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Polygonal Wall (detail)
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Polygonal Wall from the Southeast.
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Polygonal Wall from the East.
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Polygonal Wall from the East.
Copyright © Archivision
Highslide JS
Polygonal Wall from the East.
Copyright © Archivision
Highslide JS
Polygonal Wall from the East.
Copyright © Archivision
Highslide JS
Polygonal Wall from the East.
Copyright © Archivision
Highslide JS
Polygonal Wall from the East.
Copyright © Archivision
Highslide JS
Polygonal Wall from the East.
Copyright © Archivision
Highslide JS
Polygonal Wall from the East.
Copyright © Archivision

Awaiting permission from the Hellenic Ministry of Culture to publish QuickTime panoramas online.
POLYGONAL WALL
manumission wall
Polygonal Wall

The first thing that meets the eye on the approach to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi is an enormous wall of Lesbian style polygonal masonry stretching 90 meters along its main face. It is filled with precisely cut inscriptions that almost always contain Dorian dialect or spelling. Some of the inscriptions are colored in alternating lines of vermilion, others are completely finished in vermilion, while still others have no color at all. This could have been done for many reasons: some suugest that color made it easier to read the decrees (Valavanis 277). Partida relates that more than 800 of the inscriptions regard the emancipation of slaves (Partida para.1). In another study, Tucker notes that “of the more than twelve hundred slaves whose manumissions are preserved at Delphi…the majority were female.” He goes on to further discuss how these decrees of freedom were made in fictional sales to the “Pythian Apollo by the owner” and almost always came with a clause of  paramone where the freed slave was to continue to serve their master in some way for a specified amount of time (Tucker 225-36). Reilly has painstakingly translated and recorded the names of many of these slaves in her book “Slaves in Ancient Greece: slaves from Greek manumission inscriptions.” Other decrees on the wall, as Middleton explains, were made for the most part by the Amphiktionic council where they granted “special privileges to states or individuals.” Other inscriptions dealt with “conferring the use of an honorary tent during the sacred meetings and honors peculiar to the Delphic oracular shrine” and others were merely “public eulogy to some benefactor.” Middleton goes on to inform us that “a large number relate to the Pythian games and still others to the revenue of the temple.” He further implores the reader to explore the inscriptions published by Foucart and those published separately by Curtius to expand the understanding of the inscriptions and how they pertained to everyday life in Delphi, inscriptions which, according to Foucart, date no earlier than the end of the 3rd century B.C.E. (Middleton 320).

polygonal wall illustration
Polygonal wall detail

The retaining wall is built with a mastery of polygonal masonry where no cement has been used to strengthen the joints. Delphic masons used such skill in cutting each block that they fit together with an accuracy that is rarely seen anywhere other than Delphi. Middleton notes that some of the “blocks measure seven feet across with joints so smooth it allowed the artisans who inscribed the wall to pass over the joints onto the coping with a lengthy inscription.” Instead of the joints following a straight line they follow a graceful curve that had to take great skill and patience in carving and fitting each block to create such an undulating line. I have included one of his drawings to illustrate the walls beautiful curving joints and dimensions (Middleton 319).

The illustration also shows the rows of coping blocks that, in the same manner as the ones on the Parthenon, are fixed in place with stout I clamps and their ends run with lead.  In addition to varying in height due to the natural slope of the land, some of the coping blocks have been removed in sections reducing the height. Some areas of the wall are as high as 15 feet while other areas are only as high as 10 feet 6 inches because they do not include each of 3 coping courses that individually measure 18 inches in height, while each block measures 4 to 5 feet in length (Middleton 320-21).

The retaining wall not only defines the halos or threshing floor to the northwest but provides necessary support for the terrace on which the temple area of the Temple of Apollo stands. Penrose observes that the “orientation of the present foundations differ by about four degrees” and “presumes that this marks the line of probably the earliest foundations” (Penrose 389). According to Partida in an article for the Hellenistic Ministry of Culture “it was raised in the second half of the sixth century B.C.E., probably after the destruction of the first temple in 548 B.C.E. and before the construction of the Alkmaionides temple in 513-505. The 5th century B.C.E. Stoa of the Athenians was built against this wall and traces of it are visible on the wall’s surface.” She also states that “in plan it is Pi-shaped.” (Partida para. 1 & 2).

Nicole Davis, Arkansas State University