Amanda Cates Ball – Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the 2021 recipient of the AIA’s Olivia James Traveling Fellowship. She is an Associate Member of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens for the 2021-2022 academic year. Her dissertation project, “Identity Formation in Sacred Contexts of Aegean Thrace,” explores Greek and Thracian interaction and identity formation in four sanctuaries of the littoral northern Aegean and the northernmost islands. She focuses on ceramic deposits within sanctuary contexts that illustrate moments of cultural negotiation and environmental transformation. She is a current member of the excavation team of the American Excavations Samothrace, and this past October participated in the Peraia of Samothrace Project.
The Black Pit of Samothrace: Microcosms of a Sanctuary Transformed
In this paper, I argue that the Black Pit, an enigmatic feature under the western foundation of the Altar Court in the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on Samothrace, is a cult installation whose contents are a testament to early ritual at the site. The Sanctuary is renowned for its mystery cult and featured some of the most sophisticated architecture of the Hellenistic period. At its inception in the Archaic period (7th -6th centuries), the site functioned as an open-air sanctuary. Through several transformations of the sacred landscape, the ritual loci within the Sanctuary retained their importance. The Altar Court was built over the Black Pit and a bedrock altar in the late 4th or early 3rd century BCE, and this decision to build over earlier cult installations suggests a reverence for the site’s deep history as a sacred space. For this reason, I believe the re-examination of the ceramics of the Black Pit can elucidate ritual activities in the earliest phase of the Sanctuary and the nature of consequent acts of consecration. The Black Pit contained two deposits of ceramics: an earlier deposit containing Ionian and local ceramics dating to the 7th and early 6th century BCE and a later deposit including Attic imports dating between 550 BCE and 400 BCE. Though the phases differ in the origins of imported pottery, both deposits are dominated by sympotic and libation vessels, evidencing a continuity of practice. Burnt earth and ash were found in both deposits, which has been understood as the detritus of ritual feasting discarded in this space through the centuries. What has been overlooked in recent publications is the original excavator’s observation of the nature of the deposit—burning took place inside the pit itself. The burnt remains cannot represent an accumulation of feasting debris, but instead represent a site of holocaust sacrifice. The later deposit has been dismissed as an accidental intrusion, as sherds of this phase have been found to join with sherds from the fill under the floor of other buildings in the core of the Sanctuary. The joins seem to indicate that both deposits belong to a period of intense construction within the Sanctuary, when these fills were used to level the ground under the floor of the Hall and the Altar Court’s walls. The later deposit contained retired votives, including six kylix sherds with Thracian language dedicatory inscriptions. While the later deposit may have been functional, it also held religious significance and consecrated the building constructed upon it. The contents of the pit merit re-examination to understand the Pit’s role as a ritual installation, the setting for holocaust sacrifice, and the contents’ later conversion to a foundation deposit. The area of the Black Pit retained its importance even after the installation was retired. The site was later modernized, monumentalized and made recognizable to a sophisticated audience of diverse initiates, but the Sanctuary’s consecration lay in its early cult installations, such as the Black Pit.