Reset in Stone: Memory and Reuse in Ancient Athens

Sarah A. Rous, Reset in Stone: Memory and Reuse in Ancient Athens (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2019). 9780299322809.

Reviewed by Chelsea A.M. Gardner, Acadia University,

This volume, available in both hardcover and paperback, is 218 pages of text divided into an introduction, four chapters of content, and an epilogue. There are a further 74 pages of notes, in addition to the front matter, bibliography, and index; what at first appears to be quite a large volume is, in fact, a very digestible text.

Overall, the major contributions of Rous’s book are (1) the careful examination of one particular category of material reused in antiquity, namely intentional and meaningful reuse that contributes to social memory formation; and (2) the accompanying presentation of new terminology, “upcycling,” that she presents as a more appropriate term than the existing options. Through a series of focused case studies, the volume successfully takes the reader through various examples of reuse and effectively argues that these types of reuse should be considered separately due to the intentional, meaningful decisions that motivated their second lives. Readers will find centuries of complex scholarly theories succinctly summarized in these various discussions, which itself is an additional contribution of this volume. This manuscript certainly could be assigned in all, or in part, to advanced undergraduates and graduate students taking a course on the topography and monuments of ancient Athens, for example, and it sheds light on several monuments often overlooked in the classroom, including the temple of Ares, the monument of the Eponymous heroes, the Themistoklean and Herulian circuit walls, and the pre-Periklean Acropolis buildings.

The introduction (3–30) explains that the four content chapters are not organized chronologically or topographically but instead based on a given monument’s effects on social memory, specifically by the “relative visibility of significant elements of its biography within its new context; correlated with different intended effects on social memory” (13). The author admits that this is neither the only nor the best way to organize such material and, as with any classification system, there are advantages and disadvantages, outlined in each chapter discussion, below. The introductory chapter serves first and foremost to introduce the specific type of reuse that is the focus of this volume, which the author calls “upcycling.” Upcycling, as a specific category of reuse, requires intentionality and imbues the reused object/monument with renewed meaning (which may or may not be the same as that of the original). The major advantage of adopting this term is that it distinguishes these reused objects/monuments from broader categories of “spolia” specifically, and all other reused material more generally; it cannot be applied to all reuse and therefore allows the author to focus on targeted monuments that use upcycled material in different ways. Rous is certainly correct in her assertion that there are currently no satisfactory terms to describe this particular type of intentional and meaningful reuse that contributes specifically to shaping social memory. However, other advantages to this term will be seen by some as disadvantages: the word upcycling is catchy, memorable, and accessible to many audiences because of its existing role in non-academic contexts. Some might decry the term due to unfounded concerns of triviality because of its use and trendiness in DIY and environmental social justice circles; this may be where some criticism of this volume arises. And yet, one cannot deny that none of the existing terms are satisfactory—agree or disagree with Rous’s choice, it serves a purpose. No term is perfect, but this one is snappy and should begin many conversations, which is a valuable contribution in and of itself. One important aspect to note, however, is a discrepancy in how Rous uses the term upcycling in an ancient Athenian context versus the more common, modern understanding of the term. On page 7, the author says that upcycling need not rely on the perceived value of either the original material or the new object/monument: “In my usage of the term ‘upcycling,’ there is no value claim; the material being reused need not have been discarded or degraded, and it need not be transformed into a high-status object.” Modern upcycling, however, often involves just that—increasing the value of objects or material that would otherwise be discarded, since it is defined as follows: “to reuse (discarded objects or material) in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original”.[1] The drawback, of course, to using a popular modern term is that it will be hard for readers to adjust to the differences between Rous’ use and the commonly understood dictionary definition.

The first content chapter, “Creating Social Memory Through Reuse That Accentuates,” focuses on examples of monuments or buildings that reuse material in such a way to emphasize the older material in a new context. The author begins with a “counterexample”—the Themistoklean wall, which she argues is not upcycling at all, but simple pragmatic reuse (31). This argument rests on intentionality, and Rous explains that although the wall was built largely with older, damaged, and subsequently reused material following the Persian sack, there was no concerted effort to do so in such a way that was noteworthy, prominent, intentional, or that ultimately sent a message about social memory to contemporary Athenians. Simply, the wall was built quickly from reused material out of necessity. This is cleverly contrasted with another Themistoklean project, the north Acropolis defense wall, which is an obvious contender for intentional and meaningful reuse, particularly in the careful display of upcycled column drums.

