A Source Report on a Stele from Athens

The stele (also called ‘stelai’) of Aristion, so called because it is inscribed with the name of a man, probably a warrior, named Aristion. It is written in the genitive form on the plinth, ‘Aristion’ which is how we can name it as the stele of Aristion. The stele depicts a painted soldier on the shaft, which has traces of red on the background, hair, beard and lips with blue on the helmet and the cuirass (Richter, 1961, p.47). The colour in its full form has faded. Stone stelai were very common in Greece especially after the sixth century BC when they became the primary method of grave memorial.

There were three previous types; large painted pots, which marked the grave and acted as a ‘receipt of libations’ and was most popular in the ninth to the seventh century BC; chest-like structures of sun-dried brick, coated with stucco, surrounded by flat roofs and decorated with terracotta plagues, popular between the seventh and sixth centuries BC; and finally stone or bronze statues which depicted people and animals such as maidens, lions or horsemen, these being most common between the late seventh to the sixth centuries BC (Richter, 1961, pp.1-2). The stone stelai became prevalent after these along with the ‘sculpture in the round’ which was another basic form of gravestone in Archaic Attica (Kurtz and Boardman, 1971, p.84).

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The stele was found in 1838 in one of the mounds at Velanideza, which is around two-thirds of the distance between Sparta and the east coast of Attica (Buck, 1888). This in itself is in no way different from where we might expect to find stelai. Whilst a few gravestones have been found in the agora, these are very much atypical and the majority of stelai would have been placed either in the countryside or just outside the walls of Athens (Wycherley, 1978, p.253 and Richter, 1961, p.4). This stele is in some ways very typical, it has inscriptions both on the shaft and on the base. These are both short and give very limited detail, this being the name of the deceased and the name of the sculptor (Kurtz and Boardman, 1971, p.86 and Morris, 1992, p.157).

Also typical is that it is claimed that the details on the relief was done separately to the basic outline of the warrior figure (Richter, 1961, p.47). This would conform to ideas about a relief having a stock imagine with the features such as beards being added later (Kurtz and Boardman, 1971, p. 137). Furthermore, the warrior is a very common subject for a relief, along with carvings such as athletes, men with dogs and the elderly leaning on staves (Kurtz and Boardman, 1971, p.86). Therefore it is easily possible to see that the stele of Aristion is no way atypical of a stele and this makes it very useful as an archaeological piece of evidence in that we can use it to see what how society reacted to death and what was the common place ritual.

Interestingly we can see that these rituals changed over time. For example, Morris (1987, pp.93-4) writes about the different ways in which the dead would be buried in the periods of Greek history leading up to the archaic period. In particular he states that in the geometric period that at least one-third of the ‘generally badly preserved’ burials were accompanied by weapons. It is perfectly possible, and seems most likely, that Aristion was a warrior. Therefore we can compare his grave to that of earlier warriors. There were no weapons found at Velanideza and so we can infer that as long as they weren’t stolen or we just haven’t found them that the traditions had changed. Along with this, Morris mentions that for the graves that we might find, it would only be those of the poorest in society as the wealthiest citizens would be ‘exhumed, cremated and their ashes scattered on the sea’ (Morris, 1987, pp.93-4). This is perhaps, another indication of how we can use the stele as a source of changing attitudes as with the grand designs of some steles during the archaic period, it is most likely that they were paid for by the rich. This is then especially true from the late fifth century to the fourth century BC where the stele ‘reached its greatest artistic heights’ with top sculptors being paid to produce reliefs of ‘highly effective and varied composition carved on broad stelai crowned with simple pediments’ (Wycherley, 1978, p.255).

Another reason for this is the way in which the warriors chiton has been engraved with the symmetrically stacked plates in the two directions which is also current in late sixth century sculptures Richter (1961, p.47). Jeffery (1962, p.141) certainly goes by Richter’s dating for the stele and Bradeen (1974, p.2) states that ‘letter-forms are an important criterion for the dating of public lists and private monuments’ for the sixth, fifth and partially for the fourth centuries BC. Jeffery (1962, p.141) has pointed out that besides this there are slight differences but it is still perfectly possible that both inscriptions were written by the same hand. Particularly this can be seen through the use of the similar rho in each inscription with an almost ‘triangular eyelid’ (Richter, 1961, p.170).

One of the main problems that we have with the vast majority of the stelai is that very few have been found in situ. This even applies to the landed nobility who have high quality stelai which one would not really expect to be moved (Kurtz and Boardman, 1971, pp.84-5). Further to this we have many stelai and in general most Greek archaeological finds are broken. This is also true of the stele of Aristion with the finial and even the top of the helmet missing. However if Richter’s date of around 510BC is to be considered as correct, she gives us an idea of what the finial must have been; a volute-palmetto type (Richter, 1961, p.47).

If we look at the sculptor, Aristokles, we can find out that he was possibly a professional sculptor as we know that there are several sculptures mentioned by Pausanias made by an Aristokles, whether it was the same one is unknown, however more importantly is that there are two further stelai from around the same period that also have the same ‘made by’ inscription of Aristokles, all written in the genitive and so it can be assumed that these three stelai at least, had the same sculptor (Richter, 1961, p.47 and Jeffery, 1962, p.141). This can therefore also be seen to fit more into the conventions of the later sixth century, and not earlier, as the funerary commemoration is that of a stelai and not of a vase or pot. It could potentially be as apart of the era in which there were professional sculptors and Aristokles was just one of any number of these. If he was, he was probably not have been a very prominent figure as there are only the three that can definitely be attributed to him. Perhaps if there were more, we would be able to say that he was a well sort after sculptor.

In conclusion, the stele of Aristion is a very good source for us to use in order to learn how the Ancient Greeks felt towards death and how the dead should be remembered by the living. We can as shown, see how this had been developed from the Geometric period of Greece and even before that. To be able to see why the Greeks treated the dead in the way they did is almost as important as how exactly they did this. Aristokles has provided us with this stele, an insight into how the average grave was constructed and what it contained; what was on the relief as well as what was written and where. Although this is not entirely like contemporary stelai which might list such things as the mourners, it is still a valuable insight in that we do not get to know who it is that is mourning the death of Aristion. The role of funerary commemoration within Attica can be seen an important issue as it deals with the sensitive nature of the deceased and the afterlife, with respect to the memories of the living. Much more importantly it can be used to show us the fluidity of this and how it was adapted over time with what we can only assume, seemed to them to be more fitting tributes to the dead.