3. Preface: the sources for Delian history


The Archaic sculptures discovered at Delos constitute one of the most important groups in Greece, along with those from Athens, Delphi, Samos and Ptoion. They shed light on the origins of Greek three-dimensional marble art and provide rare testimony of the cultural dynamism of the neighbouring islands, Naxos and Paros.
Many types of figure are represented: male and female figurines, divine effigies, sphinxes, Nike, horsemen, and different animals. Representations of humans are by far the most numerous (kouroi and korai).

The paucity of works from the Classical period discovered at Delos is in accordance with the small number of inscribed bases from the same period and, with the exception of the palm tree of Nicias (37), the absence of literary evidence.

Hellenistic sculpture at Delos is remarkably abundant. The exhibition rooms of the local museum display the most spectacular torsos, the best preserved heads and a selection of typical works; its reserve holds a large quantity of statuettes, reliefs and fragments, and some major pieces have been transported to the National Museum in Athens. As a whole, they constitute a very useful resource for our knowledge of Hellenistic art, all the more so as the sack of Delos in 88 provides an almost complete terminus ante quem.



The paintings that survive at Delos, despite the fact that they were produced on a small scale, and their fairly fragmentary state, are an unusually valuable source of information that has still not yet been explored in detail; they all date from the second and first centuries. There are 15 groups of paintings on stucco, with varied subjects, of which the conception and execution can give us, if not direct and detailed knowledge of great Greek painting, at least an idea of what 'pictorial civilisation' was in Greece itself, in one of the Hellenistic world's most evocative centres.

Moreover, this evidence tells much about the uses of painting within Delian social structures. These paintings are not self-contained pictures, like the votive pinakes (miniatures) offered in sanctuaries; they were friezes that adorned the walls of the main rooms of the most carefully decorated private houses, and therefore were a part of the wall decorations as a whole. There is a second series of paintings on religious subjects, on the outsides of houses.



The mosaics are one of the most spectacular elements of a visit to Delos. Moreover, between the great series of pebble mosaics of the fourth and beginning of the third century (Olynthus and Pella) and the numerous mosaics of the imperial era, they form the largest collection of mosaics currently known in the Hellenistic world, usefully grouped in a short period of time: the second half of the second and the first third of the first century.

There are around 350 mosaics, all tiled, of which about 120 are more or less extensively decorated. They adorn buildings of all kinds: sanctuaries such as that of the Syrian gods (98), public monuments like the Agora of the Italians (52) and, especially, private houses. Mosaics were therefore not associated with a specific type of building and, although the great majority of mosaics are found in dwelling houses, this is almost certainly because the latter are also most numerous amongst the remains unearthed at Delos.



Ceramics are, etymologically, terracotta items in general, although the word is often used to refer only to tableware. Much better preserved than the metal objects and, owing to its low cost, produced in sufficient abundance to allow for relatively reliable categorisation, it is archaeological material of the first importance; in particular, in excavations it often provides the only clues for dating.

Prehistoric, Archaic and Classical ceramics

Most vases from Delos are not in the Delos museum, but at the one on Mykonos. Indeed, in the course of the purification in 426, the contents of the Delian tombs (bones and offerings) were, with a very small number of exceptions, conveyed to Rhenea and deposited in a communal ditch, which was discovered and excavated in 1898-1899, and the finds taken to Mykonos.

Hellenistic ceramics, figurines and furnishings

The large number of Hellenistic houses already excavated on Delos have yielded a huge mass of terracotta items, almost all datable to the second or the beginning of the first century. There is tableware, lamps, figurines and other portable terracotta objects (notably scales and stoves).


A significant collection of amphoric material (amphoras and stamped handles) has been found at Delos. These amphoras have been found in place in storerooms in houses, or in rows of a dozen, planted in loose soil in retail shops. They have also regularly been found reused for many different purposes, such as backfill in foundations, wall masonry, and also piping.

The study of these amphoras has two main aims:

  1. establishing a chronology: some stamped handles can be dated to within a few years and therefore make it possible to date in turn the layer in which they were found.
  2. outlining the history of the amphoras and - using methodological caution - that of their contents, mainly wine and oil.

The collection from Delos is extremely varied and gives an overview of amphora production as a whole in the east and west of the Hellenistic world. Recent studies have allowed scholars to distinguish the different major sources of supply of each era, with various cities in turn occupying the dominant position in the Delian market: Rhodes in the third and the beginning of the second century, then Cnidus until the beginning of the first, soon supplanted by products from Chios and Cos, Africa, and especially Italy, from where imports were sent in great numbers.