The remainder of the chapter focuses on two additional case studies, the Herulian wall and the Temple of Ares in the Agora. Both are presented thoroughly and clearly; however, given that Rous’s argument for upcycling within the Herulian wall rests largely on the intentionality of the placement of the blocks from various buildings to create colour contrast and to send a specific message, additional diagrams and visuals here would have strengthened the point. The Temple of Ares is, in my opinion, the highlight of the chapter, as Rous takes the reader on a detailed yet comprehensible account of this displaced temple and convincingly argues in support of Steuernagel’s theory that this monument is not a part of an Augustan program.[2] This example is particularly intriguing specifically because the collective social memory of the original temple doesn’t last, so the initial “accentuation” emphasized through the movement of an entire temple from one location to another isn’t perpetuated, and yet it still belongs in this category. I highly recommend this section of the book in particular, both as an accessible summary of the life history of this particular monument and as a teaching resource.

Chapter 2, “Perpetuating Social Memory through Reuse that Preserves,” includes more subtle examples of reuse that, while intentional, are not as prominent as those in the previous chapter. The case studies included in this chapter also largely retain their original contexts and are not transformed into completely new or different monuments, thereby “preserving” some aspect of their original function. The first examples of the chapter are the statues of Athena that, after being damaged in the Persian sack of the Acropolis, were re-erected in their damaged state. The intentional re-display was to remind the viewer of the Persian destruction, thereby changing the meaning of the statues themselves; they were being “re-used,” or “used again,” in the most literal sense of the term. Likewise, the second example in the chapter is the Old Temple of Athena, which is presented as an example of reuse due to the fundamental, visible transformation of the temple following the Persian sack: “the initial ‘re’use of the Old Athena Temple was little more than a deliberate decision to use it ‘again’ rather than in a new way or form” (103). While I agree with Rous’s argument that this building should indeed be categorized as reuse (specifically “reuse as a ruin”), the application of the process of upcycling in this section seems to have been somewhat of an afterthought, as it is included only at the very end of the discussion rather than incorporated throughout.

One of the undeniable strengths of this chapter is the masterful retelling of the history of the Athena Polias temple and a compelling, succinct summary (up to page 99)—as with the Temple of Ares example above, this is a highlight that will prove highly useful for teaching. On this point, I have one criticism: the lack of English translations of Greek passages makes this less accessible to non-expert audiences (e.g., 91, 94, 97, etc.), which is unfortunate because it is otherwise an excellent example of approachable scholarship.

The final example of this chapter is the Mycenaean Bastion and Sanctuary of Athena Nike on the Acropolis, which are included together because of their intertwined archaeologies. The Mycenaean bastion is a clear-cut, indisputable example of Rous’s “reuse that preserves,” and one would be hard pressed to find fault with this case study. In contrast, however, the Athena Nike example is the one instance within this entire volume where I find myself disagreeing with the author’s description of a monument as an example of upcycling. Specifically, Rous addresses the construction of the post-Persian Athena Nike naiskos, which reused blocks from the base of the Archaic cult statue as a repository in its foundation deposit as well as the inscribed Archaic altar as an underpinning block (114). This naiskos was then truncated and immured within the late-5th-century bastion. These are all examples of deliberate burial, and indeed preserved the material culture that was sacred to the goddess—much like the careful burial of the korai that were also destroyed by the Persians (i.e., within the >Perserschutt). However, these buried korai were not re-displayed, and therefore not included by the author as examples of upcycled Acropolis statues in the earlier portion of this same chapter (80–84). Likewise, this “thoughtful treatment of older material” seen in the Archaic and post-Persian Athena Nike temple (189) does indeed preserve select portions of the earlier monument, yet I do not believe sufficient proof is given that this reuse gives new or renewed meaning, nor am I wholly convinced that their invisible preservation contributed directly to Athenian social memory, as would be necessary to qualify for the author’s definition of upcycling as I understand it. The other difficulty with the Athena Nike example is that the author acknowledges that this reuse is “not meant to be visible” (117) and that the earlier phases of the sanctuary represented by these invisible blocks were “more suppressed than perpetuated” (125); this creates confusion since the following chapter discusses “invisible reuse” which admittedly does comprise a more distinct type of reuse, but the terminology overlap here is somewhat ambiguous (see the discussion, below).

