The Peirene Fountain

I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of Betsy Robinson’s new book Histories of Peirene: A Corinthian Fountain in Three Millennia. This was particularly exciting to me because I’ve been using Betsy’s 2001 University of Pennsylvania dissertation for years as a detailed guide of the culture of water in the city of Corinth.  With the publication of this book, her dissertation has received a fantastic complement. The new book explores the history of the Peirene fountain and its excavations. On a personal note, it evoked fantastic memories of my first trips to Corinth (as a bleary-eyed M.A. student) when I reveled in the fountain on a hot summer day and, later, explored various other ancient water channels around the Corinthia.


Robinson’s work stands atop the detailed documentation of Peirene produced in the published and unpublished manuscripts of Burt Hodge Hill. In fact, the detailed documentation produced in Corinth I.6 by Hill absolved Robinson of some of the incredibly tedious (but valuable) descriptions so often associated with the careful discussion of an archaeological site.  Freed from these responsibilities, Robinson was able to examine the place of this important fountain not only in Corinthian history, but in the history of Hellenistic and Roman architecture and in the history of the Corinth.  After a brief description of the spring and its springhouse, she reviewed the ancient (and some Medieval) testimonia and made a persuasive case for the importance of Peirene to both local and Mediterranean-wide understandings of Corinthian identity. More than just a list, this chapter contextualized her book by making it clear that Peirene was not just another ancient spring, but an especially important in art and text alike. This chapter satisfies critics who might have questions the significance of the Peirene fountain outside the narrow realm of Corinthian scholarship.

The next two chapters, return Peirene to its Corinthian context by exploring the labors that contributed to the fountain’s excavation and maintenance. In many ways, these chapters form an interesting pendant to Robinson’s treatment of the testimonia. On the one hand, she is pains to argue that the fountain is significant because the ancient texts regard it as almost synonymous with the city of “well-watered Corinth”. On the other hand, she presents the early excavators of the fountain in a clearly heroic light. Bert Hodge Hill, in particular, receives equal parts apologia for his lack of publications and praise for his tireless efforts to document the fountain and protect the drinking water of the village of Corinth. A maze of channels and pipes emanating from Peirene continued to provide the water supply for the village in the first half of the 20th century and it was particularly critical that archaeological work on the fountain did nothing to disrupt the flow of water to fields, homes, and fountains in the area. In an era where archaeologists are becoming increasingly aware of the colonialists nature of their work, this chapter serves as an interesting case-study for the kinds of symbiotic relationship that developed between the archaeologists and the communities in which they worked during the early days of American archaeology in Greece.

The celebration of Hill’s achievements took on a distinctly “American School” like cast to me. While these chapters are well argued and lack any element of encomium, they nevertheless fuse the archaeologist – in this case Hill – to the archaeological undertaking. Methods, research questions, objects and discursive concerns fade into the background before the overwhelming force of individual personalities. Negotiating a terrain strewn with larger than life figures – Hill, Blegen, Broneer, Williams, Shear, Robinson, et al. – means contending with their personalities, legacies, and place in the intricate history of American School politics. (And it is difficult not to hear echoes of contemporary discussions in Robinson’s discussion of Hill.) While it may be similar in other parts of the world, the heroic stature of American excavators in Greece makes almost all work at long-established sites at least as much about the excavators as about the actual archaeological material itself.

The second half of the book summarizes, clarifies, and expands the history of the Peirene fountain. As someone primarily interested in the later history of the city of Corinth, I was particularly gratified to see the Triconch Court moved to the 4th-5th century adding to the impressive quantity of Late Antique urban works in the city.  Robinson’s hint at parallels between the construction style of the Triconch court and the Hexamilion suggests a 5th century building boom that complemented the later 6th century renovation of the Corinthia’s built environment. I was also excited to imagine the “outlooker screen”, which Robinson dates to the later 5th or 6th century, as a component of the 6th century building boom in the city. One thing that I would have been interested in understanding is the relationship between the later modifications to Pierene and the work done at the “nymphaion” down on the Lechaion road near the great early Christian basilica.  I wonder whether the outlooker screen which Robinson notes evoked the design of ionic impost capitals echoed the colonnaded aspect and ionic impost capitals used at the Lechaion nymphaion?

The only disappointment from this second half of the book comes from the difficulty in linking the work of the heroic Hill with the specific archaeological and chronological issues studied in the second half of the book. In a number of places, Hill stalls the submission of his final manuscript to resolve specific problems with his understanding of Peirene. While Robinson takes on a number of the pressing issues in the study of the fountain, she does not necessarily connect these issues with Hill’s labors. Perhaps the problems encountered by Hill were, indeed, unresolvable even after 80 additional years of thought or maybe Hill was simply stalling (as someone who struggles to complete long writing tasks, I can sympathize with Hill’s struggle to complete and submit his manuscript).  On the other hand, separating the story of the fountain’s excavation from the story of the fountain as an archaeological artifact allows for the vague feeling that these two stories could somehow exist independently.  Even at the very end of Robinson’s section two, when the fountains creeps its way into the modern era the waters of the fountains feeding Ottoman fountains remains apart from the first modern excavators. The end of the story of Peirene appears before the heroic Hill and company arrive on the scene to exhume her remains.

The book is the second in a new series, Ancient Art and Architecture in Context, published by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Needless to say, it is lavishly produced with flawless editing. At the same time, it was interesting to reflect on the fate of Bert Hodge Hill’s Peirene manuscript against the backdrop of the American School’s publication process. Various directors of the American School pushed Hill relentlessly to release his manuscript for publication. In fact, the work stalled for over 20 years at the page proof stage. Today, the pressure almost certainly comes in the opposite direction with authors desperate to see their research come to light through the American School (and other presses as well). For many junior faculty the pressures to publish far outweigh the rewards of a well-produced and “scientifically accurate” text.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s