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Homer's Kalydon Discovered

Internationaliseringsprojekt | 03/10/2018

Air photo of the Kalydonian Artemis Laphria sanctuary (copyright C. Giatrakos).

The famous poet Homer described the ancient Greek city of Kalydon in his legendary poem the Iliad, the story of the Trojan War. The project 'Rediscovering Artemis. A Comprehensive Re-examination of the Artemis Laphria Sanctuary in Kalydon' supported by the Carlsberg Foundation and hosted by the Danish Institute at Athens, is re-writing the history of the important sanctuary of the goddess Artemis in Kalydon in western Greece. Significant archaeological evidence has now been revealed which proves the existence of the Greek Bronze Age city of Kalydon, Homer’s Kalydon.

By Dr Signe Barfoed, Honorary Research Fellow at the Department of Classical & Archaeological Studies, University of Kent and member of the Kalydon Archaeological Project (KAP).

The Kalydonian boar-hunt myth in art through the centuries

The legend of the Kalydonian boar-hunt has been depicted in art throughout antiquity until today. One of the earliest representations is in a Greek vase painting dating to ca. 570 BCE. The myth also became a popular motif on Roman sarcophagi (3rd-1st. cent. CE); the famous Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens also painted several versions of the story (Fig. 1).

The Myth of the Kalydonian Boar-Hunt

The city of Kalydon is mentioned in the poems of the early European poets Homer and Hesiod, and was the setting of the famous story of the Kalydonian boar-hunt, which involved heroes from across the ancient Greek world. 

According to the story, King Oineus of Kalydon had neglected to make offerings to the goddess Artemis, and in her wrath the goddess sent a monstrous boar to ruin the countryside of Kalydon; the boar destroyed crops, uprooted trees and killed people in its wild rampage. 

A group of Greek heroes led by prince Meleagros made an expedition to kill the boar. The expedition was successful, but afterwards a fight broke out about who were to keep the trophy of the boar’s tusks and the hide. 

The Iliad is believed to have been written down in the Early Iron Age, sometime around 750-700 BCE, but a consensus exists that believes that Homer is describing earlier events in his poems, events that took place in the Greek Bronze Age period. Bronze Age Kalydon, which Homer portrayed as the seat of king Oineus, has until now remained undiscovered despite decades of archaeological investigations.

…strong Meleager loved of Ares [the war god], the golden-haired, dear son of Oineus and Althaea. From his fierce eyes there shone forth portentous fire: and once in high Kalydon he slew the destroying beast, the fierce wild boar with gleaming tusks. In war and in dread strife no man of the heroes dared to face him and to approach and fight with him when he appeared in the forefront. But he was slain by the hands and arrows of Apollo [Artemis’s brother], while he was fighting with the Kuretes [tribe] for lovely Kalydon…
Hesiod, Catalogue of Women (Fragment 98, Berlin Papyri, No. 9777, trans. H.G. Evelyn-White).

Fig. 1: Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577 - 1640), The Calydonian Boar Hunt, about 1611–1612, Oil on panel, 59.2 × 89.7 cm. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.

The archaeological explorations of ancient Kalydon began in 1926 and focused on discovering and excavating the Artemis Laphria sanctuary. The exploration was a Danish-Greek collaboration between the then director of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, Frederik Poulsen, and the renowned Greek archaeologist Konstantinos Rhomaios. This collaboration resulted in three scientific publications, but much archaeological material remained unstudied. 

Poulsen was supposed to study and publish the pottery and other small finds from the excavations in the Artemis Laphria sanctuary, but never managed to complete the work before his death in 1950. Since there was no place to safely store the many finds from the 1920-30s excavations on or near the site of Kalydon at the time, all of the finds were shipped in wooden boxes to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, a practice repeated by many other excavation projects at the time.

Kalydon - The longest running archaeological project in Greece

Even with several gaps, Kalydon is the longest running Danish-Greek archaeological project in Greece. It celebrates its 100 year anniversary in 2026, and has consisted of more than 20 campaigns from 1926 to the present (excavation and study campaigns). Kalydon is also the second Danish archaeological project in Greece following the Rhodos expedition, which began in 1902.

New discoveries – old data

In 2016, precisely 90 years after the excavations in Kalydon first commenced, the Danish Institute at Athens and I received permission from the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports to study and publish the pottery and small finds from the Artemis sanctuary excavations. 

Since then, I have spent months in the storerooms of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens going through thousands of archaeological finds from the old excavations carried out in Kalydon, which had never before been studied. 

