The site at Eleusis

Article by :  Denitsa Dzhigova

Eleusis, the telesterion

The Telesterion (from Gr. τελείω, to complete, to initiate), the great hall at Eleusis, used for initiation ceremonies was the primary centre of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Devoted to Demeter and Persephone, these initiation ceremonies were the most sacred and ancient of all the religious rites celebrated in Greece. Athens was particularly involved in these rites and the sanctuary of Eleusis, a deme of the city, was one of the most important places for Athenians since its very early foundation. In the 5th century BCE Ictinus, the architect of the Parthenon designed the Telesterion so that it was big enough to hold thousands of people. In about 318 BCE Philon, the architect of the Arsenal in Athens´ harbour in Piraeus added a portico with 12 Doric columns. We have detailed indications about the building progress at Eleusis due to the building accounts, preserved on stone inscriptions from the site. Here, like in the case of Erechtheion in Athens´ Acropolis, we have textual evidence about dimensions and foot units that correspond to some architectural remains at the site. The rarity of this case makes it very important in understanding antiquity because it allows us to see the design and planning methods as well as the history of the building.

Eleusis, the telesterion

The Telesterion had many building phases, but only the most important of which shall be revised here. At the end of the second millennium, around 1200 BCE, the Mycenaean phase of the site is confirmed by a megaron structure – a very big rectangular room for cult purposes. In the Archaic period, about 560 BCE, the megaron is extended and another inner structure, Anaktoron (Palace of the Goddess), is built. Some damages on this older building, which some authors refer to as the first Telesterion, are thought to have occurred during the time of the Persian wars of 499-449 BCE. Sometime around 470 BCE a plan for a new symmetrically larger building was created but was only partially fulfilled. This stage of the building proceedings is related to Kimon, the Athenian general, a pivotal figure of the first half of the fifth century. During the time of Pericles, around 440 BCE, another more symmetrical design of the Telesterion had been developed by Ictinus. This plan again remained without realization (see further down and IG II 2, 204), probably because of the financial difficulties the city had during the wars.

By the end of the 5th century BCE Ictinus plan finally received its realization but with different dimensions. This time a plan of a porch around the Telesterion is indicated in a decree from 352 BC (IG II² 1666). In the second half of 4th century BC, about 330-310 BC (the beginning of the Hellenistic Era) the planed porch of Doric columns (12 or 14?) is added only on the East side, not on each side as intended by Ictinus. The architect of the porch, Philon, is mentioned in the contracts commented below and as well by Vitruvius. This was the last addition and expansion of the building. Around 170 CE after some damages were caused by invaders, it was partially renovated.

The inscriptions

A large number of preserved inscriptions from Eleusis gives us details about the chronological order of the construction works. The content of these inscriptions makes it possible to reconstruct each single building phase. It also offers extensive descriptions of single architectural elements, their transportation and exact placements of the building.

The decree of the Epistatai

Side A of the decree mentioned above (IG II² 1666), indicates the plan for extension of the sanctuary in the 4thcentury B.C. It gives the number of the stones(λίθους) to be quarried (τεμε̑ν), transported (ἀγαγεῖν), unloaded (καθελέσθαι) and carved/ finished (ἐργάσ[ασ]θαι) for the making of different architectural elements.

On side B the Prostoon, the porch, of the Telesterion in Eleusis is mentioned for the first time, in relation with foundation works (στρωματίζειν):

Side B, line 53-57:

καὶ καθελέσθαι ἐν τῶι ἱερῶι ὑγιεῖς [κα]-

[ὶ ἀθραύστους· τοῦ π]ροστώιου τοῦ Ἐλευσῖνι ἀνακαθηράμενον στ[ρ]-

[ωματίζειν τὸ πρόσ]θιον τοῦ στρώματος καὶ τὰς ἐπικαμπὰς μέχρ[ι]

[τοῦ τοίχου, πλάτο]ς ποιοῦντα τῆς τάφρο δέκα πόδας· καὶ ἐγφορήσα-

[ντα τὴν γῆν ἔξω το]ῦ ἱεροῦ τιθέναι τοὺς λίθους τῆς μαλ̣ακῆς πέτρ-

[ας προσεπιτεμό]ντα οὗ ἂν ἐ̑ι πέτρα·


..and shall be unloaded in the sanctuary sound and unbroken. Clearing out for the Portico at Eleusis, foundations for the front and for the return to the wall shall be built, the width of the trench being 10 ft. And the earth shall be removed from the sanctuary, and the blocks of the soft stone shall be laid, beds being cut for them in the rock. (K. Jeppesen 1957, 126f.)

This inscription represents a decree of the Epistatai (commission of public works) of Eleusis according to which the initiatives for the construction should be taken and fulfilled by the city (Polis) of Eleusis. There are no contractors, guarantors or prices mentioned, thus the inscriptions cannot be identified as a contract. Similar to this kind of inscription is the so called syngraphai (architects´ report) for the Arsenal in Piraeus, another work of the architect Philon. Unfortunately there is nothing left from that famous building and the detailed description remains for now without confirmation.

