Investigating the West Hall of the Theater at Corinth

When Hesperia arrives with a new Corinth article, it is sort of like Christmas (or maybe Columbus Day) in my household. In this most recent issue (82.3), the former director of Corinth Excavations, Charles Williams, documented his recent excavations in the northern area of the theater. The article sought to integrate the results of recent excavations in the larger discussion of the architecture and archaeology of the theater. The theater was among the first buildings excavated at Corinth and the area had a long history from the 4th c. B.C. to the Byzantine period (at least). Williams’s excavations in the northwestern corner of the site primarily focused on Roman to Late Roman activity there.

CorinthTheater

In tone and form, the article was a throwback to the regular reports on Corinth excavations that appeared almost annually in Hesperia. The amount of detail is fantastic. The references to historical events (Actium, the founding of the colony, et c.) punctuate the archaeological findings throughout the text. The author assumes the significance of the site of Corinth and its monuments. Comparanda are minimal.

The article begins with a remarkable description of the various major Roman phases of the theater. The unlabeled illustrations make connecting the various features in the phase descriptions to the corresponding plan an exercise in architectural identification. Williams updates parts of Scranton’s half-century old study of the major Roman phases of the theater published as Corinth II. For folks interested in the architecture of theaters and the change in their function and arrangement from the Greek to Roman periods, Williams’s short survey of the Roman phases of the Corinth theater is a great case-study. The use of the Corinth theater as both an amphitheater and then as a space suitable for some kind of water battles has always fascinated me. Of particular note are the appearance of myriad buttresses and reconstructions marking out the impact of various earthquakes on the structure of the theater.

The second part of the article examines the work done during the 2011 excavation season. It begins with a discussion of the west analemma of the west parodos of the theater. (That phrase evoked some rainy afternoon standing with the members of the American School’s regular program and looking intently at the theater in some Greek city.) The discovery of this section of analemma helps to establish the shape of the Classical Greek theater that the Hellenistic theater supplanted. Williams then  describes in substantial detail the stratigraphy of the excavations of the west parodos detailing the relationship between drains and various buttresses necessary to support the earthquake wracked structure of the various associated buildings.

Excavations further north revealed more of the West Hall and uncovered more about the complex and curious history of the theater precinct. The West Hall represents a Roman addition to the theater probably dating to the 4th Phase, and its clear relationship to the “backstage” (my term, not Williams’s) are of the theater suggests that it served the actors and chorus. The walls of the hall appear to include blocks recycled from the earlier phase of the Roman theater. Like many of the buildings associated with the theater, it received buttresses at some point in its history perhaps in response to earthquake damage in the late-2nd to early-3rd century A.D. The building has a long history of use starting as a well-appointed structure with marble veneers and ending us as a space for industrial activities by the 3rd century.

One of the strangest and coolest discoveries the rooms abandonment in the 5th century it apparently became a dumping ground for cow bones slaughtered nearby and dumped over the west wall perhaps near the northwest corner. This massive, unstratified, deposit produced over a ton of bones that appeared to be the product of specialized, large scale butchery rather than urban debris.

Excavations in 2011 also revealed more of the “Lesser Plaza” and “North Peristyle Court”. Like the West Hall these spaces were Roman in date; the North Peristyle Court followed both the orientation of the theater and the “Theater Avenue” which followed the line of Roman centuriation. The north wall, I believe, of the North Peristyle eventually formed part of the Late Roman fortification of the city. While the Late Roman fortification of the city remains hard to date, but it might have been in the first half of the 5th century. This would make the bone deposit in the West Hall after the construction of the fortification and provide a bit of urban history for the periphery of the Late Roman city of Corinth. Of course, the wall could also be Justinianic in date, and I tend to prefer a later date for the wall owing to my recent publications suggesting that the emperor may have taken a personal, strategic interest in the loyalty of his Corinthian subjects.

This article was pretty intense. The amount of detail was staggering and involved constantly moving back and forth between more detailed descriptions and the phase descriptions and plans at the front of the article. I kept thinking how this is a model article for advanced undergraduates to use to decipher a building’s history. The article provided more than enough detail for a student to reconstruct a history of the building, but also enough little challenges to separate students who understand architecture and stratigraphic excavation from those who don’t. The final section of the article offered some suggestions for future work setting the stage for students to consider the potential of various courses of action. A short paper assignment arguing in favor of one of Williams’ recommendation for future work would wrap up the assignment nicely.

Crossposted to Corinthian Matters 

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