Inventories of the ancient world


Inventory lists may sound pretty boring, mundane and run of the mill. But the ancient Greeks liked their lists and one of the most interesting kinds of list was the inventory list. These detailed all the objects that were held normally within a particular temple or sanctuary.


Thus on the Acropolis stood tall marble stele inscribed with lists of what was inside the Parthenon. They make fascinating reading: not just gold offering cups, but more bizarre and unexpected items like Milesian couches and rotting Persian arrows. The Parthenon was full of sacred bric a brac accumulated from around the ancient world.

But why were these lists inscribed? In part, they played a role in the accountancy of Athenian democracy. When an official’s term came to an end, a stock check was taken to ensure that what those officials had inherited under their command had been correctly used and maintained.

But over time, these lists started to play very different roles. As the years went by, list after list was erected for all to see – a visual documentation of the contents of the most sacred sanctum of the city.

It was, however, a documentation that changed over time, as the city’s fortunes rose and fell, as gold objects from the Parthenon had to be melted down and used to help Athens through the lean times particularly in the Peloponnesian war at the end of the 5th century BC, and as they were replaced under Lycurgus in the 4th century BC. These lists in a way reflected and chronicled the fortunes of the city.

But it was not only Athens who made lists. Lots have been found, particularly at the sanctuary of Delos. Here the lists may have played another role. Delos was long under Athenian control, and the Athenians made long lists of all the sacred goods in the many temples and shrines on the island.

When Delos gained its independence (314-166 BC), the Delians continued these lists but seem to have significantly change the format of the inventory and dating system used: a small demonstration of independence through the style of bureaucratic notation.

My favourite are the inventories of the sanctuary of Athena Lindia on Rhodes from the 1st century BC. These inventory lists were produced not to document what was contained in the sanctuary, for all the items had been lost in a fire, but to document what had been in the sanctuary and who had given them.

Mythical heroes like Heracles and world-changers like Alexander the Great are all said to have visited and donated. One of the implications of such lists being that if such great heroes dedicated, you should too. It was a brilliant way of encouraging a sanctuary back to financial greatness through ‘invent[ory]ing’ its past.


Reprinted from Neos Kosmos