Other portable objects

The excavations carried out at Delos have also yielded a large variety of portable objects:

  • Mycenaean ivories (discovered at the Artemision, 46)
  • Geometric and eastern bronzes
  • Hellenistic bronzes
  • Jewellery (mainly discovered in the 'Insula of the Jewellery' (59 A): gold medallions, bracelets, pendant necklaces, pendant earrings)
  • Impression seals: one of the most significant discoveries of recent decades is that of around 16000 pellets with 26-27000 seal impressions from an archive store. These seals were found in the ruins of a house in the Northern Quarter, known for this reason as the 'House of the Seals' (59 D), which was destroyed in the first century
  • Glass items
  • Various different portable objects: the houses have yielded a quantity of objects of all kinds and all materials (marble, lava, bone, ivory, bronze, lead, iron) which give a good idea of the objects that were popular at the end of the second and the beginning of the first century, with the obvious exception of those made of wood, which have not been preserved



Large quantities of coinage of various different provenances were in circulation at Delos, as a result of the cosmopolitan public who came to the sanctuary and the importance of trade on the island in the Hellenistic era. As a result, numismatics at Delos is not limited to the study of the city's coinage, which is in any case not of great importance: it also makes it possible to observe monetary circulation in this region of the Cyclades.

A large number of coin types have appeared at Delos in the course of successive excavations. Exploration of the residential districts has unearthed large amounts of bronze coins, which provide information about monetary circulation on Delos in the second to first centuries. Around thirty treasuries have also been found on the island. The coin types in circulation on Delos are also, however, known to us from inscriptions. From the Classical period onwards, the sanctuary's administrators, who each year published the status of Apollo's fortune, made an inventory of the coins that entered the register.



The archaeological documentation discovered in the course of the excavations makes a significant contribution to our historical knowledge of Delos, but the input of written sources provides another perspective of particular importance. Now, the literary texts are very inadequate. It is true that Delos is mentioned several times in the works of Herodotus, Thucydides and Strabo, but always in very short passages where Delos plays only an incidental role within more general developments. We have no account that takes the island as its subject.

In the circumstances, the importance of another kind of text is understandable: the inscriptions discovered during excavations. With a very few exceptions, today they are all assembled in a corpus in nine volumes, which contains around 2860 entries.

Informational value

Inscriptions in such numbers and of such variety have inevitably enriched our knowledge of Delos in a very wide range of areas, which can be detailed only very rapidly here:

  1. Philology and palaeography: a written text necessarily gives information, first of all, about that without which it would not exist: on the one hand, the language in which it is written, and so the inscriptions from Delos have informed us of certain otherwise unknown Greek words and grammatical peculiarities of the Delian dialect; on the other, writing, and the inscribed potsherds from the Archaic era in particular make it possible to define to some extent the originality of a Delian alphabet that disappeared in the second half of the fifth century in favour of the common Ionian alphabet.
  2. Political history: inscriptions alone have made it possible to reconstruct the institutions of Delos; the decrees passed by the Delians to honour various princes and major figures illuminate the island's external relations and, more broadly, sometimes contribute to Hellenistic history in general.
  3. The island's secular and cultural organisation: in a strictly local context, the accounts and inventories of the sanctuary's administrators provide a sort of epigraphic counterpart to the archaeological invasion: they provide us with a large number of names of buildings that have greatly facilitated the identification of the remains unearthed in the field, and they often also yield useful information about their domestic organisation and sometimes contain very precise chronological clues, for example about the Theatre (114), of which the construction can be steadily followed, and so on. Finally, they also provide details about the farms built on the estates belonging to Apollo and about the farming carried out there.
  4. Prices and salaries: meticulous statements of the Sanctuary's receipts and expenses, the same documents contain a huge mass of figures: the salaries of workers employed in public works, the cost of supplies, house and farm rents which are all the more interesting as XXXXXX; for example, it is possible to follow the variations in land rents, the prices and certain products, and other items.
  5. Onomastics, prosopography and demography: these same administrative acts and the dedications make us aware of the existence of hundreds of people, whose family relationships we can sometimes reconstruct. This enormous prosopography is a precious tool for demographic history, although it is impossible to obtain numerical results as exact and precise as those available for a modern population.
  6. Cults and piety: the accounts and inventories instruct us about the functioning of the cults, and the dedications about the different varieties of individual piety (such as the rise and decline of deities and the sociological distribution of the faithful).


© EfA / Guide de Délos 4th ed.

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