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Distant Deities, Central Places. Reconsidering the “Extra-urban” sanctuary

International conference


The conference will take place as a hy­brid event, Thursday, April 6 – Saturday, April 8, 2023, physically in the lecture hall of the Italian Archaeological School at Athens, Parthenonos 14, and digitally on Zoom. Please reg­is­ter at con­fer­ences.sia.gr for par­tic­i­pa­tion.
For fur­ther in­for­ma­tion, con­tact
distantdeities@gmail.com or admin@conferences.sia.gr.



- Axel Frejman, Uppsala University
- Christina Williamson, Groningen University
- Floris van den Eijnde, Utrecht University



Sanc­tu­ar­ies lo­cated at a dis­tance from ma­jor cen­tres of pop­u­la­tion in the an­cient world are con­ve­niently la­belled by schol­ars as ‘ex­tra-ur­ban’. Most schol­ars have an idea as to what kind of sanc­tu­ary this in­di­cates. But how ac­cu­rate is this im­age? How has the des­ig­na­tion of ‘ex­tra-ur­ban’ steered our think­ing about these spe­cial places of cult? What im­pli­ca­tions does the term bring with it, and what other dy­nam­ics might be left out of the pic­ture? By re­con­sid­er­ing our ter­mi­nol­ogy, this con­fer­ence aims to re­align our think­ing about these places of cults, and our po­si­tion­ing of them in the di­vine and hu­man land­scape.


Ma­jor sanc­tu­ar­ies be­yond the con­fines of the ur­ban cen­tre have long at­tracted the at­ten­tion of schol­ars. Early stud­ies keenly ob­served their role in ar­tic­u­lat­ing the nat­ural and hu­man land­scape (Sem­ple 1927, Still­well 1954, Lehmann 1954, Scully 1962). To­wards the later part of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, they have been drawn into the ‘spa­tial turn’ of ar­chae­ol­ogy in a fo­cus on the ur­ban-rural axis of the an­cient (Greek) city, in an ef­fort to in­clude the coun­try­side as a con­sti­tu­tional fac­tor in the con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of the po­lis. Com­bined with Christaller’s Cen­tral Place The­ory, this led to a strong core-pe­riph­ery con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of an­cient Greek so­ci­eties, with the town (asty) as start­ing point, and con­cen­tric zones ra­di­at­ing out into its ter­ri­tory (chora). Rural sanc­tu­ar­ies that were once con­sid­ered re­mote or iso­lated in the land­scape are now gen­er­ally seen in the con­text of the chora, i.e. still within the sphere of ur­ban space, but at points near or far from the nu­cleus, and clas­si­fied ac­cord­ingly. Terms such as ‘in­tra­mu­ral’, ‘ex­tra-mu­ral’, ‘sub-ur­ban’, ‘ex­tra-ur­ban’, ‘in­ter-ur­ban’ and even the nega­tion ‘non-ur­ban’ (de Poli­gnac 1995) all ref­er­ence an ur­ban con­text and im­ply a di­rect cor­re­spon­dence be­tween the sanc­tu­ary and the po­lit­i­cal cen­tre to which the wider ter­ri­tory be­longed (Val­let 1968 (Magna Grae­cia), Ed­lund-Berry 1988 (Etruria), Schachter 1992 (Boi­o­tia)). Mythol­ogy and rit­ual prac­tices bound these sa­cred places to the ur­ban cen­tre and cen­tral pow­ers (e.g. Sourvi­nou-In­wood 1990; 2000).

A spe­cial place in schol­ar­ship is re­served for mon­u­men­tal shrines near the edges of ter­ri­tory and par­tic­u­larly po­lit­i­cal bor­ders. François de Poli­gnac’s sem­i­nal work La nais­sance de la cité grecque (1984/​1995) pre­sented the ‘bi-po­lar mod­el’, in which a ma­jor ‘ex­tra-ur­ban’ sanc­tu­ary at the pe­riph­ery of ter­ri­tory serves as coun­ter­weight to the ur­ban core and the de­vel­op­ment of the an­cient city. This drew at­ten­tion to the ‘fron­tier’ role of ‘ex­tra-ur­ban’ sanc­tu­ar­ies, so much so that the two qual­i­fiers are of­ten in­ter­changed. De Poli­gnac’s work is cer­tainly in­spi­ra­tional (e.g. con­tri­bu­tions in Al­cock & Os­borne 1994, also Graf 1996, Sinn 1996, Malkin 1996, Cole 2004), but it is also prob­lem­atic, with crit­i­cism aimed among oth­ers on its re­liance on the core-pe­riph­ery model and as­sump­tion of a mean­ing­ful ur­ban-rural bias in an­tiq­uity (Hall 1995, Polin­skaya 2006). It is es­pe­cially the ur­ban bias of the term ‘ex­tra-ur­ban’ that we wish to ex­am­ine more closely.

More re­cent stud­ies ex­tend their view well be­yond the city, con­sid­er­ing these mon­u­men­tal shrines in sa­cred land­scapes (e.g. Käp­pel and Pothou 2015, Häus­sler and Chiai 2019, Pa­pan­to­niou et al. 2019, Col­lar and Kris­tensen 2020). They are in many or most cases clearly cen­tres in their own right, of­ten at­tract­ing a wide va­ri­ety of wor­shipers and serv­ing as coun­cil houses, or hubs in net­works that are both po­lit­i­cal, re­li­gious, and eco­nomic in na­ture. But even though these sa­cred places are per­ceived as es­tab­lished places of au­thor­ity, of­ten reach­ing back into deep time, their role in the hu­man world is never sta­tic and sub­ject to chang­ing agen­cies that op­er­ate at sev­eral dif­fer­ent lev­els si­mul­ta­ne­ously. The need for a ‘thick de­scrip­tion’ that Häus­sler and Chiai 2019 ar­gue for sa­cred land­scapes is just as preva­lent re­gard­ing the sanc­tu­ar­ies them­selves.


With this con­fer­ence, we aim to bet­ter un­der­stand these mon­u­men­tal sa­cred places and their re­la­tion­ships to power net­works at a va­ri­ety of scales. Rather than con­cen­trat­ing on a sin­gle re­gion or mo­ment in time, we feel that a broad per­spec­tive is needed to truly re-eval­u­ate these shrines, and place them in their larger con­texts.

Top­ics may in­clude, but are cer­tainly not lim­ited to:

Attached file: Schedule, Poster

Printed: 2024-06-17
From the web page: Swedish Institute at Athens