Place and Experience in the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on Samothrace

Team Members Participating:
Vincent Baillet
PhD in Greek Archaeology and specialized in 3D modelling and Photogrammetry (March 2018)
Université de Bordeaux-Montaigne, France

Ian Burr
3DArtist, Emory Center for Digital Scholarship, Digital Visualization Laboratory Emory University, USA

Bonna Wescoat
Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Art History
Emory University, USA

Project Summary:

The Sanctuary of the Great Gods on the windswept island of Samothrace deserves our intensive exploration because it is a physically remarkable place on earth, whose assets were recognized, manipulated, and aggrandized in the service of a potent soteriological cult promising salvation at sea and the opportunity for moral improvement. The island’s rise from obscurity to international fame generated by its mystery cult was coincident with the transformation of Greece into a Hellenistic world. Elite patrons donated innovative marble buildings and initiates flooded in from across the Mediterranean, as the Samothracians artfully brokered their primary asset into a multi-ethnic magnet in the northern Aegean. The sanctuary thus offers a vital point of access into not only a splendid sacred environment but also the diverse and changing social communities who found reason to value its promises and stake claims on its favor.

Despite its fame, the secret rites of the cult were never divulged, and the complex archaeological record has generated more questions than it has answered regarding initiation. We can, however, gain a purchase on its transformative power by using 3D modeling and computer graphics to explore the reconstructed physical environment and the embodied actions and perceptions of pilgrims moving through it and to communicate how the nexus of terrain, pathways, buildings, and movement were manipulated to heighten the experience. We employ 3D modeling as a forensic platform for investigating the ancient physical and constructed environment, as a kinesthetic tool to explore passage and perception, and as a didactic opportunity for disseminating the complex configuration of this mystery sanctuary.

As part of the Visualizing Venice initiative, we plan to scale up our project spatially and deepen it temporally. First, with a diachronic exploration that uses 3D modeling to 1) isolate the earliest evidence of cult, 2) investigate continuities and ruptures in the design of those places, 3) assess contingent factors affecting major transformations, and 4) explore resilience (and its limits) in the face of natural disaster. Diachronic exploration offers a new opportunity to engage questions of site formation, political influences, rise of patronage, exploitation of materials, and architectural efficacy. Second, with a more procedurally driven build-out of the ancient city, walls, and harbor that will connect sacred to secular space and human settlement across the island. Third, with a critical expansion to visualizing the place of the island within the dynamic Mediterranean environment. Zooming out to visualize the larger spheres of city, island, surrounding seas, environmental conditions, and cultic connections (from Olbia to Alexandria; Rome to the Indus) responds to a long-held desire to use digital/spatial methods to query the extraordinary attraction of the island and its cult to communities of the Hellenistic and Roman world.

External Link:

Presentation Slides (PDF)