History: The site of ancient Stymphalos lies about a kilometre south of the modern village of Stymphalia in a mountain valley some six hundred metres above sea level; in antiquity it occupied a strategic position on the northeastern frontier of Arcadia, the rugged central area of the Peloponnese. A small polis of a few thousand citizens, it was nevertheless famous for its mercenary soldiers, and we have coins from Syria and Carthage at the site attesting to their widespread activities across the ancient world. Lake Stymphalos lies immediately south of the site; it is much larger now than in antiquity and frequently covers much of the city’s southern part. The present city seems to have been founded about 350 BC on the site of a settlement with scattered remains from the Early and Late Bronze Ages, the latter a time when Herakles carried out his legendary sixth labour of killing the Stymphalian birds that terrorized the local population. The refounding of the city may be connected with the rebuilding of Mantinea and the founding of Messene and Megalopolis, all built to contain the threat of Spartan aggression. The location of the earlier site of archaic and classical Stymphalos, attested in writers from Homer to Pindar to Xenophon (ca. 700-375 BC), is still unknown.
We know little about Stymphalos from literary and historical sources. Attacks on the city by Athens are attested early and by Macedon late in the fourth century BC and again by Macedon late in the third. A local Hellenistic inscription of the early second century BC mentions hospitality given to refugees from the central Greek city of Elatea after the Romans drove them from their homes; the inscription was to be set up in the sanctuary of Brauronian kk, a strange dedication because Brauronian Artemis is an Athenian cult not elsewhere attested outside Attika. The Roman writer Pausanias visited Stymphalos in the mid second century after Christ and mentions only a Temple of Artemis whose location is still unknown; he also seems to indicate that the city was originally located elsewhere in the valley. Late classical Stymphalos was laid out within a city wall built of stone and mud brick enclosing a triangular area about 800 metres by 800 metres. The new town was created on a grid plan with long narrow blocks (30 by c. 100 metres) of houses and public buildings with streets six metres broad between; Roman military activity seems to have been the cause of its partial destruction and abandonment after 146 BC when a Roman army under the consul Mummius destroyed Corinth. Resettlement on a small scale took place in the early Roman period (late first c. BC) and continued sporadically until at least the 6th century after Christ. The ancient city site served as a quarry in the early 13th century BC for building material in the Cister cian abbey of Zaraka built just to the north. We also know of the location of three late classical/Hellenistic cemeteries north of the city from the discovery of sixteen inscribed tombstones of men and women, which had been plowed up by local farmers.
Aerial view of the valley from the west. The area of the city is outlined in red, and the extent of the lake can be traced in the green reeds which cover most of the surface area of the lake.
Excavations: The first archaeological excavations at ancient Stymphalos were carried out over seven summers between 1924 and 1930 by Anastasios Orlandos on behalf of the Archaeological Society of Athens but received only brief publication in the Praktika of the Society. The University of British Columbia conducted topographical and geophysical surveys of the site and the nearby Cistercian abbey of Zaraka between 1982 and 1984 in collaboration with the Society and since 1994 has excavated Stymphalos under the auspices of the Canadian Archaeological Institute at Athens with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, U.B.C., and private donors. Director of the project is Professor Hector Williams, Department of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies, UBC.
Stym I The Residential Quarter: Excavations in this area just southeast of the acropolis have revealed parts of several poorly preserved but substantial late classical/Hellenistic houses (ca. 350-146 BC) as well as a modest Roman farm villa built over their remains around a courtyard and well, which was destroyed about AD 40-50 in an earthquake. Sections of two north-south streets originally six metres wide are also evident on each side of the 30 metre wide block, suggesting a module of 110 Doric feet; the west street still preserves the fifty cm. wide drain that ran along its east side as well as a massive drain in its centre at the northern end of the excavations, which seems to suggest problems with flooding. In places the later Roman villa both encroached on the east street and made use of rooms in a building with a fine facade of long limestone blocks across the street. Remarkable discoveries in these rooms of the villa included extensive areas of fallen wall plaster that had been carefully drafted into the form of masonry panels, over 30 large bronze circular studs of four types that decorated an ancient wooden door, two large marble lion furniture feet, a well preserved iron sword (still in the remains of its sheath), a round bronze shield, and much other material (especially shattered pots) buried in the earthquake debris. Study of faunal remains has demonstrated that while sheep and goat were the usual sources of meat some wild game was eaten (one boar weighted at least 180 kilos) as were shell fish from the Corinthian Gulf.