Chapter 3, “Altering Social Memory through Reuse Meant to be Invisible,” includes examples wherein the act of reuse itself was intended to be unknown or not visually discernible; the intended result of this—often covert—alteration was a change in existing social memory. Note that “invisible” in this chapter means “concealed from sight” rather than “unable to be seen,” which is confusing at times because the latter is a more common understanding of the term. The first example within this chapter is the Monument of Eponymous Heroes, whose reuse comprises the ongoing alterations made to the composition of the monument over many centuries. Rous categorizes this reuse as invisible due to the fact that “each renovation was designed with the intention of making the fact that changes had occurred as invisible as possible” (140) in order to give the impression that the monument “had always been the way it was at any given moment, from time immemorial” (142). Rous’s descriptions of the life-phases of the monument are clear and helpful but, as already mentioned, the reader must keep in mind that the use of the term “invisible” here refers more to the fact that the change was intended to be as minimally disruptive as possible and not noticeable beyond the (inevitable) collective memory of the contemporary inhabitants who would indeed take note of and remember the monument’s former composition(s).

Likewise, the second case study in this chapter, “Upcycling Honors” features alterations to honorific statues and their inscribed bases that are also not invisible in the strictest sense of the term; in fact, the new monuments sometimes even preserved the names of individuals in varying degrees of conspicuity: “in most cases of erasure and reinscription, the Athenians acknowledged the need to remember the identity of the original honorand and/or dedicator of the statue by recording that information elsewhere on the monument itself—out of sight but not unseeable” (161). While the specific semantics of invisibility somewhat diminish the impact of this terminology, there are nonetheless many useful and praiseworthy aspects of this section, including an overview of honorific decrees and statues, as well as a helpful summary of the Rhodian oration and other supporting literary evidence (147–48). Rous convincingly argues that the reuse of these statues was, indeed, upcycling, since the act was not performed out of necessity, but was intended to produce additional meaning for the new monument. A discussion on pages 171–72 clearly explains how and why the Athenians’ reuse of these honorific statues qualifies as upcycling, summarized in this simple statement: “The Athenians reused their statues in a way that instead upheld and renewed their past” (171).

The final chapter of the book, “Upcycling and Athenian Social Memory over the Longue Durée” has many merits. In it, Rous contextualizes upcycling within the bigger picture of Athenian history, giving examples of decisions and events that contributed directly to the active creation of social memory. The chapter focuses on the unique circumstances of Athens and reiterates the process and agency behind upcycling projects from the early Classical through the late Roman periods of the city, focusing largely on the post-Persian and the Roman period memory-building activities; instances of reuse that the author does not categorize as upcycling provide helpful counter-examples for the reader. The diachronic overview of the longue durée employed here, coupled with clear summaries of many decades of scholarship, together render this chapter a good candidate for the undergraduate classroom.>

>Ultimately, Rous’s volume is a substantial contribution in its own right because of the combined focus on the archaeology and spatial topography of the city and its monuments with the theoretical underpinnings of social memory formation. The focus on intentionally meaningful reuse—and the application of the term “upcycling” in this context—provides a fresh perspective and an alternative to “spolia,” and throughout the volume she expertly brings vast swaths of scholarship into her clear, straightforward discussions. Overall, Rous achieves her goal of going beyond cataloguing and categorizing to give renewed meaning to these—accentuated, preserved, or even hidden—reused stones.

