The Delphic Oracle: Modern Science Examines an Ancient Mystery

February 27, 2014

7:30 pm
Trinity University

Dr. John Hale, University of Louisville


Ancient Greek and Roman authors stated that the Apollo’s sacred oracle at Delphi in central Greece was located at the site of unusual geological features and phenomena: a chasm or fissure in the rock; an emission of sweet-smelling vapor or gas; and a sacred spring.  The priestess who pronounced the oracles, known as the Pythia, sat on a tall tripod above the fissure where she could inhale the vapor, thus triggering a prophetic trance in which she could serve as a medium for the prophetic oracles of the god Apollo.  So great was the influence of the woman’s words that scarcely a colony was founded or a war undertaken in Greece for over a millennium without the sanction of the Delphic Oracle.  Famous figures from Oedipus and Agamemnon to Alexander the Great and various Roman emperors consulted the shrine. During the 20th century, most scholars adopted a skeptical attitude towards the ancient traditions about Delphi, denying that there had ever been a fissure or a gaseous emission in the crypt of the temple.  However, in 1995 an interdisciplinary team was created to study not only the archaeology of Delphi, but also the evidence from geology, chemistry, and toxicology that related to the oracle.  The results of the research vindicated the ancient sources.  Our team has gone on to study Greek oracle sites elsewhere in the Aegean and Asia Minor, where we have found similar geological features.

 Dr. John Hale CV

Dr. John Hale, University of  Louisville, Kentucky, specializes in underwater archaeology, classical Greece and Rome, Viking shipbuilding technology, and the Delphic Oracle. He has taught archaeology at the University of Louisville since 1983. He performed fieldwork on the DANAOS Project in eastern Mediterranean, studying deep submergence survey of ancient sea-routes between Crete and Egypt, from 2007-2009. From 2003-2006, he  participated in the Persian Wars Shipwreck Survey in Greece (Aegean Sea). Other projects include the Phoenician Harbors Project at coastal sites in Portugal; Testing of Roman concrete structures in Spain and Italy for Mortar Dating Project with Abo Akademi, Finland; Geological and archaeological investigations at the site of the Delphic Oracle, Greece:  Field director at excavations of the Roman villa and early medieval basilica of Torre de Palma, Portugal; and Field director for salvage archaeology and Cultural Resource Management projects on sites in the Ohio River Valley.

Dr. Hale’s many publications include:

2009   Lords of the Sea: The Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. New York: Viking Penguin.

2009   “The Palaeo-Environmental Contexts of Three Possible Phoenician Anchorages in Portugal”, with Shelley Wachsmann et al. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, vol. 38, no. 2.

2005   “The Delphic Oracle”, article in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, ed. Bron Taylor. London: Thoemmes Continuum Press.

2003   “Questioning the Delphic Oracle”, with J. Z. de Boer, Jeff Chanton, and Henry Spiller.  Scientific American, vol. 289, no. 2 (August). pp. 56-63.

2003   “Salpinx and Salpinktes: Trumpet and trumpeter in ancient Greece”. In Literature, Art, History: Studies on Classical Antiquity and Tradition, Basson, A. F. and W. J. Dominik (eds.), Frankfurt.

2003   “Dating Ancient Mortar”, with J. Heinemeier, L. Lancaster, A. Lindroos, and A Ringbom. American Scientist, vol. 91, pp. 130-137.

2002   “The Delphic Oracle: A multi-disciplinary defense of the gaseousvent theory”, with H. Spiller and  J. Z. de Boer.  Clinical Toxicology, vol. 40, no. 2.

2001   “New evidence for the geological origins of the Delphic Oracle”, with J. Z. de Boer and J. Chanton.  Geology, vol. 1, no. 8.

2001   “AMS Carbon-14 dating of mortar: a method in progress for classical archaeology”, with Asa Ringbom et al., AIAC News (Associazione Internazionale di Archeologia Classica), no. 29/30, june-september.

2000   “The geological origins of the oracle at Delphi, Greece”, with Jelle Zeilinga de Boer and Jeff Chanton, in The Archaeology of Geological Catastrophes, Geological Society, London, Special Publication 171.

2000   “An introduction to construction materials and techniques at the Roman villa of Torre de Palma”, A Cidade: Revista Cultural de Portalegre, no. 13/14, with A. Ringbom, A. Lindroos, and J. Heinemeier.

2000   “Radiocarbon-dating of ancient mortars using the Accelerator Mass Spectrometer (AMS)”, A Cidade: Revista Cultural de Portalegre, no. 13/14

1998   “The Viking Longship”, Scientific American, February, vol. 278, no. 2.

1997   “General Phormio’s Art of War: a Greek commentary on a Chinese classic”, in Polis and Polemos: Essays in honor of Donald Kagan, edd. C. D. Hamilton and P. Krentz. Claremont, California.

1997   Review of Food in Antiquity, edd. J. Wilkins et al., in Scholia Reviews [South Africa], no. 6.

1996   “The villa of Torre de Palma, Alto Alentejo”, with Stephanie Maloney, Journal of Roman Archaeology, vol. 9.

1996   “The lost technology of ancient Greek rowing”, Scientific American, May, vol. 274, no. 5.

1996   “Phormio crosses the T”, The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Summer, vol. 8, no. 4.

1995   “A report on the tombs and human skeletal remains at the paleo-Christian basilica of Torre de Palma”, in IV Reuniao d’Arqueologia Cristiana Hispanica, Lisboa 1992.  Barcelona.

1988    The value of sea-trials in experimental archaeology”, in Naval History: Seventh Symposium of the U.S. Naval Academy, ed. W. Cogar.  Annapolis.

1980   “Plank-built in the Bronze Age”, Antiquity, vol. 54.


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