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Insight: Rethinking the "Halls of Hades" Volume 51 Number 3, May/June 1998
by James Wiseman
"But first you must complete another journey and go as
a suppliant into the Halls of Hades and Dread Persephone"
(Homer, Odyssey, 490-491)

[image] The polygonal masonry of a fortified site believed to have been the Oracle of the Dead supports the early eighteenth-century monastic church of St. John the Baptist. (James Wiseman) [LARGER IMAGE]

Forty years ago the Greek archaeologist Sotirios Dakaris discovered a remarkable late fourth- or early third-century B.C. building complex on the hill of St. John Prodromos (John the Baptist), which rises above the Acheron River about 1.5 miles from its mouth at Phanari Bay in Epirus, northwestern Greece. Its central structure was 72 feet square with extraordinarily thick (about 11 feet) walls of carefully fitted polygonal stone blocks. Below this Dakaris found a subterranean chamber. He identified the building as the famous Nekyomanteion, or Oracle of the Dead, to which Periander, tyrant of Corinth in the sixth century B.C., had sent emissaries to consult his dead wife, Melissa, as recounted in Herodotus. Dakaris believed it to be the place Homer had in mind in his account of the visit of Odysseus to "the Halls of Hades and Dread Persephone" to consult the dead seer Tiresias about how he might return to Ithaca. The remains of the Nekyomanteion have been preserved, and in recent years boatmen dressed as Charon, who in Greek myth carried the souls of the dead to the realm of Hades, ferried tourists from Ammoudhia upstream to visit the Oracle of the Dead.

Skepticism about the identification has grown over the decades. A German scholar, Dietwulf Baatz, recognized in 1979 that the many flanged bronze rings and ratchet wheels found by Dakaris all belonged to third-century B.C. catapults. The catapults, it was suggested, fell into the central chamber from atop the tower when the fortified place was taken by the Romans in 167 B.C. Another German archaeologist, L. Haselberger, pointed out in 1980 that the building's thick walls suggested it was a tower, and that the whole complex was similar to fortified farmsteads known in many parts of the Greek countryside. Indeed, the 1991-1995 Nikopolis Project, a Greek-American archaeological survey of southern Epirus that I co-directed, studied Hellenistic towers associated with farms at two other sites. It was possible to find different interpretations for other pieces of Dakaris' evidence. The agricultural, building, and woodworking tools found in the storage rooms are more appropriate for a farm than a sanctuary; the numerous grinding stones with hoppers are more appropriate for a large agricultural household than for a sanctuary; and most of the pottery vessels found are also appropriate for a large household. The fine polygonal masonry is by no means restricted to sanctuaries, and many parallels are known from late Classical and Hellenistic sites in northwestern Greece, including the fortified town of Kastri, a mile and a half east of the Nekyomanteion. As for the underground chamber, could it have been a water reservoir or some other storage room?

[image] Visitors inspect storage rooms in the fortified central core of the Hellenistic Nekyomanteion. (James Wiseman) [LARGER IMAGE]

Despite growing skepticism, the matter remains unresolved in the minds of many scholars, and several of Dakaris' interpretations remain plausible. Subsurface exploration of the slopes might reveal some conclusive feature (part of an earlier sanctuary? a collapsed cave?) to confirm Dakaris' identification of the Nekyomanteion. The Nikopolis Project did not have time for geophysical prospection in the area, but that technique would be worth employing in the future. Whatever the resolution, we are indebted to the late Sotirios Dakaris for his discovery and excavation of such a fascinating site, and for seeing to its preservation so that others might continue to explore it and debate its significance.

James Wiseman, a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY, is professor of archaeology, art history, and classics at Boston University. Sotirios Dakaris died in 1996. The Nikopolis Project was a joint undertaking of Boston University and the Greek Archaeological Service through its two ephoreias (bureaus) for Byzantine and for prehistoric and classical antiquities in Ioannina.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America