Table of Contents

Introduction (3–30)
1. Creating Social Memory through Reuse That Accentuates (31–78)
2. Perpetuating Social Memory through Reuse That Preserves (79–125)
3. Altering Social Memory through Reuse Meant to Be Invisible (126–75)
4. Upcycling and Athenian Social Memory over the Longue Durée (176–212)
Epilogue (213–18)


[1] Oxford Dictionary of English, 2nd ed., s.v. “Upcycling”

[2] Dirk Steuernagel, “Romanisierung und Hellenismós: Drei Fallstudien zur Gestaltung und Nutzung griechischer Tempel in den römischen Provinzen Achaia und Cyrenaica,” JdI 124 (2009), 279–345.


One of the major contributions of this volume is your introduction of the term “upcycling” to describe intentional and meaningful reuse of ancient material, particularly as it relates to social memory. The advantage to this term is that it is snappy, memorable, and familiar because of its use within environmental sustainability movements and in artistic/maker communities. This familiarity, however, is also arguably its main drawback, since, despite your cautions to the contrary (6–7), those familiar with its common dictionary definition might think of upcycling specifically as a practice that turns discarded material into a new product with a higher quality or value. A misunderstanding of upcycling will likely invite criticism, especially from those less willing to embrace new terminology (especially one derived from popular media). So, my questions largely address your choices involved in introducing the term “upcycling” to academic discourse:

1. Did you anticipate a reaction to this term and, if so, did you consider simply referring to your case studies as “intentional and meaningful reuse” or “intentional secondary use” to avoid the potential backlash of introducing a new term? Essentially, in your opinion, how did the pros of introducing this term outweigh the cons?

This is an interesting question to get, because when I first began thinking about using the term “upcycling” in relation to my work early in graduate school, it was not at all a familiar term, either to me or to anyone I spoke with about it. There was no such thing as “its common dictionary definition.” As I discuss in my introduction, there were a few instances of the term I found floating out in the world, but I felt there was space for me to develop it as a useful concept in academic discourse. Now that it is a more familiar term, I think that the core aspect of my understanding of the concept—that the origin or past life of the object/material being reused adds meaning or value to the secondary use—holds true in the environmental or popular media examples that readers may now already have in mind.

2. Why does the term not appear in the title of your book?

I would have loved to use the term in the title! Unfortunately, though, because the term had appeared in the title of my dissertation, my publisher did not allow me to use it in the title of my book because of marketing concerns they had. Still, I hope using it throughout the book gives me a little more ownership over the term, so that it isn’t just something “derived from popular media” (as you put it above). I wish I would have known in grad school that snappy title ideas should be saved for books!

3. Could you have written this book without this term? Why or why not?

This book perhaps could have been published with some cumbersome phase substituted for the term “upcycling,” but I could not have written it without the concept of upcycling as I developed it. It was important to have a single term to use for the unique new approach I took to thinking about reuse and social memory together. The examples I investigate are quite disparate in all sorts of ways, and having a coherent concept to tie them together was essential. I hope most readers will agree that there was much to be gained by thinking about these very different cases in relation to each other through the concept of upcycling. And strictly as a term, the syntax of “upcycling” was useful for me in being able to discuss these cases with a focus on people and process—i.e., the agency of the people undertaking thoughtful reuse and the reaction of the audiences doing the social remembering—rather than on objects or “spolia.” I also truly believe that the concept as I’ve tried to explain and explore it can be useful for scholars investigating reuse and social memory in just about any other culture or time period, and a succinct term helps facilitate such cross-disciplinary dialogue.

In your introduction, you explain your very reasonable motivations for organizing the case studies found in the book, “not by the characteristics of the object or material that was reused but by the relative visibility of significant elements of its biography within its new context” (13). In Chapter 2 (“Perpetuating Social Memory through Reuse that Preserves”), the final case study includes an examination of the Sanctuary of Athena Nike on the Acropolis. Several examples of reuse that are highlighted from the Athena Nike precinct—including the Archaic repository and altar as well as the post-Persian (Stage III) naiskos and altars—were buried, immured, or built into later foundations, rendering them “preserved, but out of sight” (125) and “not meant to be visible” (117). Immediately following the discussion of this monument, the next chapter opens with the explanation: “Whereas the previous chapter focused on cases of upcycling where the visible preservation of the life history and experiences of materials was of primary concern to those undertaking the reuse, this chapter examines instances of more subtle reuse, where the fact that an object or monument had been reemployed or changed was intended to be nearly invisible or at least not subsequently noticeable” (126) (italics mine for emphasis).

