Archaeologists Find Ancient Statue of Apollo That Probably Adorned a Magnificent Fountain

The marble bust sheds new light on the layered history of a 2,000-year-old Greek city

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The marble statue likely depicts the Greek god Apollo and decorated a fountain in Philippi. Greek Ministry of Education

In the ancient Greek city of Philippi, researchers have discovered the head of a god: Despite his missing nose, body and characteristic bow and lyre, they have identified the marble face as the mythological Apollo, son of Zeus and Leto.

Students and faculty from Greece’s Aristotle University of Thessaloniki unearthed the statue in 2023, according to a Google-translated statement from the Greek Ministry of Culture. As Anastasios Tantsis, an archaeologist at the university, tells All That’s Interesting’s Kaleena Fraga, “The moment of the discovery was thrilling.”

“[The students] were really enthusiastic,” he adds.” We believe that even though these are moments of special importance for us too, sharing them with our students adds to the thrill.”

A team of researchers from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki discovered the artifact in 2023. Greek Ministry of Education

The team determined that the head, complete with a crown of laurels, dates to the second or early third century C.E. Researchers think it was part of a grand fountain that once stood at an intersection of two streets in Philippi, reports Arkeonews’ Oguz Buyukyildirim.

The bust is the latest in a long line of archaeological discoveries within the ruins of Philippi, a UNESCO World Heritage site in northeastern Greece. The city was founded in 356 B.C.E. by the Macedonian king Philip II, father of Alexander the Great. It later became a vibrant religious center, and early inhabitants built basilicas to commemorate a first-century visit by the Apostle Paul. The remains of these structures “constitute an exceptional testimony to the early establishment of Christianity,” according to UNESCO.

Unlike the previously discovered Hercules statue, only the head of this Apollo statue has been found. Greek Ministry of Education

An earthquake in 620 C.E. inflicted significant damage on Philippi. Much later, following Ottoman conquests in the 14th century, it was abandoned. When archaeologists returned to the site in the 20th century, excavations revealed ancient baths, city walls, a forum and a Greek theater.

Today, the city is still rich with archaeological treasures. In 2022, fragments of a statue of Hercules were unearthed at the site. This statue, which may have once held a club and lion’s head, dates to around the second century—just like the newly discovered marble Apollo. Researchers think both artifacts once adorned the fountain.

However, the Apollo and Hercules sculptures are both much older than the fountain, which “took its final form during the eighth to ninth centuries,” writes the culture ministry. So why did the fountain’s creators, who would have been medieval Christians, incorporate Greek deities into their design?

The city of Philippi was founded by a Macedonian king in 356 B.C.E. Berthold Werner via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

Perhaps Hercules’ heroic story—in which he chooses virtue over vice—could have been reworked for a Christian audience, as Tantsis tells All That’s Interesting. Still, even if this were the case, “there is no such evidence for Apollo,” who was worshiped for his powers of light, music and prophecy, among other things.

“It is very early to determine the connotations of both figures in a medieval urban context,” Tantsis adds. “It is safe to assume that they were seen primarily as works of ancient—and certainly great—art attesting to historical and cultural continuity.”

According to the culture ministry, the recent research also sheds new light on the fountain’s shape and function, and excavations will continue later this year. As Tantsis tells All That’s Interesting, the team hopes to “unearth further evidence about the structure embellished by these statues and the area it stood in.”

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