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Setting the Stage: Lessons from Ancient Architecture on Building a Hopeful Future

Julia Juhasz
University of Arizona

Ancient Greek theaters were sacred to the god Dionysus. Entering the sacred space and participating in a performance was to allow the god to enter oneself, an experience powerful enough that Plato considered drama highly dangerous and corrupting. Through a concerted excavation, reconstruction, and conservation program, the remains of many stone theaters function today as living cultural heritage, housing performances of ancient Greek plays as well as modern theatrical and musical performances. This is unique in the Western tradition, which places historical value in the physical materials of archaeological sites and artifacts rather than the practices that created and maintained them. Western laws and norms are so invested in preservation that archaeological space is considered distinct from functional space. Despite this conceptual divide, many Greek theaters have been resurrected in order to continue their function as performance spaces. Modern use of ancient theaters in Greece and the larger Mediterranean region is one of the most compelling arguments against the entirely preservationist approach to heritage spaces, because their historical, aesthetic, and spiritual value is intrinsically tied to their continued use.

It is implicit in the education and training for archaeological research that our work impacts only the dead. The growing critique of this perspective in archaeology and heritage studies, particularly from Indigenous and Feminist scholars, mirrors the international trend in policy and practice towards centering the rights and values of invested communities. This paper uses spirit of place, which centers the experience of and connection to culturally significant spaces, as a decolonizing method for understanding the role of ancient built heritage in modern society. This analysis also engages with rooted cosmopolitanism to examine the multiscalar relationship between built heritage and the overlapping communities invested in it. The modern use of ancient Greek theaters is presented in this paper as a deliberate contemplative engagement with the past which can reveal the sacred nature of these spaces for modern communities.

Finally, this paper will discuss the utility of a spiritualism-based framework as an alternative model for the conceptualization and treatment of built heritage. The current international cultural heritage framework originates in international law and creates a top-down structure embedding Western values into the presentation and management of heritage sites globally. The language of sanctity is a hopeful way to address this issue. Approaching built heritage as inherently sacred space refocuses heritage work around the rituals and practices that tie invested communities to place, forming a foundation sustainability and community resilience.


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Brook, Isis. “Can ‘Spirit of Place’ Be a Guide to Ethical Building.” In Ethics and the Built Environment, edited by Warwick Fox. New York: Routledge University Press, 2000.

Hardwick, Lorna, and Christopher Stray, eds. A Companion to Classical Receptions. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Malden, MA ; Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.

Meskell, Lynn. Cosmopolitan Archeologies. Duke University Press, 2009.

Supernant, Kisha, Jane Eva Baxter, Natasha Lyons, and Sonya Atalay. Archaeologies of the Heart. Springer, 2020.

Values in heritage management (Symposium), Erica C. Avrami, Susan Macdonald, Randall Mason, and David Keith Myers. 2019. Values in heritage management: emerging approaches and research directions.

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