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Semper Ardens Research Project | 09/08/2016

The theatre at the ancient Greek city state of Kalydon in western Greece was found during rescue-excavations in the 1960s and in 2002 a collaborative Danish-Greek project identified the structure as a theatre following partial analytic excavations. From 2011 Dr Rune Frederiksen – then director of the Danish Institute at Athens – was given four subsequent grants from the Carlsberg Foundation (2011-2014) to carry out a complete excavation, study and publication of the theatre. This project was carried out as a new Danish-Greek collaborative project between the Danish Institute and the local eforate of the Greek Ministry of Culture in Mesolonghi in Greece, under the direction of Dr Frederiksen and the Ephor Dr Olympia Vikatou.
The theatre is a structure of great significance first of all because of its idiosyncratic form: almost all of the about 250 ancient Greek theatre ruins known are of semicircular design, whereas the theatre at Kalydon is rectangular, and perfectly designed to be so. Second, this unusual form raises interesting questions as to the physical frames of the ancient Greek drama, one of the central areas of European literary heritage. The investigation of the theatre and ensuing publication will therefore expand our understanding both of basic issues surrounding ancient Greek architecture as well as feed new information into our literary heritage and understanding of how the frames of drama could also be.  
Dr Frederiksen, Dr Vikatou and 15 other Greek and Danish archaeologists, architects and university students are currently amassing vast amounts of excavation data into chapters for a monograph which will present this exciting monument to the international scholarly community.

”Ancient theatres of the Greek and Roman world were places of gathering in the widest sense. In a world without mass media – but with a lot to be communicated – the ancients often had to gather in one and the same place to share communication and information, be it political, religious or dramatic.” – Rune Frederiksen 

As is often the case with sensational discoveries in archaeology, the theatre at Kalydon was discovered by chance. In 1963 a digger employed in extension works for a road came across a structure, the local responsible archaeologist had the work stopped and after a number of analytical trial trenches had been dug, the structure was preliminarily identified as either a theatre or a bouleuterion (city hall). The archaeological investigation was then discontinued.

Fig. 1: State of excavation after the campaign of 2013. Remains of the auditorium above, in the middle the orchestra and scene building below. R. Frederiksen.

In 2002 a Danish-Greek project resumed systematic investigations at Kalydon begun by the Greek archaeologist Christos Rhomaios and the Danish archaeologist Frederik Poulsen back in the 1920s. The new investigations – led again by a Dane and a Greek, Dr Søren Dietz and Dr Maria Stavropoulou-Gatsi – initiated systematic investigations of a number of structures of the urban fabric itself, including our structure found by chance in 1963. They were quickly able to conclude that the structure was first and foremost an ancient theatre, although the auditorium was rectangular (Fig. 1).

When Dr Rune Frederiksen – an expert in ancient theatre architecture – assumed the directorship of the Danish Institute at Athens, it was an obvious choice to aim at a complete investigation of this interesting theatre, and the Carlsberg Foundation luckily decided to support it (2011-14). What emerged from this investigation was a perfectly symmetrical auditorium expanding to more than 30 rows of straight seats in three sections around an almost square orchestra. Opposite the auditorium was the scene building with walls only preserved to a maximum height of 1m, but the entire plan can be made out of the preserved foundations.

”We excavated the theatre as one would excavate a prehistoric tell with a long narrow trench down through the center of the building to the bed-rock, in order to gain – as early as possible – an idea of the stratigraphy. Success in practical field archaeology has often got a very simple recipe, which was invented by colleagues of the late 19th and early 20th century: cut straight down and observe the profiles of the trench.” – Rune Frederiksen

During the excavation of the theatre strata were carefully observed and described, so as to enable the identification of parts of the building no longer preserved in situ and structurally, and in order to enable a reconstruction of the afterlife of the building. The outer limits of the theatre were also identified and a search for earlier building phases below the immediately visible structures initiated. The second objective was achieved by laying down a search trench, 1 metre wide and 17 metre long, across and through the entire scene building and along the main central axis of the theatre (Fig. 2, cf. fig. 1). This trench was brought down to bedrock and enabled a very clear observation of the building technique of the scene building and generated finds to be used for the dating of the structure and various phases of its life.

Fig. 2: Trench cut through the theatre. The massive wall to the left is the back wall of the scene building, the wall in the middle and the front wall are of the same, while the wall on the right is the proskenion. N. Hatzidakis.

The Theatre and its Parts

The theatre at Kalydon consisted – as other theatres in Antiquity – of three parts: the seating area for the spectators called auditorium or koilon, the flat performance area for the chorus the orchestra, and the scene building (Fig. 1).

