Abstract: Industrial Religion: Workshop Cult in Athens Athens


This lecture focuses on a series of unusual deposits excavated by American archaeologists in the residential and industrial areas that border the agora, or public center, of ancient Athens.  These consist of a shallow pit, its floor marked by heavy burning, containing a votive deposit of pottery, along with fragments of burnt bone.  Most of the pots are miniatures (saucers, containers, and cooking pots), but larger plates, and a full-size drinking cup or lamp were sometimes included, along with offerings associated with funerary cult. So far, about 70 of these deposits have been excavated, nicknamed “saucer pyres” from their most common offering.

The deposits were first interpreted as baby burials, on the basis of the small size of the bones (regularly too badly burned for identification) and the funerary character of some of the pottery.  Recently the bones have been reexamined by a zooarchaeologist, and turn out to be mostly those of sheep and goats, the animals most commonly sacrificed by the ancient Greeks.  The deposits, then, are not graves, but the remnants of sacrifices.

A new study reveals that these deposits usually occur in groups of two or more and that they are limited to private buildings, most commonly to industrial buildings rather than dwellings.  It is likely that they form part of a series of practices that, together, we might call “Industrial Religion” – rituals designed to keep the workers safe and to assure the success of the industrial activities on which their livelihood depended.  Industrial religion is attested elsewhere in Greek life by texts (for example, a poem cursing the five demons that can assail the potter’s kiln) and by images (in red-figure scenes depicting the workplace).  This lecture examines how the Athenian saucer pyres may fit into this complex of ritual.


Short bibliography and website for the Agora excavations:

J. M. Camp, The Athenian Agora, London 1986.  Well illustrated account of the ancient Agora of Athens, with results of excavations since 1931

http://www.agathe.gr (official website of the excavations)

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