Archive for July 12th, 2017

Greek theaters had moveable stages on wheels

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

A paper about a new survey of the 4th century B.C. theater in Messene, Greece, reports that three lines carved in stone next to the stage were track lines used to wheel massive wooden set pieces into place. Researchers from Japan’s Kumamoto University studied the Greek Classical period theater’s stone lines and compared them to similar ones found in theaters built around the same time in the nearby city states of Sparta and Megalopolis. The lines at Messene are 9 to 12 cm (3.5 to 4.7 inches) wide and 3.8 to 5.4 cm (1.5 to 2.1 inches) deep and are almost perfectly level. The grooves are two meters (6.5 feet) apart.

A few years ago, there wasn’t much of a theater left to survey. After six centuries of continuous use, the theater was abandoned in the early 4th century A.D., its marble and stone pilfered for use in local construction. In the early 1990s, excavations began at the site. At first it didn’t look like there was anything left of the theater after so many years of neglect and architectural recycling. There were a few barrier walls visible above ground, but that’s it. Olive groves surrounded the site and thick deposits of earth covered what had once been the orchestra (the circular or horseshoe-shaped space between the audience and the stage where the chorus performed) and the koilon (the bleachers where the audience sat). Archaeologists laboured for more than two decades to excavate every last piece of the theater they could find and restore as much of it as possible. In August of 2013, the theater reopened for the first time in 1,700 years with 2,000 seats, all of them jigsawed together from the scattered ruins.

A large storage room and the three stone lines weren’t discovered until 2007 during a field study by archaeologists from Kumamoto University. They’ve been studying the finds ever since, comparing them with the theaters in Sparta and Megalopolis and attempting to determine what role these structures played in ancient theatrical productions. The Kumamoto University researchers have now published the result of their investigation in Arch√§ologischen Anzeigers, the journal of the German Archaeological Institute.

What was the purpose of these stone rows? In the Hellenistic theater, a one-story building called the “proskenion” was placed on the stage. The Proskenion was used as a stage background and it is thought that actors were also able to speak from its balconies. Behind that was a two story “skene” that was used as both a dressing room and another stage background. In the past, it was thought that the proskenion and the skene were either stone-built and fixed or wooden and wheeled. If they were wheeled, they would have moved as one massive construction along three stone rows. As a result of their investigation, however, the Kumamoto University researcher proposed that the proskenion and skene were separate constructs, each with their own set of wheels, and that there is high possibility that each proskenion and skene was pulled in and out of the storage room on two stone rows respectively.

Proskenion and skene with wooden wheels. Image courtesy Associate Professor Ryuichi Yoshitake.“A large force would have been required to move stage equipment as large as the proskenion and skene,” said Associate Professor Ryuichi Yoshitake who led the research project. “In previous studies, there was a theory that the proskenion and skene were simultaneously moved along just three stone rows, but I think it is more logical that the proskenion and skene each had their own set of two stone rows to move along. I came to this conclusion due to the positions of three stone rows and the fact that it would have been quite difficult to move the heavy proskenion and skene together using a single axle with three wooden wheels.”

Ancient literature makes it clear that that there were rotating stage devices in both Greek and Roman theaters. The newly discovered stone rows and storage rooms at the Messene Theater are important remains that show the likelihood is extremely high that mobile wooden stages existed in the theaters of the Hellenistic period. Future research is expected to clarify the appearance of a wheeled wooden stage like that in Messene and the influence it had on later stage building.

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