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Art: Bonanza at Vravron

3 minute read

The small Byzantine church on the site of ancient Vravron, 23 miles east of Athens, was in need of repair, and the task of supervising the job quite naturally fell to Archaeologist John Papadimitriou, director-general of Greece’s Archaeological Services. As the work progressed, Papadimitriou began thinking about all the references to Vravron that he had read in the literature of ancient Greece. When he was finished with the church, he began to explore the grounds around. The result: an archaeological bonanza that since 1948 has brought to light 6,000 objects and statues, to make up what Papadimitriou claims is the most complete and beautiful collection in the world of small works of Greek art dating from the 5th and 6th centuries B.C.

Secret Stairs. The classical clues that Papadimitriou had to go on were as intriguing as they were vague. The historian Herodotus mentioned a temple of Artemis that flourished at Vravron. Aristophanes hinted at strange orgies. The rest was a tantalizing mixture of myths and the real civilization of the time. Euripides, in plays, described how Artemis rescued Iphigenia from being sacrificed by her father Agamemnon, and how later, at the behest of Athena, Iphigenia became Artemis’ priestess at Vravron. She dwelt near some “holy stairs.” and when she died, her grave was adorned “with braided gowns of softest weave” left to the shrine “by women dead with child.”

Papadimitriou dug up some marble fragments, and these led him to the site of Iphigenia’s ceremonial tomb. As the years passed, the diggers came upon the temple, a dormitory for young virgins, a Doric-columned stoa even the secret staircase to which Euripides referred, as well as hundreds of mirrors, goblets, rings, vases, and small statues.

Though popularly known as the goddess of the hunt, Artemis was worshiped at Vravron as a protector of maternity. From a still legible book of offerings, Papadimitriou and his team confirmed that pregnant women left rings at the temple to secure protection, and that those who died in pregnancy or childbirth bequeathed to the goddess their most precious possessions.

Little Bears. The statues that the diggers found are mostly of small girls and boys, apparently used to embellish the temple. Who the boys may have been in real life remains a mystery. But about the girls more is known. They bore the title “Little Bears,” for one of their duties was to perform a ritual dance dressed as bears to ward off a plague that according to legend was threatened by Artemis after her holy bear was killed by some Athenian children.

“For the first time,” says Papadimitriou, “we can get a complete picture of the private life of ancient Athenians, especially the women.” One relief from the stoa—as fine as anything that adorned the Parthenon—shows Zeus, Hera, Apollo and Artemis, all figures of commanding grace. But the statues of the children are the most endearing of the discoveries. For all the black talk of orgies, the boys and girls are sweetly innocent, fashioned with gentle care by artists of extraordinary talent. They sing of youth, not just that of individuals but of Western civilization itself—”the spring aroma,” says Papadimitriou, “of the land of Attica.”

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