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Epidaurus’ Dig Uncovers Layers of Ancient Greek History

epidaurus asclepion
The Asclepion at Epidaurus. Credit: Sharon Mollerus/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-2.0

Recent excavations at the Asclepion of Epidaurus have revealed the remains of an even older temple building found at the shrine in the vicinity of the Tholos.

The partially-excavated building, which is dated back to about 600 B.C., consists of a ground floor with a primitive colonnade and an underground basement chipped out of the rock beneath.

The stone walls of the basement are covered in a deep-red-colored plaster, and the floor is an intact pebble mosaic, which is one of the best-preserved examples of this rare type of flooring to survive from this era.

The find is considered significant because it predates the impressive Tholos building in the same location, whose own basement served as the chthonic residence of Asclepius and which replaced the newly-discovered structure after the 4th century B.C.

This shows that the worship of Asclepius at Epidaurus began much earlier than previously thought and had the same chthonic features while altering what is known about the history of the region in general.

Epidaurus Asclepion
Credit: Greek Culture Ministry

Asclepion at Epidaurus is older than once thought

University of Athens Professor Vassilis Lamprinoudakis, head of the excavations in ancient Epidaurus, explained to the Athens-Macedonian News Agency when the building was first uncovered in January of 2020: “This means the worship of Asclepius appears to have begun earlier in the Asclepieion of Epidaurus.”

Until recently, it was believed to have begun around 550 BC some time in the middle of the sixth century BC.

“Now it is evident that the structures [were constructed] earlier, and this is particularly important for the history of the sanctuary and for the history of Asclepius himself,” the archaeologist noted.

“At the place where the Tholos was later built, a part of a building, a ‘double’ building, with basement and ground floor has been found,” Lamprinoudakis reveals.

Lamprinoudakis also added that since there is a basement, as there is in Tholos, we it is considered a forerunner of the more ‘mysterious’ building referred to as the Tholos.

“When it was decided to build the Tholos, this building was demolished,” says Lamprinoudakis, and “The empty space created by its basement was filled with relics from the old building, but also from other parts of the sanctuary.”

According to Lamprinoudakis, this was due to the introduction of “the great program of the 4th century BC” when “some other buildings were also demolished, the material of which was buried with respect in the place.”

Patients were treated at the site

The archaeologist explained that the name Tholos “was only given to the structure by the ancient traveler Pausanias in the second century AD” and that “its original name, as we know from the inscriptions of the 4th century BC, was ‘Thymeli,'” which was was a type of sacrificial altar at which sacrifices not stained with blood were placed.

Lamprounidakis reveals that, based on research, we now know that the Tholos was essentially an underground house of Asclepius “where patients were treated by injection.”

The patient who slept in this special place would dream of the god Asclepius who would reveal the cure for the dreamer’s illness.

“This former building had a function similar to that of the Tholos, that is, its basement served as the seat of Asclepius on earth,” the archaeologist explained.


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