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Heroic Offerings: The Terracotta Plaques from the Spartan Sanctuary of Agamemnon and Kassandra

Stéphanie Huysecom-Haxhi
Bibliographical reference

Salapata, Gina. Heroic Offerings: The Terracotta Plaques from the Spartan Sanctuary of Agamemnon and Kassandra. Pp. viii + 393, b&w pls. 25, maps 3. University of Michigan Press, AnnArbor 2014. $70. ISBN 978-0-472-11916-5 (cloth).


Heroic Offerings: The Terracotta Plaques from the Spartan Sanctuary of Agamemnon and Kassandra by Gina Salapata is reviewed by Stéphanie Husecom-Haxhi.

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1Although many deposits with terracotta figurines have been brought to light at various sites in Lakonia and neighbouring regions, the publication of large assemblages of figurative terracottas remains exceptional, and figurines are often mentioned only briefly in excavation reports, even though on occasion they could be the object of more scientific study. Because of this, the detailed study of the terracotta relief plaques from the sanctuary of Agamemnon and Kassandra/Alexandra in Amyklai by Gina Salapata represents a fundamental contribution to our knowledge of the coroplastic craft of Lakonia and sheds light on its hero cults. This study comprises seven thematic chapters and a synthetic catalogue, preceded by a lengthy introduction that examines in detail the question of the nature of hero cults in Greece, and more specifically in Sparta, where they are believed to have been related to the emergence of social groups wishing to assert their identity and power.

2The first chapter provides the reader with significant background information on the history of Amyklai and on the identification of the sanctuary to which are associated two votive deposits found in 1955 and 1998 near the church of Agia Paraskevi and the tower of Mahmoud-Bey. The present study, however, is limited only to the relief plaques discovered in 1955. These constitute a set of 1,273 objects, complete or fragmentary, that are dated from the late 6th to the 4th century B.C.E. In addition to these plaques, the deposit also included a quantity of other offerings, such as pottery, both miniature and normal sized, terracotta figurines, some metal objects, and a few antefixes and tiles, all still unpublished. The second deposit, more recently excavated and containing the same kind and number of offerings, is neither published nor even available to be considered for this study. According to literary, epigraphic, and archaeological sources, which are thoroughly examined by Salapata, the sanctuary can be identified without question as that of the hero Agamemnon and his consort Kassandra (known in Lakonia as Alexandra). The sanctuary is indeed mentioned by Pausanias (3.19.6), who saw the grave of the hero there. This identification is also confirmed by the presence in the deposit of ceramic sherds bearing graffiti of the names of both heroes.

3In the second chapter, dedicated to the story of the recipient heroes, the author explores more deeply the Laconian tradition that places Agamemnon’s palace, and thus his murder and that of Kassandra, in Lakonia. The alleged presence of their graves in the sanctuary attests to the heroic character of the cult that was dominated from the beginning by the figure of Agamemnon. The association with Kassandra is attested only from the 5th century B.C.E. onwards, both by inscriptions on vases and by the iconographic themes of the plaques. It is interesting to note that perhaps because of political changes, Kassandra superseded Agamemnon as the main recipient of the cult in the late Hellenistic period.

4Production processes and the system of classification are developed in the third chapter. With the exception of three very large, handmade examples, all of the reliefs were made in a one-piece mold and in general are less than 30 cm, although some can be considered miniature. Substantial information is provided on Lakonian coroplastic practice. Discussions include the filling of the mold and the treatment of the back of the plaque that occasionally has fingerprints. A plaque can be pierced with one or two holes for suspension, or be equipped with a strut to hold it upright. Detailed observations are made on the shapes and the cutting of the outlines of the figures, the separately-molded heads that were then attached with slip, the retouch by hand or by incisions before firing, and the use of polychromy. In spite of the degraded quality of these plaques due to serial production, the author was able to distinguish 284 different types, produced in series comprising as many as five successive generations. These types are grouped into six basic categories according to their iconographic content: seated figures (SEA), standing figures (STA), riders (RID), warriors (WAR), banqueters (BAN) and miscellaneous (MIS). Each category is subdivided into various iconographic groups: the standing figures, for example, are divided into three groups (seated man : SEA 1, seated couple : SEA 2, seated woman : SEA 3), the riders into four groups (unarmed, armed, dismounted, chariot), the warriors into two groups (standing and attacking warrior). All these groups contain various technical types whose fragments are classified according to their place in the series: in the code SEA 1/3b1, “3” corresponds to the technical type, “b” to the generation, and “1” to variants. For each category, the typological and iconographic approaches curiously are separated from the catalogue placed at the end of the study, forcing the reader to look for information concerning one type in two different sections of the book, making consultation awkward. For each iconographic group, the author gives some general information on the technical features and on the distribution of the types, and thus on the circulation of the models throughout Lakonia and Messenia.

