Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Phidias' workshop - using real places in fiction

Last year in the summer, I prepared part of this posting. I didn't finish it because I have been looking for a particular reference (see second to last paragraph). 
As you can see, I had a wonderful trip in 2013. 
It was a mixture of holiday ...
...  research ... 
... and socialising.

Part of the research was another visit to Ancient Olympia. I went to have another look at Phidias' Workshop. I took liberties with its design in The Boy with Two Heads and I wanted to see whether I had really changed it so much. This is how it appears in my story:

The main road was busy with traffic for the market and the precinct. Panainos and Themis paused on the forecourt, looking at the front of the Workshop. It was a huge, rectangular stone building with a high-walled yard behind. 
‘He really did it,’ said Panainos quietly. 
‘Did what?’ asked Themis, surprised at the plainness of what seemed to him to be just another warehouse.
‘He said to me he’d build the workshop the same size as the inner room of the temple, so that he could get the statue in the right proportion.’ 
‘Why wouldn’t he?’ replied Themis. ‘It’s a very good idea.’ 
‘Because it must have cost the Elians a lot more than they bargained for,’ laughed Panainos. ‘Phidias never lets mere price stop him when he plans a monument.’ 
No one seemed to be around, but the small, heavy door opened as they approached it. A guard in full armour with sword and spear stepped out and confronted them. With him was a scribe, tablet and stylus at the ready. 
‘Name and business?’ growled the guard. 
‘Panainos, son of Harmides, brother of Phidias,’ intoned Panainos, ‘and Themistokles, son of Kallistos, my apprentice.’ 
The scribe wrote this down. The guard bowed his head slightly and stood back. ... 
[Inside] They turned through an open doorway. 
‘Wow!’ breathed Themis as they stepped into a huge, bright space where dust motes hung sparkling in the air and soft music played. It was as high as a temple, with pillars painted on the walls. Cupboards and storerooms lined the left side, workbenches the right. Light streamed in from windows half way up the walls, and from panels in the ceiling. 
Panainos swept over to a long bench where four young men were bent over their work. Themis saw trays of labelled pebbles, rows of minute tools and the sparkle of cut gems as Panainos asked for Phidias. 
One gem-cutter gestured to the high back wall that was almost all door. They could see a sunny yard beyond. ‘Out there,’ he said ... 
Two more armed guards stood on either side of the doorway. They saluted Panainos as he and Themis stepped out into sunlight. Acrid smells of vinegar and burning bone caught in Themis’ throat. 

Phidias' workshop now
That was my fiction, but in reality there is no sign of the large door I gave the Workshop at the back, or of a yard. And the front door seems to have been quite large, not small as I made it. I had the columns inside painted on the walls when in fact it seems they were probably real and perhaps held up the roof. 

However, the building was turned into an early Christian basilica around AD440 and then destroyed in the earthquake of AD551, so perhaps my fictional view of it is not too impossible.

This is the west wall where I made the huge door into a yard behind ...

... and this is the south wall.

This is what it looks like inside now, with the early Byzantine church arrangements, now also ruined.

There is a story that, during the excavations, a cup was found with the ancient Greek for 'I belong to Phidias' scratched on its bottom. This appears in most of the guide books and articles about the Workshop. But I read somewhere that the man who found the cup confessed on his deathbed to scratching the inscription himself. However, from the descriptions in Pausanias and other sources and the archaeological finds of moulds and tools, it is quite clear that this building and its environs were where the statue was made and its golden, ivory, bejewelled and carved adornments prepared. 

And perhaps the story of the man on his deathbed is as fictional as my story. The cup might have been a tourist souvenir, as these were also sold in antiquity, according to the website 'Ancient Olympics'. But if anyone reading this can vouch for the deathbed story, I would be very grateful, as I have searched for it again and again since I got back from that trip, and failed to find it.

On the subject of using real places in historical fiction, I have come to the conclusion that we writers should use our common sense about what might have been, without making any glaring errors. Places readers can visit give an extra dimension to a story, as long as there is no disappointment involved. What do you think?

All photographs © Julia M Newsome, except the aerial view of Phidias' workshop, which was taken from a postcard with no credit given.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Built during the Peloponnesian War ...

... and still standing? 

Saronic Gulf via Google Earth. The Methana Peninsula
is just left of centre, near the bottom of the map

I have read about an intriguing ancient wall*. It was built in 425 BC across the isthmus of Methana, and I want to refer to it in my next book, the sequel to The Boy with Two Heads. However, since the wall was built, there have been many earthquakes, a volcanic eruption in 230 BC, and parts of nearby towns have slid into the sea. There are still hot springs not far away, some of which are rumoured to have started after ‘fire shot out of the ground’. So what could possibly be left after 2,439 years and all that volcanic activity? I felt I needed to see, and to get a feel of the surrounding area. 

The Blue Guide: Greece The Mainland mentions “… fortifications, traces of which are visible …”, which was a sign there might be something, but Google Earth seemed to show only trees. Pausanias doesn’t mention a wall at all near Methana, but one or two others do, probably quoting Thucydides, the historian. He was also a general on the Athenian side against the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War, and it was the Athenians who built the wall, so he should have known.

Methana peninsular (NASA)
Methana today is a dormant volcanic peninsula in the shape of a wonky pear, jutting into the Saronic Gulf in Greece. The isthmus looks like the stalk of the pear.

So, on my latest trip to Greece, I set off with my husband to find the ‘traces’, believing that there would be a registered archaeological site, or at least a Ministry of Culture sign. But when we got to the narrowest part of the isthmus, all we could see was steep hillsides covered in small trees and scrub. The isthmus is only about 300 metres wide, but the hill in the middle forms a spine that hides one side from the other. We spent quite a while driving up and down tarmac and dirt roads, looking for something official. 

Eventually we found this:
The path indicated was hardly well trodden and led us into thick scrub on both sides of the spine. We followed it past a tiny chapel at the highest point and, a few metres further on, tripped over a heap of stones. They seemed randomly arranged on one side, but had a straight edge on the other. Could this have been a round tower in a straight wall, stretching up and over the spine? There were large shrubs and bushes obscuring the ground all around us.
The Methana wall from the side the Athenians would see.
We pushed our way through the undergrowth and climbed up and down among dilapidated olive terraces. Gradually we found more pieces of a sturdy wall, in what looked like a straight line, about a metre and a half wide and up to two metres high in places. It seemed we had found Thucydides' wall! It isn't made of well dressed stones, but there are holes for beams to support a platform, and steps up to the top on the Athenian side, so it is certainly not a farm wall.

The Methana Wall, looking north
from the highest point

The Methana wall from the side the Spartans would see.
We took far too many photographs and retreated, scratched, sweaty, and feeling ridiculously pleased with ourselves.

Thanks are due to the kind local person who painted the sign we followed (and many other signs we saw in the neighbourhood)! Assuming I am right about its origins, I find it a wonder that the wall has survived all those years including the eruption, and that we could just walk up to it, and on it, and round it. 

And, now that I know what to look for, it is just traceable on Google Earth, and I can see it in the photos I took from a distance before we found it. Can you see it in this one?

 Wouldn't its original builder be proud to know it's still standing?

* In The Landmark Thucydides, translated by Richard Crawley, edited by Robert B Strassler, 2008. The quote is from Book 4.45: “… [the Athenians] came to Methana between Epidaurus and Troezen, and drew a wall across and fortified the isthmus of the peninsula, and left a post there from which incursions were henceforth made …”. (For 'post' read 'fort'.)
See also:
http://www.methana.gr/index.php/en/# - mainly in Greek

Photographs not credited are all copyright Julia M Newsome.