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Archaeology of the Underworld: In Search of the Ancient Greek “Necromanteion”

In 1958, Greek archaeologist Sotirios Dakaris believed he had discovered something novel.

Much like Heinrich Schliemann in his search for fabled Troy, Dakaris had studied the ancient texts of Greek mythology, and had resolved to undertake a most unique quest: to find the location of a temple, if any existed, which might be the remnant of the “Halls of Hades and Dread Persephone,” where Odysseus consulted the prophet Tiresias about how to find his way home to Ithaca in Homer’s Odyssey.

Homer described the location as being “near the city of the Cimmerian people wrapped in mist and cloud.” Upon going to the area and following clues in the landscape drawn from his readings, Dakaris discovered a complex beneath the hill of St. John the Baptist, overlooking the Acheron River. Beneath this building, Dakaris also discovered an enormous subterranean chamber, complete with a vast corridor, and what he believed were dormitories where visitors might have stayed while awaiting their visitations with the famed Necromanteion, or “Oracle of the Dead.”

Further excavation uncovered a long corridor, which appeared to lead directly into a complex maze. Beyond this, a fifty-foot long “apparition hallway” was also uncovered, where Dakaris found an enormous bronze cauldron. He believed that this large, ceremonial object had likely been used in some manner in relation to experiences with apparitions or spirits, for which the site had become known through legend and mythology.

Though Dakaris had discovered what he believed to be a real-life counterpart to an enduring Greek legend, his interpretation of the role of the cauldron was rather simplistic; he guessed that the Oracle of the temple would literally hide within the cauldron, and emerge at a later time, play-acting the role of an “apparition” before those who visited.

The site of the Necromanteion, excavated by Dokiris in the 1950s.

Dakaris’s interpretation was challenged by Raymond Moody, M.D., who supposed that if the cauldron had been filled with oil or liquid, that it would have made a perfect setting for a variety of mirror gazing (also known as scrying), which might have helped ancient visitors to the temple shift their thoughts into an altered state of consciousness; this theory was instrumental in Moody’s design of the “psychomanteum,” a technique involving a mirror and a darkened room, which Moody based on his interpretation of the original Necromanteion experience. Moody used this variety of mirror gazing as a therapeutic tool, forming one part of a more elaborate experience he implemented while counseling grief ridden patients, many of whom had suffered after the untimely loss of loved ones (Moody’s studies of the psychomanteum are further recounted in his book Reunions).

However, whether Dakaris’s site was indeed the classical Nekyomanteion remains an item of dispute among a number of scholars. In 1979, a German researcher named Dietwulf Baatz pointed out that a number of bronze attachments discovered during Dakaris’s survey, which included ratchet wheels and a series of bronze rings, “all belonged to third-century B.C. catapults.” Then in 1980, another German archaeologist, L. Haselberger, argued that the entire complex, rather than resembling a labyrinthine chamber, was likely the base of a tower similar to other structures found along the Greek countryside nearby. 

Hades, with whom the Nekromanteion was often associated in Greek Mythology.

James Wiseman, a professor of Archaeology at Boston University, notes that further studies at the site may help determine if Dakaris was indeed correct about the location, and its historical significance:

Despite growing skepticism, the matter remains unresolved in the minds of many scholars, and several of Dakaris’ interpretations remain plausible. Subsurface exploration of the slopes might reveal some conclusive feature (part of an earlier sanctuary? a collapsed cave?) to confirm Dakaris’ identification of the Nekyomanteion. The Nikopolis Project did not have time for geophysical prospection in the area, but that technique would be worth employing in the future. Whatever the resolution, we are indebted to the late Sotirios Dakaris for his discovery and excavation of such a fascinating site, and for seeing to its preservation so that others might continue to explore it and debate its significance.

So perhaps the site Dakaris uncovered in the late 1950s wasn’t the actual location of the legendary “Halls of Hades and Dread Persephone.” Then again, perhaps further archaeological evidence will one day confirm that the location had been what Dakaris thought: a complex maze system, and as Wiseman suggests, one which future discoveries may help solidify as a ritual center of the ancient Greek world.

If so, it will be a most novel development, since it will mark an instance where archaeology has helped shed light on the dark dealings of the underworld, and its relationship with cultures and beliefs in an afterlife in ancient times.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.

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