminating. The reasons behind the shepherds' proliferation of graffiti remain uncertain, but it is conceivable that their creations served as escapist outlets during the monotony of their daily duties.

In essence, the modest scribble by Mikon possesses the power to unveil historical enigmas woven throughout one of the world's most renowned archaeological sites.

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