The Astronomical Orientation of Ancient Greek Temples – by Alun Salt, PLoS ONE

Alun Salt will doubtless be known to many readers here, not least for his interest in archaeo-astronomy, research which looks into the ways in which ancient peoples regarded the sky from the perspective of its solar, lunar and planetary components. I just got word that he has published the linked paper, for which this is the abstract:

Despite its appearing to be a simple question to answer, there has been no consensus as to whether or not the alignments of ancient Greek temples reflect astronomical intentions. Here I present the results of a survey of archaic and classical Greek temples in Sicily and compare them with temples in Greece. Using a binomial test I show strong evidence that there is a preference for solar orientations. I then speculate that differences in alignment patterns between Sicily and Greece reflect differing pressures in the expression of ethnic identity.

By way of further clarification, a few words from the author himself, via electronic correspondence:

It’s the first in what I hope is a series of papers. This one puts forward a basic argument that Greek temples are astronomically aligned and that it acts as an ethnic marker of religious activity. From my point of view the reason it’s in PLoS rather than an archaeology journal is that I wanted to be sure the statistical technique was sound, so it seemed best to stick it in front of statisticians. There might also be a story in the Times about it, but I’m not sure if it’s appearing as news, in the weblog or not at all.

If you’re interested in blogging about it I’ve uploaded new scans of my Sicily photos with added notes on most of the photos at . The most astronomically interesting one Temple B at Naxos ( which is aligned to sunrise in Early / Late Summer. You can see the remains of a wall for Temple A which was built only a few years earlier, but built over for ‘B’ shortly after. ‘ A’ faced too far north to ever face a sunrise, but I don’t know if that’s why ‘B’ was built. ‘A’ looked like enough effort as it was.

And from the paper itself, a suggestion as to why temples in Sicily and Greece may have differed in the ways in which they were aligned:

One reason for the difference in results might be the context of their construction. Temples in Greece were frequently built upon sites that had been sacred for generations, reaching back into the Bronze Age at places like Thermon, where the later classical temples were built over the remains of Mycenaean era megaron. [21] There was the matter of historical tradition which meant that temples built in the archaic and classical periods might be built not only according to the cosmology of the time of construction, but also within the restraints of prior religious thought. The temples in Sicily were built in cities that, at the time of building, saw themselves as immigrants in a distant land. [22] Therefore there was no historical precedent to shape the construction of the temples. They were much more likely to be purely the products of seventh-, sixth- and fifth-century cosmology. The lack of prior foundations gave the Sicilian Greeks more freedom to express current thought in religious practice through their temples.

For the statistical analysis you’ll need to check the rest of the paper, which of course is freely accessible.

see also: ‘People and the Sky’ by Anthony Aveni, (commentary by A. Salt)

image: The Wall of Temple B, Naxos, by author

Reference: Salt AM (2009) The Astronomical Orientation of Ancient Greek Temples. PLoS ONE 4(11): e7903. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007903

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