Stym II The Sanctuary of Athena: The sanctuary, tentatively identified as Athena’s on the basis of an inscription “of (Athena) Polias” found by Orlandos, consists of a small temple, a large rectangular service building to its northeast, an altar and several poorly preserved smaller buildings under deeper soil cover on its south side. The temple was a simple 11 x 6 m. structure on a stone foundation with well cut limestone orthostates on which rested upper walls of mud brick covered on the inside with red painted plaster with a pronaos and cella (front and main rooms) in which we found broken up remains of three marble statues: a kore or young woman of ca. 500 BC and a “temple child” of the late classical or early Hellenistic period. In the early Christian period a grave for a multiple burial of at least four adults and children was built up of bricks against the north wall of the porch. The area also produced a bronze shield rim, a bronze votive bowl, nearly two hundred terracotta figurines, many terracotta moulded bowls of mid Hellenistic date, and hundreds of pieces of mostly bronze jewelry-earrings, bracelets, finger rings, pendants, etc.-that had been offered to the goddess by the women of Stymphalos. Just north of the temple is a series of five rectangular limestone slabs with bulbous bases and offering areas of flat stone in front of them, perhaps aniconic images of divinities in the Arcadian tradition. Attached to the rectangular building are annexes on the north and on the west, the latter a service room that produced twenty-two terracotta loom weights for making cloth. Just south of the sanctuary we excavated a section of the city’s south fortification wall, a hexagonal artillery tower that replaced a smaller tower, and a series of small half round towers. Just behind the wall were several small rooms, one of which produced a large bronze bowl. Evidence of the Roman attack on the city came from over a hundred and thirty iron catapult projectile points excavated around walls and sanctuary throughout the entire area. A counterfeit silver denarius of 149 BC, used to pay the Roman army in seems to confirm the Roman presence. Some of the points, however, come from earlier levels of the late 4th c. BC and may come from an attack in 315 BC.
Stym III The North Sanctuary (north end of modern village): Agricultural work uncovered this site in the late 1980s; it preserves column drums, pieces of architrave, and many fragments of marble roof tiles from a substantial Doric building, probably a temple of the 5th century BC, and a number of early Christian graves of the 6th c. AC that had been dug into the earlier remains. Actual temple foundations may lie under nearby modern houses, but possible foundations for part of a sanctuary boundary wall appeared on the southwest side of the site. Scattered tile fragments of unknown date in the neighbouring fields suggest further buildings in the area.
Stym IV Acropolis Tower: A large rectangular tower (20 x 11 m.) with a massive polygonal stone lower section preserved three metres high surmounted by a three metre thick mudbrick wall of unknown height built at the end of the 4th c. BC on the site of a smaller tower on the highest point of the acropolis, it was intended to house a battery of catapults to control approach to the city from the south and west. Evidence of a possible siege in the late 4th century BC appeared in the form of a hoard of 30 lead sling bullets inscribed with Greek names in relief. In the early Christian period a number of graves, some well constructed of bricks and mortar and others of tile, were inserted into and around the tower on its east side. Unusually, in the best preserved one we uncovered the remains of a dog, carefully laid out after the human remains had mostly been removed.
Stym V West Artillery Tower: Further down the western city wall another large tower with walls over three metres thick was built ca. 300 BC (also on the site of a smaller tower similar t others along the wall) for a battery of catapults to control approach to the city from the flat ground to the west. A hoard of fourteen silver and bronze coins dating from the early to end of the fourth c. BC from its foundation trench indicated a date for the rebuilding. To the south of it every thirty metres or so is a small rectangular tower. Much further to the north lie two overlap gates, one detected by resistivity survey. Another group of early Christian graves, both simple inhumations and substantial tile built structures, was inserted around the big tower in the fifth century after Christ.
