About the Expedition

Sanctuary of the Great Gods on Samothrace

In antiquity, the fame of Samothrace, a tiny windswept island in the northern Aegean, emanated from its mystery cult of the Megaloi Theoi, the Great Gods, whose rites of initiation promised protection at sea and the opportunity to “become a better and more pious person in all ways” (Diodorus).  The Sanctuary itself has the unmistakable aura of sacred ground.  Set facing the sea in a cleft at the base of Mt. Phengari, the Sanctuary of the Great Gods physically integrates the divine forces of earth, sky, and sea that played a fundamental role in the mysteria.  Within its sacred landscape events occurred that shaped both the mythic and historical ancient world.   The island’s legendary family sired the Trojan race, gave form to the personification of Harmonia, and taught humans the sacred rites of the mysteria.  Here, legend has it that the parents of Alexander the Great first met; here, the last Macedonian king held out against the Romans.  The nature of the rites of initiation was held in silent trust by the community of initiated.  However, their power to transform is well attested by ancient authors, by the lists of initiates who came to the sanctuary, by the innovative architecture that sheltered the rituals, by the splendid dedications offered to the Gods, and by the humble but crucial detritus of cult—pottery and animal bones—that built up over centuries of use spanning from the 7th century BC to the 4th century AD.  The sanctuary thus provides a key point of access into the spiritual, political, and cultural psyche of the classical world.

The transformative power of the Mysteries is most palpably signaled today by the deployment of the innovative buildings that once framed the rites within the sacred landscape—a dozen extraordinary monuments, each distinct within the history of Greek architecture, each deftly positioned within the terrain to heighten the experience of the initiate, each archaeologically well-preserved although no longer standing.  In concert with the landscape, they justifiably make Samothrace one of the most important expressions of Hellenistic sacred space in the ancient Mediterranean. 


Framing the Mysteries Research Project

With the support of the Collaborative Research in the Humanities Grant (CRitH) from Emory University, and in collaboration with the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University and the ΙΘ’ Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, Komotini, we are working to develop new strategies for understanding how Samothracian architecture was designed and the way in which it acts in concert with the sacred space to craft the experience of initiation. Forging liaisons across the disciplines of Art History, Computer Science, Statistics, and the Carlos Museum, the principal investigators, Bonna Wescoat (Art History), Vicki Hertzberg (Biostatistics, Rollins School of Public Health), Elizabeth Hornor (Michael C. Carlos Museum), and Michael Page (Woodruff Library) and their students (listed below) have developed three interrelated projects that engage the interconnectedness of architecture, landscape, and religious ritual:

*   Recreate the pilgrim’s experience by building and then traversing a three-dimensional digital reconstructed model of the  Sanctuary;

*   Articulate the design principles of Samothracian architecture by developing statistical methods and computational tools to analyze the metrics of Samothracian buildings; and

*   Develop the i-Site pilot program for communicating and contextualizing this work through a virtual exhibition and blog,, in conjunction with the Michael C. Carlos Museum’s website.  

The platform on which the research will be partially disseminated is this website, The methods of inquiry developed here function both as research tools and as means of communication, with the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on Samothrace serving as the paradigm.

In exploring new ways of understanding human action and the constructed environment in the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, we hope to develop a particular interface of archaeology, computer science, geospatial referencing, and statistics that will create an effective way to answer questions concerning spatial environments across other cultures and places.


About Us

We are the latest in a long succession of explorers going back to the famous antiquarian, Cyriacus of Ancona, who visited Samothrace in 1444.  German, French, Greek, Austrian, and Czech investigators have all helped to build the story of Samothrace.  The American team, sponsored by the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University, began its work at the Sanctuary in 1938. Except for a hiatus during World War II, work at the Sanctuary has continued ever since.  The project presented here has involved two concerted years of fieldwork and research, but its foundation was established in the many years of excavation and research conducted by Karl Lehmann, Phyllis Williams Lehmann, and most especially James R. McCredie, director of Excavations at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, Samothrace.  We work under the supervision of Dimitris Matsas of the ΙΘ’ Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, Komotini.

Bonna Wescoat supervises this research program.  The principal investigators include Vicki Hertzberg and Michael Page. The research has been conducted by several students whose Samothrace Research Fellowships have been supported by the CRitH Grant, including Amy Sowder (PhD Emory), Susan Blevins (PhD candidate, Art History), Rachel Foulk (PhD candidate, Art History), S. Margueritte Cox (M.A., Rollins School of Public Health), and Kyle Thayer (MA candidate, Math and Computer Science).  Maggie Popkin (PhD candidate, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU) has also been integral to the project. J. Matthew Harrington (PhD, University of Michigan) and C. Jake Butera (PhD candidate, Duke University) conducted the site survey.  For the participants each year in the field, please go to our report for the Field Seasons


Specific Projects


The three dimensional model relies on the new survey of the Sanctuary conducted by J. Matthew Harrington and C. Jake Butera in 2008 and 2009. Matthew Harrington created the structure of the model and many of its buildings in the program 3-D Studio Max.  He has been joined by Kyle Thayer, who has worked on the details of many buildings as well as their rendering in the program, Lightwave.  Kyle Thayer has been responsible for creating the movies that accompany this website.  Bonna Wescoat has overseen the project at all stages.

