Plan, Olynthus, House of Many Colors

Context: Olynthus
Type: House
Summary: Well-decorated house of regular plan in the Villa Section of Olynthus.
Date: ca. 432 BC - ca. 348 BC

ca. 17 m. square.

Period: Classical/Late Clas.


Fairly regular Olynthian type of house. Relatively small courtyard; "semi-enclosed" pastas not completely open to court. Unusual paved "exedra" to south of court. Two adjoining rooms in NW probably forming a sort of light well. Andron and anteroom in NE corner; kitchen-complex in SW corner; storeroom in SE corner. Second story.

Date Description:

No earlier than 432 BC, when Olynthus was "synoecized"; destroyed by Philip II in 348 BC. Probably not built before ca. 400 BC, since most of the houses in this part of the city probably date to the fourth century.

Other Notes:

The "House of Many Colors," (F -ii 9), in the Villa Section of Olynthus and so one of the later houses at the site, was built partly on a terrace cut into the slope of the hill, so that west of the house the bedrock rises almost to the surface. As a result, the west part of the house was quite deeply buried, under more than a meter of fill; the eastern part, however, was buried very shallowly, so that the andron in the northeast corner and the storeroom in the southeast are partly eroded away. Numerous traces of fire, blackening the stucco of the walls, reddening the mudbricks and leaving layers of ash in many of the rooms, attest the violent destruction of the house.

On the south of the rather small court was a deep portico or exedra (l), separated from the court by a colonnade. At its west end was a built altar, covered by a canopy supported by two bases. The court was thus one site of household cult, as implied by literary sources.

The pastas (e) was of the "semi-enclosed" type, separated from the court by a low wall which probably supported a colonnade above, and entered through a door at the northwest corner of the court. It was thus more sheltered from the elements than was the more common, open type of pastas. To judge from the quantity and types of artifacts found there, the pastas was one main locus of domestic activity. A marble louter (shallow basin on stand) was found in situ in the southwest corner, together with a storage amphora; these were probably used for washing, the amphora holding wash water. Nearby were two portable altars attesting household ritual. The louter may thus have been used for ritual cleansing (in addition perhaps to ordinary household washing). A somewhat similar situation was found in the pastas of the Villa of the Bronzes. Four more amphoras in the east end of the pastas stored some other substance, perhaps wine or oil. A number of vases were also found in the pastas: a fishplate, three black-glaze plates, a shallow bowl, a red-figure pelike, a miniature krater, and a lekythos. a red figured krater, a lid, and a skyphos were found in the west part of the room.

Three rooms (a, b and c) open onto the pastas. Rooms a and b were separated by a pillar-partition. This and similar spaces at Olynthus may have been light wells, the smaller room (b) being the light well, open to the sky and illuminating the larger room. The pillars would have supported a second story room above room a. The open "skylight" could have been fitted with a cover (thli/a) to keep out the rain in bad weather, or perhaps was lit with special "chimney tiles" with elliptical openings (o)pai=a), examples of which were found in the house. Other possible light-wells at Olynthus were found in the Villa of the Bronzes and house A iv 9.

Both these rooms were apparently still under construction when the house was burned. The main room contained an amphora full of sand for making cement, red and blue pigment stored in a small vase and piled on the floor, probably for painting walls, two small pigment grinders, and a pile of blue stone pebbles, probably intended for a mosaic floor; while the light well contained another storage amphora, this one full of cement, and a pile of cement lying on the floor nearby, a terracotta "pithos lid or table top" and a terracotta tray partly under the cement pile, which might have been used for mixing cement, and a pile of black pebbles. But although this suite was apparently being refurbished, it also constituted another important workplace in the House of Many Colors. The larger room contained 35 loomweights, about the right number for a loom, an epinetron and a spindle whorl, while nine more loomweights were found in the light well. Well-lit and airy yet sheltered, the larger room would have been a comfortable and convenient room for weaving. This room also contained many table vases: two fishplates (one red-figured), two plates, two hydrias and a pelike, a lekanis and three lekanis lids (two red-figured), two lekythoi, a guttus, a group of twelve miniature cups, six saucers, a skyphos (?), and two lids. The assemblage apparently contained no coarse or cookingwares. The scarcity of cups here and elsewhere in the house is surprising, and might suggest that drinking vessels of bronze or more precious metals were used in place of pottery, but were looted when the house was destroyed. The room also contained a complete terracotta female head and a female mask.

Room c, on the other hand, was more finely decorated, with cement floor and painted walls, but contained only a few, miscellaneous objects: hardware, bronze fragments and the rim of a pithos. Like so many "North Rooms," the function of this space remains uncertain: its fancy decoration might suggest a room for socializing, akin to the andron.

