Paestum, where the little temple is revealing interesting new finds

New discoveries at ancient Paestum’s ‘little temple’

By Region Culture News Southern Italy

The excavations to uncover the temple discovered in 2019 by the ruins of the walls of the ancient Greek city of Paestum have produced some huge surprises. Paestum is in the Italian province of Salerno.

Paestum was a major ancient Greek city on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea in Magna Graecia (southern Italy). It is now famous for the three ancient Greek temples in the Doric order, dating from about 550 to 450 BC. The city walls and amphitheatre are largely intact, and the bottom of the walls of many other structures remain, as well as paved roads.

In 2019, excavations uncovered the remains of another temple. The continuing work has uncovered more remnants, including a stone pedestal with steps, coloured terracotta roof decorations with lion-shaped dripstones, an extraordinary gorgon and a moving depiction of Aphrodite.

In addition, there are seven bull heads, and an altar with groves in the stones to collect sacrifice liquids. Discovered votive offerings show images of Eros riding a dolphin in the way of Poseidon, the god who gave his name to the city.

Tiziana D’Angelo, the Director of the Paestum archaeological site, told ANSA the dig was set to “change the recorded history of ancient Poseidonia”. It is almost like window on a 500-year-long fragment of the life of the city. Founded by Greeks from Sybaris in 600 BC, Lucanians later conquered it before the city became a colony of Rome.

Shines a light on ancient religious life

It’s a truly unique context that “shines a very interesting light on ancient religious life” said Culture Ministry Museums Director General Massimo Osanna. He recalled the lack of scientific documentation from the archaeological research done at Paestum in the 1950s around the site’s big temples.

A new excavation campaign launched in 2020, but soon halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic; it only resumed a few months ago.

“What we have before us today is the moment in which the temple was abandoned, between the end of the second century BC and the start of the first, for reasons that are yet to be clarified,” said D’Angelo.

Analysis of the clay decorations made it possible to date its foundation to the first quarter of the fifth century BC. It was then that some of the most important monumental buildings still with us today were built – the Temple of Hera, built between 560 and 520 BC, and the Temple of Athena, which dates back to 500 BC. The Temple of Neptune, on the other hand, was completed later, in 460 BC.

The ‘little temple’ (tempietto) is small, measuring 15.6 metres by 7.5 metres, with four columns at the front and seven on the sides. Like the others, it is in the Doric order, but it is distinguished but the purity of its shapes.

Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the former director of the Paestum archaeological site who is now in charge of Pompeii has just published a major study on Doric architecture. “It is the smallest peripteral Doric temple that we know of from before the Hellenistic period, the first building that Paestum fully expresses in the Doric canon,” explained Zuchtriegel. “It’s almost a model, a small version of the big Temple of Neptune (which must have been in construction at the time), a sort of missing link between the sixth and fifth century BC”.

Artistic and cultural autonomy

The little teemple is very important, in part because, to some degree it demonstrates the community’s artistic and cultural autonomy. It further disproves those who have always believed that the colonies limited themselves to copying the works of the motherland.

The range of objects found in the space which separates the front of the building to the altar is extraordinary too: terracotta statuettes with the faces of the donors or of divinities, with 15 featuring a little Eros riding a dolphin, and miniature temples and altars.

They are little masterpieces of craftsmanship that are in addition to the seven bull heads found around the altar, perhaps “props” for the cleric.

D’Angelo said they seem to have been placed on the ground with devotion, “as if in a rite of closure” when the temple, which was still used in the Lucanian period, went it disuse with the arrival of the Romans in 273 BC.

“There’s a surprise every day,” said the director.

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