5Chapters 4 and 5 concern seated figures, which represent a particularly important motif among the terracotta plaques and in Laconian art in general. The most popular iconographic type is the seated man holding a kantharos and generally accompanied by a snake, often alone (260 plaques, 21 series), or occasionally with a standing woman (126 plaques, 10 series). On the other hand, seated couples and seated women are very rare (4 plaques, 2 series and 3 plaques for 1 series). To understand the meaning of the scene represented on the terracotta plaques, the author takes into account the regional stone reliefs widely distributed throughout Laconia and Sparta that are decorated with the same subject of a seated man holding a drinking vase. The analysis results in the suggestion that this subject was very popular in Laconian imagery over the course of four centuries. It is believed that the terracotta plaques had a similar function, and were less expensive versions of the stone reliefs. In any case, the stone reliefs were certainly a major source for the iconography of the plaques.

6In the fifth chapter, the difficult questions relating to the interpretation of the scenes on the plaques and their significance are discussed. The goal of the author is clearly to better understand the nature of the cult and the personality of the associated heroes. Her methodological approach is based on an analysis of all the components of the plaques, notably the attributes and the various other objects associated with the figures. The kantharos appears as an important marker, linked to the symposion and the consumption of wine, perhaps even within a Dionysiac context, expressing the aristocratic status of the individual who holds it. It can be a very appropriate attribute for a hero, as the author notes, but also undoubtedly also for a mortal who would be represented here with a symbol of his social status and one of the typically male activities that this status implies. The snake is the second most important motif, whose presence anchors the chthonic character of the scene and emphasizes the heroic status of the figures. The kantharos and the snake are the two attributes that enable the author to identify the seated man with a hero.

7Chapter 6 is devoted to the other categories of types. The standing figures are all feminine, except on 25 plaques where a couple is represented, with the woman holding a wreath, a symbol of marriage. Among the other reliefs, the most significant represent triads, sometimes without attributes, or sometimes accompanied by a snake. The former are identified with worshipers, the latter, because of the presence of the chthonic animal, with the Erinyes who, according to the author, refers to the murder of Agamemnon and Kassandra. But it also is possible that they are only mortals, since from the Geometric period onward the motif of the snake is often associated with girls and young women. Other motifs include figures holding hands that surely are mortals performing dances in a ritual context, the dance often being a meaningful component of many cults. The other reliefs are related to the male world. Riders, warriors, and banqueters evoke not only the various typical aristocratic activities, but also, in the opinion of this reviewer, the fields of education of the young Greek male, such as hunting, warfare, athletic contests on the occasion of rites of passage from adolescence to adulthood, and the symposion and its access. Plaques with dismounted riders showing a youth holding a cock or an œnochoe, as well as a representation of a beardless man, seem thus to refer to the world of youth.

8In the seventh and last chapter, the author briefly and very prudently (perhaps too much?) examines the nature of the cult and of its dedicatory practices. Because the plaques convey images that are the expression of heroic and aristocratic values, they could have been deposited in any sanctuary of a hero. If some of them do show recognizable representations of Agamemnon, as the author suggests, others must be considered generic and standardized images that have a symbolic meaning. The iconographic themes point out the civic character of the cult where the figures of Agamemnon and Kassandra could serve as paradigmatic models for members of the community. On the basis of the images, we can conclude that the cult included rituals intended for the young, boys as well as girls. Perhaps it would have been profitable had the author explored this in a more meaningful way.

9In the conclusion the author summarizes the main contributions of the study. The terracotta reliefs seem to have been a major offering in the sanctuary, linked to the nature of the worship and to the personality of the recipient heroes. Their quantity and their dedication during four centuries attest to the importance of the sanctuary and of the rituals that were practiced there. The cult was an important ideological vector allowing the community to assert its identity and its hegemony on the neighboring cities.

10The book includes 25 plates in black and white and three maps. The plates provide illustrations for only 113 of the plaques, but the complete corpus can be found illustrated in color on the website of the publisher, the University of Michigan Press, at this address: This solution, while very innovative, is not very practical. Of the maps, the first is of Sparta, the second is of the southern Peloponnese with the findspots of the terracotta plaques indicated, and the third is a map with the sites that are mentioned in the text. Two appendices complete the analysis of the material. The first gives us an exhaustive list of the findspots of Lakonian and Messenian terracotta relief plaques, showing the important distribution of this kind of offering throughout these regions. The second appendix lists all the known Lakonian stone reliefs with seated figures, a theme copiously illustrated in the repertory of the terracotta plaques; these stone reliefs are also accessible on the website of the University of Michigan Press. A full bibliography and an index conclude this study.

11The few minor remarks expressed above on the iconographic analysis and on its interpretation should not diminish the importance of the research carried out by the author, or its general quality. Both of these make this book an indispensible reference for the knowledge of the coroplastic craft in Lakonia, as well for shedding light on the sanctuary of Agamemnon and Kassandra in Amyklai.

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Electronic reference

Stéphanie Huysecom-Haxhi, « Heroic Offerings: The Terracotta Plaques from the Spartan Sanctuary of Agamemnon and Kassandra », Les Carnets de l’ACoSt [Online], 18 | 2018, Online since 15 October 2018, connection on 26 January 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Les Carnets de l'ACoSt est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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