Emory researchers explore ancient Sanctuary of the Great Gods

By Maria M. Lameiras | Emory Magazine | April 18, 2016

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Led by archaeologist Bonna Wescoat, an Emory team has become the world's leading experts on the mysterious sanctuary on the Greek island of Samothrace.

Over the course of a millennium, spanning from the seventh century BC to the fourth century AD, would-be initiates of the Mystery Cult of the Megaloi Theoi, the Great Gods, braved a difficult pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on Samothrace, a tiny island that rises up out of the Northern Aegean Sea like a beacon.

From out at sea, the pilgrims could glimpse the great buildings clustered in the valley and ridges that defined the sanctuary, but once they landed on the rugged island’s northern shore, its most sacred buildings were shielded from sight.

Up through the ancient city and out its southern gate, the devout would then descend along the Sacred Way to the Propylon of Ptolemy II—the monumental entryway perched on the sanctuary’s highest point—climbing the steps to the imposing marble building that was the portal to the mysteries within. When night fell, they would enter a narrow passage into the sanctuary, their path illuminated by the flicker of lamps and torches, to undergo closely guarded rites that would initiate them into an enviable circle of privilege and protection.

Very little was ever written about the cult—one of its inviolable rules was a vow of secrecy about its rites—and the mystery that surrounds it has yet to be fully solved, although excavation and study has been performed at the site since the fifteenth century.

Considered one of the world’s foremost experts on the site, Emory art historian and archaeologist Bonna Wescoat has spent her career discovering and deciphering the fragments of what, she says, was once one of “the most unique architectural collections of the Hellenistic Mediterranean in one concentrated place.”

In 2015, Wescoat and her team received three grants—from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the National Geographic Society, and the Partner University Fund—supporting work that will expand electronic access to the latest research and information on the sanctuary and the cult, further explore the unique range of architectural styles found in the sanctuary, and illuminate the area of the sanctuary that yielded the most celebrated artifact ever found at the site—the Winged Victory of Samothrace, or the Nike.

Discovered by a French expedition to the site in 1863, it was the Nike—or at least, the story of the discovery of her right hand—that first ignited Wescoat’s enthusiasm. As an undergraduate student at Smith College, she heard Phyllis Williams Lehmann, a renowned American archaeologist, lecture on the electrifying discovery of the missing hand in 1950.

Captivated by the story, Wescoat mustered the courage to ask the formidable Lehmann for a chance to work on an expedition to the island, but the opportunity was then open only to graduate students. It wasn’t until the following year, in 1977, that Wescoat would get her chance to visit the site after finishing a year at the University of London’s Institute of Archaeology on a Marshall Scholarship.

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