Antiquities & Archaeology

A British team has just completed eight years of survey and excavation in Sparta, Greece

The British School at Athens managed to obtain coveted permission to excavate

At the beginning of the century, the British School at Athens had an ambition to make Sparta the great British classical site of mainland Greece, to match French and German sites such as Delos and Olympia. Today foreign scholars no longer play the dominant role in Greek archaeology and all excavation permits have to be applied for through the foreign schools, each of which is normally granted three a year. With the tradition of the British association with Sparta, the Athens School was able to obtain permission in 1987 for a return expedition to study the surviving remains in the light of Pausanias’s detailed description.

Led by Professors John Wilkes and Geoffrey Waywell of University and King’s Colleges, London, the team of archaeologists has now excavated the substantial medieval deposits in the stoa and the theatre down to late Roman levels and has been able to suggest a site for the agora, the central market place of the Greek city.

With the agora tentatively located on the flat plain to the north of the stoa, Pausanias’s description of Sparta begins to fall into place and its topography becomes clearer. The stoa, a long brick structure with barrel-vaulted rooms on the ground floor, has been dated to the second century AD. The rooms probably contained shops and the arcade above, if this is Pausanias’s famous Stoa of the Persians, may well have had looted statues of Persian rulers holding up the roof. In the eleventh to twelfth centuries the “shops” were inhabited by Byzantine monks from the nearby religious centre of Mistra.

The theatre was found to have been through three stages of existence: the first Doric, the second Corinthian of the late first century AD, and the third, an embellishment of the second to third century following the Greek revival sparked by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 117-38 AD. Fascinatingly, the grooved runnel stones from the earliest phase for moving scenery have survived, as well as sockets and loopholes on the lower tiers of seats for the ropes holding down the awnings.

The British excavation of Sparta has made the modern town more aware of the money-earning potential of the ruins. It has also raised the question of what should be done with the site, both to attract more visitors and to protect it from being eroded by the sheer quantity of people, as is happening at Delphi, Olympia, Corinth and Athens.

The Sparta acropolis is totally undeveloped, which is part of its appeal. It is not fenced in and is mostly in private ownership, covered with olive groves and crossed by public roads. There is support among the local townspeople to create an archaeological park and to consolidate what is left of the theatre for possible son et lumière performances. However, in Greece the local community has no control over its monuments. This is in the hands of the archaeological service which is deliberately organised into regional divisions which do not correspond with the political divisions in order to prevent fiefdoms being built up. Any decision on Sparta’s future will have to be jointly taken by the town authorities and the archaeological service. In the meantime, Professors Wilkes and Waywell are halting excavation in order to publish what they have found. Two interim reports have already appeared in the Annual of the British School at Athens in volumes 88 (1993) and 89 (1994).

A symposium entitled “Sparta in Laconia, the archaeology of a city and its countryside” took place at the British Museum last month.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘British designs on Sparta'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 55 January 1996