17 December 2019

Parthenon on the Acropolis most likely has the wrong name

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New research at Utrecht University shows that one of the most famous buildings in the world, the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens, was probably not the Parthenon at all. That name originally belonged to a different building. This is the conclusion of Classical archaeologist Janric van Rookhuijzen (1988) following a study of historical sources. The study has been published in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal, the American Journal of Archaeology and the Dutch edition of National Geographic Magazine.

Parthenon © iStockphoto.com
Parthenon © iStockphoto.com

The gigantic Greek temple dedicated to the goddess Athena is known as the Parthenon (Greek for ‘house of virgins’). But it was never quite clear where the name came from. Van Rookhuijzen's new study shows that the name is based on an incorrect assumption: 'The ancient Greeks themselves originally called the temple the Hekatompedon, which means ‘the hundred-foot temple’. That name shows they found this very remarkable building as impressive as we do today.'

Archaeologists have always assumed that the Parthenon treasury must be located somewhere in the large temple. Yet extensive study of ancient texts and archaeological data by Van Rookhuijzen shows that this assertion is untenable.

Another treasury

The name Hekatompedon is mentioned in 2,500-year-old inventories as the chamber where the golden attributes of the goddess Athena and her eleven-metre-high golden statue were kept. In those same inventories, the name Parthenon occurs in reference to another treasury, which contained other, extremely old offerings to the goddess including furniture, Persian swords and musical instruments. Archaeologists have always assumed that the Parthenon treasury must be located somewhere in the large temple. Yet extensive study of ancient texts and archaeological data by Van Rookhuijzen shows that this assertion is untenable.

Parthenon was part of a smaller temple

The chamber holding the most sacred and oldest treasures was part of a smaller, older temple on the Acropolis known as the Erechtheion. The exact purpose of this small temple has always been a mystery. Now, however, we understand that it was the centre of an ancient cult of Athena. Van Rookhuijzen explains, 'The temple was described in a Roman travel guide. That text mentions a number of treasures to which no one has ever paid much attention. The exceptional objects named, on the other hand, are known to us only from the Parthenon inventories. No one ever made the connection, because people always thought the Parthenon chamber was in the large temple. But there's no other possible conclusion here: the Parthenon was a part of the small temple.'

House of virgins

The small temple has been known by the wrong name for centuries as well. This building is world-famous for the statues of virgins – caryatids – that support its roof. 'It's extremely logical that the ancient Greeks would call a portion of this temple the Parthenon, or 'house of virgins'', Van Rookhuijzen says.

Erechtheion © iStockphoto
Erechtheion © iStockphoto

Minor seismic shift

Professor emeritus of Ancient Cultures Josine Blok (Utrecht University) had the following to say about the findings: 'Where the scientific community is concerned, Van Rookhuijzen's insight will cause a minor seismic shift. Not only will the names – which have been in use for these buildings for some two hundred years –need to be adjusted, this changes our image of the cult of the goddess Athena and the Acropolis as a whole. The Acropolis was the sacral heart of Athens, but it had a major political significance as well. As a result, the new identity of the central building will have all manner of as-yet unknown repercussions for our historical knowledge of this city-state.'

'This study demonstrates the permanent importance of never blindly trusting that the commonly-held wisdom is actually true.
Professor of Greek Language and Literature at Leiden University

Parthenon Marbles?

The building known as the Parthenon is the national symbol of Greece, and an international icon of democracy and culture. Its marble sculptures, taken by Lord Elgin to the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century and presently displayed in the British Museum, are the topic of a long-standing controversy between Greece and UK authorities. In November 2019, Chinese president Xi Jinping promised his support to Greece for the return of the marbles to Athens.

Janric van Rookhuijzen

Dr. Janric van Rookhuijzen
Dr. Janric van Rookhuijzen

Janric van Rookhuijzen has been affiliated with Utrecht University as a Veni researcher and lecturer since 2018. His area of study is the history and archaeology of Greece in the Classical period. Van Rookhuijzen's current research, financed by the Dutch Research Council NWO, focuses on the Acropolis in Athens and the Parthenon in particular.

Acropolis © National Geographic/Servaas Neijens
Acropolis © National Geographic/Servaas Neijens