4. Can you explain your decision to include the elements of the Sanctuary of Athena Nike on the Acropolis in Chapter 2 (“Perpetuating Social Memory through Reuse that Preserves”) and not in Chapter 3 (“Altering Social Memory through Reuse Meant to be Invisible”)?

5. Did you consider putting this case study into a different category, or were there any other case studies that you had difficulty categorizing?

I’ll answer these two questions together.

What I’d like to emphasize first in answering these questions is that the “categories” I developed for my case studies seemed to me the best method for exploring various ways upcycling played out in ancient Athens, but I don’t think of them as distinct groups with sharp boundaries, nor do I suggest that they are necessarily the most useful way to explore all cases of upcycling in other contexts. In part this hesitancy to define mutually exclusive categories is a reaction to one of the veins of the traditional discourse on spolia, which emphasized categorization to the detriment (in my opinion) of fruitful comparative and cross-cultural investigation. Whereas “upcycling” is snappy and memorable, in your words, the way I talk about my “categories” is rather clunky, and that is at least somewhat deliberate. While I hope that other scholars may take up the concept of upcycling as I’ve developed it—with a focus on questions of visibility, agency, intention, and effect—I don’t want to claim that every example of upcycling anywhere should fit nicely into one of my three categories.

As you point out, not all of my case studies fit exclusively into one category either. The Sanctuary of Athena Nike on the Acropolis and the “Mycenaean Bastion” on which it stands encompasses several different aspects/elements of reuse over its lifetime, not all carried out by the same agents or with the same intentions or effects. I found it most fruitful to explore the “biography” of the Sanctuary chronologically and discuss these different examples of reuse in relation to each other rather than to try to tease each of them out into their “categories” and discuss them in different chapters. The sheathing of the cyclopean Mycenean Bastion in limestone ashlars with a large niche and polygonal “window” that conspicuously reveal the preservation of the Bronze Age bastion within is a particularly salient example of how social memory can be perpetuated through reuse that preserves, the focus of Chapter 2. The preservation of the earlier naiskos and altars within the raised bastion as part of the same building project in the 420s BCE was indeed less conspicuous, but no less deliberate (making them accessible though out of sight was surely more difficult than simply razing or burying them would have been). Though the immuring of the naiskos and altars could arguably be discussed as reuse intended to hide or make invisible, that is not quite the same as the examples in Chapter 3, where it is the act of reuse itself that is intended to be invisible. Moreover, examining the differing levels of visibility of the older elements preserved in the 420s renovation (the Mycenaean bastion and the naiskos and altars) together in context helps us understand the motivations behind the project as a whole and think about social memory in a more nuanced way. In my argument, Kleon and his allies triumphantly emphasized the prehistoric past that underlay Athenian autochthony over the painful destruction of the Persian Wars represented by the more recent elements of the sanctuary. That more recent past was too important to deny—e.g., by removing its monuments—but it was not one whose memory they wished to actively promote in the triumphant atmosphere following the Athenian victory over the Spartans at Pylos.

Another case study that may demonstrate the limited usefulness of strict categorization is the “itinerant” Temple of Ares, which I discuss in Chapter 1 (“Creating Social Memory through Reuse that Accentuates”). Relocated in its entirety into the Agora in the late 1st century BCE, the 5th-century temple was very much “accentuated” when first plopped down in the heart of the city, and served to help the Areopagus council build collective notions about the identity of the Athenian community and their place within it. But once the transplanted temple had stood in the Agora for several generations, the fact that it had been moved was forgotten, and viewers like Pausanias believed it had lived its whole life on that venerable spot. The “accentuation” involved in this instance of upcycling lasted only so long, but continuing to explore questions of reception and effect through the life of the monument nevertheless proved fruitful. This underlines my larger point that while these categories based on relative visibility were a helpful way to organize my Athenian case studies, it’s the contextualized examination of a broad range of evidence that ultimately helps us understand the dynamics of social memory better, rather than the categorization of examples of upcycling.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s