Koilon (auditorium)

The lowermost 9 rows are straight and meet in 90 degree angles at the points where the two short sections meet the central long section (Fig. 2). From row number 10 and upwards, the rows are still straight but the joining angles are here exchanged with curved seats. There are no stairways to facilitate the audience when they entered the auditorium and left it again, which is unusual for ancient theatres. The auditorium could seat about 4,000-5,000 spectators.


The performance area is a 224m2 flat and square space between the koilon and the scene building, which has received its own careful investigation. In the north-east corner of the orchestra a trench was cut deeper and down to bed-rock. The trench revealed that the bed-rock was left fairly rough and that earth, clay and pebble was laid on top of it so as to create an even and fairly soft surface. The orchestras of ancient Greek theatres were never furnished with stone plates, but always left with a clay or sand surface, perhaps because this was best suited for dancing. Our observation here is important since only very few theatre publications so far contain information on the construction of the orchestra.

Scene Building

Whereas the koilon of the theatre is unique in ancient Greek architecture the scene building is completely conventional. The main building was in two levels with the ground floor divided into two aisles separated by 5 pillars, which carried the floor of the upper level. Next to the main building, towards the orchestra, was the proskenion furnished with 10 Ionic pillars (Fig. 3). The upper level of the main building had a tiled roof and was furnished with three openings towards the orchestra and koilon, and the openings led directly out on the flat wooden roof of the proskenion which was the actual stage floor. A wide ramp on either side, and a stairway behind the main building gave access to the upper level.

Fig. 3: Reconstruction of the front of the scene building with proskenion.

In 2014 a laser-scanning of the whole structure was carried out (Fig. 4), partly as a documentation exercise, and partly to construct a tool with which the architects could work with greater speed and accuracy. The scanning generated around 1 bn. points which will serve as an important tool for eventual future attempts at reconstructing the monument.

The koilon seems to have been built as the earliest of the standing structures, perhaps around 400 BC, while the scene building was constructed 1-200 years later, in the 200s BC, simultaneously with a reorganisation of the koilon and orchestra. Different activities would have taken place in such a theatre in Antiquity, not just drama, but also political and even private activities. 

Fig. 4: Scan of the theatre done in July 2014. N. Hatzidakis.

Effect on Career and SSR

This author is one of a handful of experts with a very specialised knowledge of ancient Greek theatre architecture. The Carlsberg Foundation recognised the strength of this in combination with the coincidence that I was able to secure this project for the Danish Institute. My international standing in this area of research and the involvement with this very special theatre entailed as a natural development the organisation of an international conference for the first time on this topic (2012) including a substantial conference publication (2015). In my own experience I was the right person at the right time for an interesting and important project in the humanities, who was given the possibility to realise it with the help from the Carlsberg Foundation. The realisation of this project has certainly meant something for my international scholarly profile.
SSR: This study helps the modern world – in yet another new way - to understand the level of sophistication of the ancient Greek world, the greatest city state culture in world history. It brings insight of diversity into a since long studied and well-known area of ancient Greece and teaches us about the way certain architectural forms came into being. The most basic general observation of this study is that great ideas and inventions – in antiquity as well as today – are often born without being fully implemented from the very beginning and that change happens in a series of minor steps rather than one or a few major ones.

Publications Generated by the Theatre of Kalydon 2011-14 Project 

(Published and in preparation)

Final Main Publication

2017 (in prep.) Publication in 2 volumes by Frederiksen, Vikatou, Handberg and others. The Theatre at Kalydon. 

Scientific Preliminary Reports

2012-13 Reports for 2011 and 2012 on Kalydon in: Archaeology in Greece Online (British School at Athens and Ecole Française d’Athènes),

2014 (with O. Vikatou and S. Handberg), ‘Kalydon. Preliminary Report on the Excavations of the Theatre 2011-12’, PoDIA 7, 221-34. 

2016 (in prep.) ’Το Αρχαίο θέατρο της Καλυδώνας’, New Fieldwork in Aitolia (Athens), 10 pp. And 10 figures.

Scientific Studies

2015 ‘Early Greek Theatre Architecture and the Appearance of the Semi-circular Canonical Koilon’, in R. Frederiksen – E. Gebhard – A. Sokolicek (eds.), The Architecture of the Ancient Greek Theatre. Conference in Athens, January 2012 (Aarhus), 81-95. 

Presentations for a Wider Audience

2010-14 Five articles in the Danish Journal Sfinx, ‘Grækenland. Fund og Udgravninger’, on archaeological news in Greece.

2015 ‘Teatret i Kalydon’, Carlsbergfondets Årsskrift, 32-37.