Stym VI West “Gate”: An enigmatic area of rebuilding 50 m. long on the southern west wall, it may have been a change of plan to add a gate built like others in the city with a simple overlapping of two segments of the city wall or possibly a repair to the city wall after a siege.
Stym VII and Stym XII Stage Building of Theatre and Theatre Seating: The stage building of the theatre south of the east end of the acropolis, discovered by geophysical survey and then by parch marks in the soil, is typical of the Hellenistic period but relatively rare in Arcadia; it had at least two building periods, ca. 300 and 200 BC (the latter with a Doric order of which several fragments survive). In its rebult form it had a row of columns with panels between them on its facade, probably to support a raised stage, and three large rooms at the back. The stylobate slabs of a fine limestone not found in the area are labelled at their joining edges with pairs of Greek letters, indicating perhaps that this part of the building was prefabricated elsewhere (Corinth?) and reassembled at Stymphalos.
An excavation immediately north of this area of the orchestra sought any remains of the lower area of seating in the theatre. Nothing was preserved, however, except a late Roman or early Christian wall built in part of reused architectural fragments of unknown purpose along the foot of the hill. Further up the slope rock cut seating still survives along the hillside and runs for almost a hundred metres east-west; it would have accommodated several thousand spectators with several special rock cut exedrae, perhaps for VIPs. This form of auditorium is unique in the Greek world. Immediately east is more rock cut seating and a bow shaped foundation that might have been the lowest seats of a small council house. Just to its southwest are the rock cut remains of a small klepsydra or water clock, one of just three surviving in Greece.
Just southwest of the stage building and closer to south city wall and the lake Orlandos excavated the remains of a small aperipteral temple with four columned facade, now no longer visible.
Stym VIII Phlious Gate: The largest gate of the city, the Phlious Gate is located at its SE corner and was added like the artillery towers about 300 BC, is on the site of an earlier simpler gate (Phlious is the next city east of Stymphalos). It had an interior circular courtyard flanked by towers and defenders could fire down from all sides on an enemy who had reach the space. It is a modest version of the famous Arcadian Gate at ancient Messene in the southwestern Peloponnese. A broader avenue eight metres wide lead north from it.
Stym IX The East Acropolis Terrace: A very poorly preserved structure or structures of the Hellenistic and Roman periods with several late classical or Hellenistic dog or puppy burials (apparently offerings since one was found with a kantharos) under the floor as well as early Christian graves cut into the ruins of the building long after its abandonment. Very fragmentary Mycenaean and medieval pottery also appeared in this area. Bed rock is very close to surface, however, and preservation is poor. Two nearby rock cut graves above the theatre produced a lamp of the early Christian period and scattered human remains. The style and orientation do not seem Christian, however, and might even go back to the Bronze Age.
Stym X Central Acropolis Terrace: Another poorly preserved Hellenistic/Roman building with an early Christian grave later inserted. From this site also came our earliest discovery, a stone hand ax of the Early Bronze Age (ca. 2500 BC) as well as an oval bread oven, perhaps of early Christian date. A small fragment of a mid 2nd c. BC long petal bowl mould appeared in the fill, thus confirming the manufacture of fine pottery here.
Stym XI Tholos Building and Adjacent Area: Perhaps part of a sacred area installed in a large quarry site just inside the Pheneos Gate on the south side of the acropolis, a key-hole shaped building of large polygonal blocks of the late 4th c. BC may have been a hero shrine modelled on the great late Bronze Age royal tholos tombs. It is in an area that also has a still functioning late classical fountain house and foundations for a monumental gateway or propylon of the 3rd c. BC. at its east end, similar in some ways to the Ptolemaion in the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on the island of Samothrace. Just to the southeast are the remains of a possible palaestra or wrestling ground of which only a few stones of the H-shaped entrance or propylon still stick up above the ground. Orlandos located elements of a rectangular courtyard building in this area in 1925 that he interpreted as a palaestra. A curious modern discovery in this area was cartridge cases from British Lee Enfield .303 bullets, perhaps tokens of the Battle of Stymphalia between German soldiers and Greek guerillas in July of 1944.
