The Mystery of Eleon’s Polygonal Wall

By Jonathan Granirer

Upon arriving at ancient Eleon, I was amazed by the site’s polygonal wall, which boasts a complex architectural design and stands partially intact defiantly upon the east side of Eleon’s acropolis, despite the passage of 25 centuries since its construction and countless robberies.[1] Immediately, I pictured Eleon as an impenetrable walled fortress. Yet I soon learned that the wall may not have served a defensive purpose at all. This left me eager to learn why this intricate architectural structure was constructed. As it turns out, there is no straightforward explanation available to us. However, this wall was likely intended to make a statement, but whether it was meant to represent a community’s religious fervor, an individual’s wealth and power, or something else entirely, is unclear.

Eleon’s polygonal wall, which was completed by 500 BCE, was built using the Lesbian polygonal masonry style–named for its many uses on the Aegean Island of Lesbos (Fig. 1).[2] This style of masonry is complex as it requires building a curved foundation and then cutting stones to match the curvature.[3] At Eleon, the southern portion of the polygonal wall is constructed within a few centimeters of a perfect circle, which makes it an impressive example of masonry.[4] Additionally, the labour force required to complete this wall would have been significant since the wall initially contained approximately 1500 cubic metres of rock and weighed 4000 tons.[5]

Figure 1: The polygonal wall along the east edge of the acropolis at ancient Eleon (Courtesy of the Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project).

Despite the high level of skill and resources which were needed to construct this wall, it is actually relatively weak and it is not nearly long enough to provide meaningful protection to Eleon’s east side.[6] Therefore, it is unlikely that the wall was intended to provide defensive support for the settlement.[7] Furthermore, the complexity of the wall’s structure serves no purpose aside from appearing impressive.[8] However, it is not entirely fair to label the wall as being solely ‘for show’ as it may have served a limited purpose by directing traffic into and out of an area within the acropolis, among other things. Thus, it is likely that Eleon’s wall was built primarily to serve a certain symbolic purpose, which might be attributed to several plausible explanations.

The first possible meaning of the polygonal wall relates to Eleon being a likely religious centre during the time of its construction. There has been a significant amount of archaeological evidence unearthed which may indicate cult-related activity within Eleon, especially in and around the entrance into the acropolis, near the polygonal wall.[9] This evidence includes figurines and various kinds of votive materials,[10] which date to a time period contemporary with the construction of the polygonal wall.[11] Additionally, the sole two historical figures whom we know of from Eleon, a collector of oracles named Antichares and the seer Bakis were both religious figures, which is unlikely to be a coincidence and thus further adds to the evidence of Eleon as a religious centre.[12]

It may seem odd to link the creation of a wall with religious activity, however there is precedent for similar walls having been constructed within religious centres, despite this style of masonry being relatively uncommon within this region and era. For instance, a Lesbian polygonal wall was constructed at Delphi (Fig. 2), a foremost religious centre in Greece, which both employs the same extravagant masonry style as Eleon’s polygonal wall and was built within the same 50-year period.[13] However, while an elegant polygonal wall at Delphi is somewhat fitting considering its importance within Greece, Eleon was comparatively unimportant and thus its polygonal wall seems out of place. [14] Perhaps a rough equivalent would be finding a 50,000 seat stadium in a town of 5,000 people. While there is currently no explanation for why Eleon possesses a polygonal wall in excess of its relative importance, there are several other possible factors behind the construction of the wall which may provide some context.

Figure 2: The polygonal retaining wall for the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (B. Werner; From Wikimedia Commons by CC BY-SA 3.0).

Like many monuments, it is possible that Eleon’s polygonal wall was funded by one or several wealthy benefactors who may have wished to impose their prominence upon Eleon’s landscape. This would explain how this expensive construction project was funded, but, as of now, there appears to be no evidence which supports this possibility. Additionally, there were two large walls built during the Mycenaean era[15] by inhabitants of Eleon, which are located nearly directly underneath the polygonal wall.[16] This may indicate that Eleon’s 6th century BCE inhabitants were attempting to replicate the monumental constructions of their forebears.[17] It should be noted that none of these possible explanations for the mystery of Eleon’s wall are mutually exclusive. Rather, it is may have been that the construction of the polygonal wall was only undertaken due to a confluence of factors.

It is fascinating that so many resources were put into a wall without a clear practical purpose, and which seems out of place within the context of Eleon. It’s unfortunate that the specific motivations for its construction are currently obscure. Nevertheless, new discoveries are always being made at Eleon thanks to the work of the Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project and thus there is hope that the mystery of Eleon’s polygonal wall will be solved in the future.

[1] Burke et al, 2014, p. 252. Burke et al, 2020, p. 470.

[2] Burke et al, 2014, p. 252.

[3] Ibid., pp. 252-253.

[4] Marsh and Jones, 2021, p. 166. & Burke et al, 2014, p. 252.

[5] Marsh and Jones, 2021, p. 169.

[6] Ibid., p. 181.

[7] Ibid., p. 181.

[8] Ibid., p. 181.

[9] Burke et al, 2020, p. 470.

[10] Votive material often refers to material used to provide offerings to deities, though votive objects are not always necessarily related to religious practises.

Additionally, figurines are often, but by no means always, associated with religious practises.

[11] Ibid, p. 472.

[12] Aravintos et al, 2016, p. 310.

[13] E Partida, Ministry of Culture and Sports, “The Polygonal Wall of Delphi,” 2012,

[14] Burke et al, 2014, pp. 8-9.

[15] The Mycenaean era spans from 1750 to 1050 BCE.

[16] Burke et al, 2017, pp. 9-10. 

[17] Burke et al, 2017, pp. 9-10. 

Works Cited

Aravantinos, Vassilis, Brendan Burke, Bryan Burns, Yannis Fapas, Susan Lupack, and Camilla MacKay. “The Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project 2007–2010: The Intensive Surface Survey—Eleon.” Mouseion: Journal of the Classical Association of Canada 13, no. 2 (2016): 293–357.

Burke, Brendan, Bryan Burns, Alexandra Charami, Trevor van Damme, Nicholas Herrmann, and Bartłomiej Lis. “Fieldwork at Ancient Eleon in Boeotia, 2011–2018.” American Journal of Archaeology 124, no. 3 (2020): 441–76.

Burke, Brendan, Bryan Burns, and Alexandra Charami. “Archaic and Classical Eleon in Eastern Boeotia: Excavations from 2011 to 2015.” From Maple to Olive, 2017, 385–99.

Burke, Brendan, Bryan Burns, and Alexandra Charami. “The Polygonal Wall at Eleon with Reference to the Mycenaean Past.” Canadian Institute in Greece 8, no. 8 (2014): 249-265.  

Marsh, Ben, and Janet Jones. “The Arcuate Polygonal-Block Wall at Eleon.” Mouseion 18, no. 1 (2021): 163–82.

Patrida, E. “The Polygonal Wall of Delphi.” Ministry of Culture and Sports, 2012.

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