The sanctuary of Athena Alea at Tegea, probably the most significant archaeological site in Arkadia, has been known since the beginning of the 19th century. The focus of the research program carried out by the French Archaeological School in the years 1900-1910 had been the large temple of the 4th c. B.C. and its sculptural decoration.
It was clear, however, that the sanctuary had early origins; Pausanias traced it back to the mythical king Aleos, and Early Archaic, Geometric and Proto-Geometric pottery sherds and small votive objects found by the French archaeologists give positive evidence for its high age. The importance of the sanctuary in the Archaic period was further emphasized when it was demonstrated that certain foundations are the remains of a large and monumental, early Doric temple of the late 7th c. B.C., probably slightly earlier than the famous temple of Hera at Olympia. That conclusion needed, however, stratigraphical confirmation, and became the point of departure for the first large excavation project carried out by the Norwegian Institute in Athens.
The former director, Prof. Erik Østby, is the pioneering Norwegian archaeologist in Greece, having since 1977 studied and published a series of insufficiently known Doric temples at secondary sites such as Karthaia on Keos, Pherai in Thessaly, Tegea and Pallantion in Arkadia, and Sikyon near Korinthos, either on his own or in collaboration with other institutions. In 1990 he inaugurated at Tegea the first Norwegian-led excavation, leading a multinational team of specialists, supported by the Norwegian and Swedish Research Councils, the National Geographic Society, and the Samuel Kress Foundation.
Work to the north of the temple has established the stratigraphical sequence of the sector from the Byzantine period, when the area was used as a simple cemetery, backwards to the early 6th or late 7th century B.C., but without discovering any building or monument which might explain the projecting platform from the classical temple (it probably had a ritual purpose). The period when the classical temple was in function, from before 300 B.C. to probably about A.D. 400, has yielded almost no finds; the surface of the sanctuary remained almost unchanged throughout this long period, until the temple was destroyed probably by an earthquake in the early Middle Ages. Only one important discovery has been made from these later periods: a draped, female marble statue of the Hellenistic period, discovered in secondary use as part of a small retaining wall of recent date.
In the layers contemporary with the pre-classical temple, of the 6th and 5th century B.C., there are several indications of plain structures which have left only post-holes. There was a more lively activity in the 6th century, which is the probable date for a piece of a curved stone foundation for a small building, a straight, plain wall of sun-dried brick, without a stone foundation, and some fragments of sun-dried bricks covered with white plaster from a wall. Many small objects, mostly of metal, from the 8th and 7th centuries which were found in later stratigraphical contexts have probably been brought with earth from the large and deep trenches which had to be excavated for the foundations of the classical temple. The excavation has not so far proceeded beyond the layers of the late 7th century, but there are clear indications both from earlier excvations and from a small trial trench that there are heavy archaeological layers below the point where work stopped.
Another important section of the excavation was carried out inside the temple, in the untouched areas between the two parallel foundations for internal colonnades of the presumed early archaic temple. It was almost immediately confirmed that these foundations antedate the classical structure. There is consequently no doubt that these are the remains of an archaic temple which was mentioned by Pausanias and which had been destroyed by fire in 395 B.C. Below a layer with Early Archaic and Late Geometric sherds, a surface was reached which preserved an abundance of postholes connected with the remains of a very simple wall of clay with an inner skeleton of interwoven branches, without a stone socle, and supported within and without by vertical poles. This small building, only about 2 m wide, and more than 6 m. long has the rear end in an absidal shape, well known from several early cult buildings. The building was short-lived and was soon replaced by another structure with the same absidal shape and the same construction technique, having an inner width of about 3 m, and a length of about 12 m. The building was destroyed by fire about 680-70 B.C., a date given by a Middle Proto-Corinthian aryballos discovered in a posthole immediately inside the wall.
The layers connected with the two buildings contain basically similar material of clearly votive character, including Late and Sub-Geometric, and Proto-Corinthian sherds, as well as small metal pins, rings, and fibulae, all generally dated to the last quarter of the 8th and the first quarter of the 7th centuries. There can be no doubt that these were cult buildings, and they prove that the sanctuary was in function and had primitive temples at least from the late 8th century onwards, about a century before temples are attested elsewhere in Arcadia. The exact kind of worship carried out in the buildings is problematic, however, since there is no fire-place or altar inside them, and hardly space for any ritual activity at all inside the earlier, smaller building. Nor is it likely that there was a cult figure inside them, since the tradition of cult images seems to have been a later phenomenon in Arcadia.
In order to locate the altar a small excavation trench was opened in front of the entrance to the cult buildings, in a position where altars are normally found. It gave an unexpected result: the discovery of a metallurgical working-site, with small smelting-pits full of clay and ashes. It is dated in the same Late Geometric period as the cult buildings, and shows that at least some of the small votive objects of bronze and iron were produced inside the sanctuary in front of the temples, in a position normally taken by the altar.
Metallurgical activity has been identified also in other early Greek sanctuaries, but never elsewhere in such a prominent location. The altar remains an un-solved problem. Normally in a Greek sanctuary the position of the altar remains unchanged once it has been established, and other elements including the temple are disposed around it and can be moved if necessary or convenient. In Tegea it seems instead that the location of the temple has remained identical after the first beginnings of the sanctuary, whereas the altar at some time must have been moved to a more distant position.
The continued excavation below the metallurgical complex during the last days of the final season gave another surprise: a votive pit, with pottery sherds of "Laconian Dark Age" type, and other objects of Early Geometric and Proto-Geometric date. There is thus evidence for the existence of the sanctuary at least as far back as the 9th-10th century B.C., although cult buildings have so far been identified only from the later 8th century on. Substantial archaeological layers lie beneath this level, and scattered objects from later contexts Mycenaean pottery sherds and figurines, sherds and perhaps a bronze pin of Middle and Early Helladic date demonstrate that there was human activity at the site at least since the 3rd millennium B.C.
The first five seasons have served to define problems which can be resolved only by continued excavation. Norwegian activity in Tegea is now continuing with a survey program in the countryside, and in a longer perspective Tegea remains a promising site for maintaining and developing a Norwegian interest in archaeological research in Greece.
Text based on report by Erik Østby