Collecting over 30,000 topographical points, the survey team included in 2008 Maggie Popkin (PhD candidate, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU), Genevieve Hendricks (PhD candidate, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU), Susan L. Blevins (PhD candidate, Emory University), Alexandre Miller (PhD student, Emory University), Sarah Madole (PhD candidate, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, and Ann Marie Perl (MA candidate, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU).  In 2009, the assisting team members included Lydia Herring-Harrington (PhD candidate, University of Michigan), Kira Jones (PhD student, Emory University), Susan Blevins (PhD candidate, Emory University), Hugh H. W. Green (undergraduate, Emory University); Abigail B. W. Green (Head-Royce High School), Sarah Atkinson (Head-Royce High School).



The Interactive Map is chiefly the product of Emory University undergraduates, under the direction of Bonna Wescoat and Rachel Foulk.   The map itself is based on the work of John Kurtich, longtime architect in the Sanctuary; it was color-coded by Hugh H. W. Green, vectorized by Michael Page, and made interactive by Kyle Thayer.   

The participants involved in documenting the plan include:

Rachel Foulk, PhD candidate, Art History Department, Emory University

SIRE (Scholarly Inquiry and Research at Emory) Students: Desiree Gonzales (2007-2008); Chase Jordan, Jennifer Levy, and   Alexandra Morrison (2008-2009).

Emory Art History 470 Seminar:  Sanctuary of the Great Gods, Samothrace, Fall 2009: Frances Allitt, Katie Jacob, Christina Jurusik, David Kerins, Jaclyn Kireyczyk, Michelle Kleinman, Andrew Magee, Julia Morgan, Anni Pullagura, Andrea Toston, Atlee Tyree, and Kaitlin Westfall.

Yong and Hugh workroom

Yong Kim and Hugh Green working on a reconstruction.


Susan Blevins, Amy Sowder, and Maggie Popkin have taken the lead on the section of the website devoted to finds from the Eastern Hill.  The photographs of the objects are chiefly the work of Craig Mauzy; those of architectural details are mostly by Bonna Wescoat.  Nora Dimitrova (PhD Cornell) translated the inscriptions. The team that has worked on the finds from the Eastern Hill for publication includes Susan Blevins and Susan Rotroff (ceramics and lamps), Laura Gadbery and Carmen Arnold-Biucchi (coins), Jasper Gaunt (metals), Nora Dimitrova (inscriptions), Maggie Popkin (stones), and Sheila Dillon (terracottas)



Michael Page and Vicki Hertzberg

Beginning with the 2009 field season the research team began taking georeferenced photographic surveys at Samothrace to inform the topographic survey, provide site and situation information for the research, add to the historical record, and to create Web content for education.  Many of the panoramics are gigapixel images enabled with deep zoom capabilities that allow the user to interact with the image by panning and zooming in on high detail. The gigapixel images were captured using standard point and shoot cameras (Canon A720IS,  <!--EndFragment--> SX100IS, & G-10) and three robotic mounts (GigaPan EPIC 100 and 2 Beta units).

The GigaPan robotic mounts were developed by Carnegie Mellon University in collaboration with NASA Ames Intelligent Robotics Group, with support from Google. The robotic mounts enable the camera to steadily capture hundreds of zoomed in images in a pattern with some overlap that allow the images to be stitched together using specialized software. Once the images are compiled they are taken into Adobe Photoshop for post processing and converted into the Flash-based application, Zoomify.

Gigapixel images were taken at most of the benchmark locations used for the topographic survey and two GPS units (Garmin GPS60csx & Juno Trimble) were used to tag the location of other captures around the site. The “geotagged” gigapixel images were then stored in a Geographic Information System (GIS) that includes basemap data of the island and site, an elevation model, and other thematic layers. By compiling the data within a GIS the researchers will be able to track observation and conduct spatial analyses over time as well as consider the Sanctuary in the context of how it is situated on the island of Samothrace.



Vicki Herzberg and S. Margueritte Cox



In collaboration with Elzabeth Hornor, Marguerite Colville Ingram Director of Education of the Michael C. Carlos Museum, we developed a blog aimed at communicating daily work and interests in the field.  The blog was particularly designed to meet the interests of high school students. Many working on the site during the 2009 season contributed, but the lion’s share of the blogging was undertaken by the high school members of the team, Abigail Green, Sarah Atkinson, and rising freshman, Hugh Green.



The website for this project was designed by Kirk Leitch of Times3 Graphic Design, working with Susan Blevins, Bonna Wescoat, and Elizabeth Hornor.