In the northeast corner of the house was the andron (d), of the usual seven-couch size. This was entered from a relatively large anteroom (f). Both these rooms were shallowly buried, and perhaps partly for this reason few finds are preserved here; but in most other houses, androns contained relatively few artifacts. The andron itself contained only two iron spearheads. At the south end of the anteroom was found a cluster of 16 bronze decorative bosses with carbonized wood adhering to some of them, perhaps the remains of a chest or cabinet used to store equipment for the symposium, for in this area was also found a fishplate, two plates, and fragments of a krater.

The southwest corner of the house was taken up by the kitchen complex, which was entered from the courtyard. The kitchen (k) had a built hearth about in its center, although slightly skew to the walls of the room. The hearth was filled with ashes, but contained no other finds, such as bones or pottery. Three storage amphoras were found in the room, useful for storing water and other materials for cooking, but the room contained few other artifacts, only a lead disk with lotus and palmette decoration, a loomweight, a saucer, a coin and an arrowhead.

Adjoining the kitchen was a small room (g), which corresponds to the bathroom in other kitchen complexes. However, while in other houses these rooms usually contained bathtubs or holes where tubs had been robbed out, there was no sign of a bathtub here. This room contained an intact upper and lower grindstone and a few vases.

The "flue" (h) was separated from the kitchen by a pillar-partition; this was probably not an entrance, however, but instead access was gained through a door from the courtyard. The "flue" was of an unusual design: instead of the usual slab or plain earth floor, it had a trench cut into the bedrock running down the center of the room. The trench was filled with a deep layer of ash containing many bones of cows, sheep, goats, pigs and deer. Robinson suggests that the trench formed a kind of broiling pit, which was filled with coals to cook meat on spits. The flue also contained many artifacts, some of which are easily understood as cooking equipment, such as a spit support, but also including a great many other table vases, hardware, terracottas and other miscellaneous finds which are not so easily explained.

The exedra (l) south of the court was divided from the courtyard by a colonnade, and is unique at Olynthus. Its cement and pebble floor was almost bare of artifacts; a pit at its southern end may have been an unfinished cistern.

In the southeast corner of the house was a room (m) whose floor was about 0.9 m below that of the court and exedra. At least four pithoi in this room attest its use as a storeroom or piqew/n. The contents of the pithoi were not preserved, but they most likely held agricultural products. This partly subterranean, cool room would, as Xenophon points out, be suitable for storage of grain and wine (Xen. Oec. 9.2-11).

The house almost certainly had two stories. A rubble foundation spans the space between the east wall of the exedra and the easternmost colonnade base, and probably either served as or supported a stairbase. Another base at the south wall of the exedra probably supported a landing. The presence of rooms with pillar-partitions also usually implies a second story, the pillars supporting the wall of the upstairs room. Finally, over the cement and pebble floor of the exedra were found fragments of another mosaic floor, one piece about 1.3 m in length, which seem to have fallen from this second story.

The House of Many Colors is a fine example of a "regular" Olynthian house with a full spectrum of specialized domestic rooms. The main areas of work tend to be the best-lit: the pastas and room a, lit by the light well. The court contained few artifacts and was rather small, which stands in contrast to some other houses; but this house has an unusually large amount of well-lit but sheltered space around the court, and those spaces may have taken over some of the activities which were done in the courts in other houses.

The range of activities which can be documented in the house is perfectly compatible with what literary sources would lead us to expect in a purely domestic home: grinding grain, cooking, eating, weaving, religious cult, storage (presumably of foodstuffs), entertainment and socializing, sleeping. These activities seem to be fairly strictly spatially organized, although rooms shared more than one function: washing, domestic storage and cult in the pastas; weaving and more domestic storage in the North Room a; cooking and food preparation in the "flue" and kitchen; large-scale storage, probably of agricultural products, in the storeroom or piqew/n.

The house had no workrooms or ergasteria not involved with normal household production like weaving and food preparation: no shops and no special installations such as are relatively common on the North Hill. While the owner might have had such workshops outside his house, it is most likely that his main source of income was agriculture, the primary and favored occupation of most Greek citizens.

This house is somewhat unusual in having the entrance to the andron rather separate from the rest of the house: the public, men's dining room seems to have been entered from the entrance hall (j), leaving the rest of the house more private and enclosed. But this probably does not constitute a formal distinction between the women's and men's quarters, the a)ndrwni=tis and the gunaikwni=tis, at least in the sense used by Xenophon and others (Xen. Oec. 9.2-11). Much of the ground floor of the house seems to have been used for women's work, including the suite with light well and the kitchen complex; and these areas are not closed off from the rest of the house. While outsiders coming to symposia here did not need to pass through the rest of the house to reach the andron, the house itself is not strictly divided.

Sources Used:

Olynthus, 12, 183-206; other Olynthus volumes; unpublished excavation notes.