Here I discovered exceptional finds that shed new light on the very important Bronze Age period. Among the many finds there are more than ca. 125 ceramic vessels (mainly drinking cups and mixing vessels) dating to the Greek Bronze Age that attests to feasting activity in Kalydon (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Photo of a Mycenaean drinking cup (photo: S. Barfoed). Copyright belongs to the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports (Law 3028/2002). Mycenaean kylix, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece (temp. inv. no. 1928/7.1).

Additionally, two unusual objects appeared in the assemblage: an amber bead from a fibula (a safety pin used for clothing), and a whetting stone used for sharpening swords and knives, thus documenting the everyday lives of people in Kalydon. The discovery of a grave dating to the Bronze Age period close to the nearby Evinos river, further supports the existence of a Bronze Age settlement in the area.

"Since we began working in Kalydon in 2011 we have known, from the occasional finds of a piece of pottery or two, that Kalydon must have existed in the Bronze Age. But it is a whole different feeling to have it confirmed by the indisputable evidence of a large group of pottery dating to the Bronze Age period. The Internationalisation Stipends from the Carlsberg Foundation covered all expenses related to this fundamental research.” Signe Barfoed

The feasting hall of the king and his drinking cup

In the Mycenaean culture of the Greek Bronze Age large-scale feasting was a very important social event for kings and aristocrats; this took place in an impressive royal dining hall called a megaron. In Homer’s Odyssey such feasting is described by king Odysseus: 

For myself I declare that there is no greater fulfilment of delight than when joy possesses a whole people, and banqueters in the halls listen to a bard as they sit in order due, and by them tables are laden with bread and meat, and the cup-bearer draws wine from the bowl and bears it round and pours it into the cups. This seems to my mind the fairest thing there is." (Homer, Od. 9.5-11).

Through a careful re-examination of the old excavation diaries (handwritten in German by Poulsen) from the excavations in the Artemis sanctuary, I have been able to identify the exact findspot of the archaeological finds dating to the Bronze Age. The feasting equipment was found near architectural remains that resemble other known Bronze Age buildings identified as megara structures (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Plan of the Artemis Laphria sanctuary indicating the Bronze Age structures; drawn by Ejnar Dyggve (structures G and H inside the red square). Dyggve, E. & F. Poulsen 1948. Das Laphrion. Der Tempelbezirk von Kalydon. Munksgaard: Copenhagen, pl. 1 (reproduced with permission from the Royal Danish Academy of Science and Letters).

This building existed prior to the construction of the Artemis Laphria sanctuary (which took place around the 8th-7th centuries BCE) and is the only Mycenaean structure found in Kalydon so far. It is, however, possible that more of Kalydon’s Bronze Age settlement will appear during future excavations.

The discovery of this Mycenaean pottery means that Kalydon can now be counted among the sparse Mycenaean settlement sites in the region of Aitolia (only nine have been documented so far, including Kalydon) a revelation that will change the history and perception of Bronze Age Greece. This is the first archaeological evidence to prove that a settlement actually existed in Kalydon in the historical period that Homer is describing. The finds might even represent the actual feasting set (cups and mixing jars) belonging to the king of the settlement of Kalydon.

We can now with certainty say that Kalydon existed in the Bronze Age period, and was an important location with a myth that became so famous that it influenced poets and artists for centuries to come.” Signe Barfoed

The Funding from the Carlsberg Foundation

I have, with the grant from the Carlsberg Foundation, been able to undertake important research that has the potential to change our understanding of the city of Kalydon in the Bronze Age period, its relationship to its neighbouring regions, and how it changed from a Bronze Age settlement into an important long-lived city with a large prosperous sanctuary. 

The support of the Carlsberg Foundation, in combination with fruitful collaborations with the Danish Institute at Athens, the Nordic Library at Athens, and the National Archaeological Museum, are essential in allowing a successful fulfilment of the obligations of publishing the finds excavated almost a century ago. 

The articles, books and information generated from this project, will hopefully provide a modest contribution towards a better understanding of our common history related to city development and ritual behaviour, and expand our knowledge of the environment mentioned in the famous myth of the Kalydonian boar-hunt: Homer’s Kalydon.

Read more about the project “Rediscovering Artemis”

Read more about the Kalydon Archaeological Project (KAP) supported by the Carlsberg Foundation

Signe Barfoeds profile

Selected references:

Barfoed, S. forthcoming. “Rediscovering Artemis Laphria at Kalydon. Preliminary results,” Proceedings of the Danish Institute at Athens 9. To be published in 2019.

Barfoed, S. 2017. “The Cults of Kalydon. Reassessing the Miniaturised Votive Objects,” Proceedings of the Danish Institute at Athens 8, 131-148

Dyggve, E. & F. Poulsen. 1948. Das Laphrion, der Tempelbezirk von Kalydon. Arkæologisk-kunsthistoriske Skrifter 1.2. The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters; Copenhagen.