Bringing together a big part of the stones mentioned in the text of the decree K. Jeppesen managed to build up a complete Doric entablature (Jeppesen 1957, 131, Fig. 77) whose large size could have belonged to no other building in the sanctuary but to the Telesterion. From the size of some details like triglyphs and metopes stays clear that they were intended for the frieze of this entablature.

The orthography indicates a date for the inscription shortly before 350 BCE. However the instructions of this inscription, very likely the design of Ictinus, have never been put into practice according to the archaeological evidence and to another decree that testifies the resignation of the implementation of this work (IG II² 204). Other inscriptions indicate that the matter, or a similar project, was finished some years later.

Other inscriptions

A series of inscriptions indicate that the project was resumed not long after the carving of the decree. They all represent contracts for specific stages of the construction works and give the names of contractors, guarantors and some exact dates. The earliest contract should be the one indicating the laying of foundations (IG II² 1671). Again the orthography and the form of the letters give a date shortly after 350 BCE for the carving of this inscription. The text does not explicitly mention the porch of the Telesterion as a place of work, but according to Jeppesen the old work here means some existent building or the older works on the site described in the decree. Other two contracts, IG II² 1670 and IG II² 1681, orthographically and technically very similar, are relatable to a structure that is to receive a stylobate and steps (krepis). The importance of these two documents is in the reading of line 23 by Jappesen: μετά Νικομαχων άρχοντα. The archonship of Nikomachos was 341/0 BCE. Thus both inscriptions can be dated to this year.

Soon after the fundaments were laid, the work on the columns should have begun. The next inscription, IG II² 1675, testifies the making of poloi and empolia of bronze for the joints of column drums of the porch. An account of the Epistatai from 336-333 BCE, IG II² 1673, indicates the transportation of column drums from Mount Pentelikon to Eleusis and mentions the name of the architect.

The contract IG II² 1680 tells about transporting and uploading 14 capitals for the columns of the Prostoon at Eleusis (τά ἐπίκρανα τῶν κιόνωντῶ νεἰς τὸ προστῶιο[ν] τὸ Ἐλευσῖνι τετταρα καί δεκα ἀγαγεῖν), recording the main dimensions of the capitals. A rare case here is the fact that the dimensions that can be taken from the only survived fragment of a Philonean capital correspond exactly with the measurements given in the inscription. The foot unit of ca. 32.75 cm given in the contract matches the measuring of the Philonean foundations. Another contract, IG II² 1679, preserved in only a few words, mentions the final carving of the 14 capitals, referring obviously to the same project as in IG II² 1680. The quality of stone and the characters of the writing of both contracts are almost identical with the ones on IG II² 1675 and give a similar date between 330 and 300 BCE. This date confirms the indications of Vitruvius that the Portico was the work of Philon, the architect of the Arsenal at Piraeus, under the government of Demetrius Phalereus (315-307 BCE).

Two other inscriptions, IG II² 1682 and IG II² 1683 (revised by A. Jördens) dated in the second half of the 4th century BCE, are again contracts with the specified names of the guarantors. These inscriptions should indicate existing constructions at the site of Eleusis. The content mentions the laying of foundations, which Jördens sees as the plan but not the realized foundations of the porch from the decree IG II² 1666. This find confirms the fact that no transportation of stone material is mentioned in IG II² 1682. It was already explained that the instructions of the decree was interrupted and never brought to an end after a big amount of stone had been transported at Eleusis. This leads to the conclusion that the contract refers to a new construction built with the material available at the site or already brought from the old work. The remains on the field designated as P and Q foundations (image), dated plausibly by K. Jeppesen around 360-330 BCE, are identified with the ones planned in the decree and realized with the contract IG II² 1682.

Eleusis, plan of the sanctuary of Demeter


The science accepts that these inscriptions document the building works on Portico, Prostoon, and on the east side of the Telesterion that were planned by the Epistatai of Eleusis and fulfilled by Philon, the architect of the Arsenal at Piraeus, in the second part of the 4th century BC. It was possible to reconstruct the chronology of the building proceedings, single architectural elements, the size of the whole construction and its date only by virtue of the detailed information from the epigraphic sources.


Jeppesen, K. Paradeigmata. Three Mid-Fourth Century Main Works of Hellenic Architecture Reconsidered. Aarhus 1958. Print.

Jördens, A. “Ig Ii² 1682 Und Die Baugeschichte Des Eleusinischen Telesterion Im 4. Jh. V. Chr.” 81 (1999): 359-91. Print.

Noack, F. Eleusis. Die Baugeschichtliche Entwicklung Des Heiligtums. Aufnahmen Und Untersuchungen. Berlin und Leipzig1927. Print.

Travlos, J. N., and K.  Kourouniotis. “Symbole Eis Ten Oikodomiken Istorian Tou Eleusiniakou Telesteriou.” Αρχαιολογικό Δελτίο. Vol. 16. Apospasma Ek Tou Archaiologikou Deltiou 1935. Print.


Denitsa Dzhigova

University of Heidelberg