Olynthos is known best to modern scholars as the source of our most detailed information about Greek housing. In the early twentieth century the data from David Robinson’s excavations on the North Hill were used as the basis for describing the pastas house, which is characterized by the presence of an open courtyard at its centre or south, bounded on one or more sides by a roofed colonnade or ‘pastas’. A stone stair base is sometimes found in the court or pastas, revealing the location for a flight of wooden stairs leading to an upper story. Most of the other rooms of the house were also entered individually from the same area.
Unlike modern, western houses, there were relatively few specialized fixtures and so the roles played by the various rooms are difficult to determine, but in a few cases this can be done. Often there was a group consisting of one large room and two small side rooms which Robinson’s collaborator, J. Walter Graham, termed the ‘oikos unit’. This may have been a focus for domestic activities: occasionally it yielded evidence for a hearth and/or for stone storage structures (possibly shelves). One of the side rooms, the ‘flue’, often contained ash deposits and rubbish, suggesting that it was used for lighting fires and/or depositing waste. The other side room sometimes had a mortar floor and occasionally even a terracotta bath tub, which would have had to be filled and emptied by hand using smaller containers.
The other most characteristic type of room is the ‘andron’, a square space with an off-centre doorway sometimes reached via a small anteroom. This was probably designed for entertaining visitors: the shape of the room provided space for couches arranged around the walls on which drinkers or diners would have reclined in a manner resembling scenes shown on painted pottery, or described in Classical Athenian literature as the ‘symposium’ or male drinking party. The floor was normally made of colored mortar or plaster (often red) or even had a mosaic composed of small pebbles set in a geometric or figurative design. Some of these can be seen on display at the site today. The walls were also sometimes surfaced with painted plaster (red, yellow or white).
The roles played by the other rooms were more difficult to determine as they are normally devoid of architectural features, and the artifacts discovered there were not comprehensively retained and studied. Robinson and Graham suggested that occasional large rooms with their own street entrances may have been used as shops or stables. The work of the Olynthos Project is testing the reliability of Robinson and Graham’s picture, using modern scientific methods. It is also providing a more comprehensive picture of how domestic space was used throughout the house, based on comprehensive study of artifacts, ecofacts and geoarchaeology. At the same time, the uses made of the upper storey are being explored by comparing and contrasting the objects fallen from there, with those recovered from house floors on the lower storey. Possible uses made of the space outside the house – in the street in front and in the paved alley behind – are also being examined. All of these investigations are taking into account the likelihood that a variety of activities took place in a single space, and that those activities changed through time.
Further information about the houses of Olynthos:
Nicholas Cahill’s website
Cahill, N. 2000. Household and City Organization at Olynthus. New Haven.