Stym XIII Pheneos Gate: This gate was a simple opening in the lower southwest wall of the city near the tholos and fountain house. Unusually for such a structure, it had stone benches on either side along the thickness of the wall; remains of several columns and an anta block, suggest some sort of architectural enhancement of the gate. Marble roof tile fragments also appeared in the fill covering the gate, but their origin is still unknown.
Stym XIV Southern Shops: Excavations of a rectangular room whose lower walls were of well cut masonry revealed what may have been part of a row of shop south of the acropolis along a major east-west road. Also present was a large limestone stele of uncertain purpose which had been broken in antiquity and mended with iron clamps set in lead, indicating perhaps that it was of some importance. A second Early Bronze Age ax appeared in the fill in this structure, perhaps washed in from up the hill. To the east of the shops is a large statue base cut from a single piece of rock; just north of it are the remains of a small klepsydra or water clock, one of three that survive in Greece from antiquity. Filled with water that went out by a bronze valve at the bottom (now missing) at a measured rate it indicated the passing of the hours as a floating pointer fell.
Stym XV South End of Block: A small 5 x 10 metre excavation revealed the south end of an unknown building equipped with a broad drain or water channel (perhaps for a gymnasium) lined with curved terra cotta slabs running east-west along its south edge at the end of a city block and near the south city wall. Geophysical and surface survey reveal no remains between it and the Roman villa to the north, suggesting a large open area.
The Roman Aqueduct: Northeast of the ancient city are remains of the local section of a major Roman aqueduct built by the emperor Hadrian about AD 130 to provide water to the city of Corinth. It has been possible to trace most of the course of the aqueduct down to Corinth; in the area of the springs of Stymphalos we can see the start with an underground channel that carried water out to a double line of arches that ran across the plain and eventually went underground at the southeastern corner of the valley, probably at the site of the present late 19th century concrete tunnel that still carries the waters of the valley to the Corinthia.
The Medieval Monastery: In 1205 Crusaders from western Europe conquered Byzantine Greece and occupied a large part of the Peloponnese for several centuries. With them came monks of the Roman Catholic Church, who built a number of monasteries. From the records of the austere Cistercian order we know that they built a monastery at Stymphalos about 1225 and abandoned it for unknown reasons about 1270. The remains of the church (a large vaulted building in pure western Gothic style of the 13th century), a gate tower with vaulted guest room above, and part of the monastery’s fortification wall still survive; the monks used mostly ancient blocks plundered from the remains of the classical city a few hundred metres to the south. Orlandos originally cleared the site over 70 years ago, but he published few details. E. Stikas carried out some unpublished restoration work in the gatehouse and the church in 1961 for the Archaeological Society. Excavations between 1993 and 1997 by the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto revealed parts of the church, the cloister, the refectory and other subsidiary buildings of the monastic complex as well as the fortification wall that once surrounded it. The original monastery included a considerable area further to the south outside the present fence.
Some of the nearby modern irrigation channels also follow and indeed use channels built of rough stone by the monks who were well known for their handling of water supplies. Particularly interesting, however, is the discovery that the monastery was resettled by unknown people about a hundred years after abandonment, perhaps a small farming community taking advantage of the well watered fertile valley, who buried their dead around the ruins of the church. One burial of a powerfully built middle aged man was particularly bizarre: the skull was missing and in its place was a large stone while at his feet were the bones of an infant. Analysis of the animal remains from the site proved that three different types of deer were present in the region then as well as wild boar. Coins of Venice and pottery indicate that the new settlers remained in the area for over a century, perhaps even after the Turkish conquest of the Peloponnese in 1460.