Shrine to Hercules Unearthed

Archaeologists in Thebes discover remains of altar, dwellings used for more than 3,000 years

January 21, 2005
By Derek Gatopoulos - The Associated Press

Photo: Panayiotis Valmas, the head restorer at the Museum of Thebes, is pictured last month brushing a tiny ancient bronze statue of the mythological hero Hercules slaying a lion. The figure was found at an ancient prayer site.

THEBES - Rummaging in the dirt, Costas Kakoseos pulls up pieces of history steeped in legend.

It is an archaeological site dubbed “Hercules’ House” — the place, experts say, that the ancient Greeks may have held to be the mythological hero’s birthplace.

Thebes, an unattractive town about 70 kilometers (about 45 miles) north of Athens, stands on a spectacular buried heritage. The latest excavation, begun last February, revealed the remains of an altar and ancient dwellings used for more than 3,000 years.

Vassilis Aravantinos, head of the regional archaeological service, said finds on the site tally with descriptions by the poet Pindar some 2,500 years ago of a shrine to Hercules built on his legendary birthplace.

“We had waited for many years for this discovery but it never came... These findings support the ancient writings,” Aravantinos said. “There are signs of worship of Hercules.”

Small bronze figures, including one showing Hercules grappling with a lion — both characters standing as if posing for a photograph — are a key piece of evidence.

While shaking soil through a mesh-bottomed crate, Kakoseos throws clay chips — fragments of ancient pots — into a plastic bag. A few are put aside and marked with labels for special attention.

“We’re still finding beads, bones and coins. There are so many, you can’t imagine,” said Kakoseos, who performs much of the labor.

The illegitimate son of almighty Zeus, Hercules was best known for the 12 labors imposed on him by the gods, including slaying a lion and a nine-headed serpent.

With most of the 335-square-meter site explored, archaeologists have recovered several hundred ceramic vessels, small bronze statues, animal bones, and a thick layer of ash created from burning animals sacrificed to the gods. Objects discovered date from the third millennium BC to the late Byzantine era. The dig and the findings began when construction workers were moving earth to build a hotel.

Hotel construction has been suspended indefinitely. Development in this ancient town comes with the risk of finding more history in the foundations.

“Every bit of earth that is moved, we take a look at,” said Aravantinos, whose archaeological service is currently excavating half a dozen Theban sites. “We have to.”

He said the latest discovery was long sought by archaeologists because of the legends about Hercules’ birthplace.

Other finds are still being pieced together at a small workshop beside Thebes’ tiny museum, where cats roam around ancient marble statues in the courtyard and the inside rooms are packed with some of the finest artifacts in Greece. Restorers, dressed and equipped like dentists, repair the statuettes and assemble vases and other pottery from an enormous array of fragments. Their room is filled with glued remains in stacked crates, and the tables littered with solvents, scalpels and adhesives.

The discoveries from “Hercules’ House” will not be properly displayed until a new museum — still in the planning stage — is built.

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