The Texas Foundation for Archaeological & Historical Research
The TFAHR Bylazora Project
|THE VOTIVE KEY OF BYLAZORA
By Pablo Aparicio Resco
|Click on photo to enlarge.
|Since excavations began in 2008 on the acropolis of Bylazora, a great
deal has been unearthed: a monumental ramp (part of a propylon), a
defensive wall, a large amount of pottery, and a multitude of objects of
iron, bronze, stone and terracotta. Among these finds was a tool
discovered in the 2009 season, which we initially identified as an iron
hook (Figure 1), of a peculiar shape and of an unknown use.
However, after an exhaustive study, we now suspect that it might be a
votive key. The key found in Bylazora corresponds to a very archaic
type, made entirely of iron, about 20 cm. long and hook-shaped.
This kind of key has been found in Hera sanctuaries in Argos (note
1) and Paestum (both in the city and in the rural sanctuary of Foce
del Sele (note 2) ). They have also been discovered in other
sanctuaries: of Aphaia on Aegina (note 3) and in the Corycia Cave of
Delphi, the ancient sacred center of Pan and the Nymphs (note 4).
Some scholars (note 5) have suggested that this type of key, found in
the context of temples and shrines, may have been used to open the
great doors of the houses of the gods. This is doubtful, however,
because in several of these contexts there is no door, such as the
Delphic cave (note 6), and, therefore, we should not attribute to
these particular keys a practical functionality.
We do know, however, that such keys had been in use since very
ancient times; in Homer we hear of them: “…she climbed the high
stairway to her chamber, and took the bent key in her strong hand, a
goodly key of bronze, and on it was a handle of ivory...” (note 7).
The verse suggests that perhaps the votive key of Bylazora had a
handle of wood or ivory that does not remain today. If we continue
reading this verse of Homer, we will understand how the ancient
Greeks used these keys: “…she [Penelope] quickly loosed the thong
from the handle and thrust in the key, and with sure aim shot back the
bolt…and quickly they (the leaves of the door) flew open before
her…” (note 8). We can add to these descriptions the scene on a red-
figure hydria (fifth century B.C.), which shows a woman hurriedly
trying to get home and using this type of key (Figure 2). In a
subsequent article and video, we shall attempt a reconstruction of this
type of key and lock apparatus (Figure 3).
Although this type of key existed in Homeric times, there is difficulty in
tracing the course of its use and disappearance. The red-figure
hydria shows how these “pressure keys” were actually used in the fifth
century BC, and we find a similar type of key as a votive object,
represented on a coin from Argos (Figure 4), dated to ca. 370-350
BC (note 9). So, we can infer that in the fourth century BC the
“pressure key” was still known, but, perhaps only utilized in a votive
context, being substituted in everyday use by the “rotation key,”
whose basic operational idea persists until today (note 10) (Figure 5).
|Figure 1. Iron votive key discovered at Bylazora.
|Figure 2. An Attic red-figure hydria (fifth century
BC) shows a woman entering her house, using a
key similar to the one found at Bylazora.
Figure 3. A modern replica
of the Bylazora votive key
(scale 1:1 to original).
|Figure 4. A tritetartemorion of Argos
(ca. 370-350 BC) with Hera (obverse)
and a votive key (reverse).
Turning to the significance of the key as a type of votive offering, we can propose two possibilities: (1) as a protective offering
concerning childbirth and pregnancy, or (2) as a protective offering for the household.
It was very common in antiquity (and even into the last century) that childbirth was one of the main causes of female mortality, and so
it is not surprising that many prayers were made to the gods, especially the goddess Hera, the protectress of married women (note
11); prayers were often accompanied by an offering to propitiate the deity. The key is such an offering, symbolizing a safe opening
of the womb and protection by the goddess during childbirth. This practice had been witnessed by Festus, a second century AD
Roman grammarian, who wrote: “It was common for women to donate a key to ensure an easy childbirth (note 12).”
Figure 5. Iron “rotation keys” found in a TFAHR
excavation at Vardarski Rid (Gevgelija, Republic of
a. Rotation key from Vardarski Rid.
b. Rotation key from Vardarski Rid.
c. Rotation keys and lock plate in the Gevgelija Museum.
Considering that the vast majority of votive keys have been discovered in sanctuaries
dedicated to Hera (note 13), we can also associate these offerings with another of the
major functions of the goddess: protectress of the home. Hera is the patroness of married
women, and the main role of Greek women was mistress and custodian of the home. Thus,
the priestesses of Hera (note 14) are sometimes represented as holding an oversized key,
as seen in an Attic votive relief dated to the fifth century BC (note 15) (Figure 6).
Sometimes keys are depicted in the hands of priestesses of other goddesses (such as
Artemis), as seen in a red-figure krater, which shows Iphigenia carrying a key (Figure 7).
So, we might suggest that the housewives of ancient Greece offered this kind of votive key
also to enlist the help of the goddess Hera in the task of protecting their homes.
The archaeological remains indicate that there were two types of “pressure keys” (Figures
8 and 9). Both use pressure exerted on the door’s bolt to release the lock. However,
there is a slight variation in shape that can provide us some chronological information.
The first type of key is the “bent pressure key”. The key found at Bylazora belongs in this
category. This corresponds to the older model, mentioned by Homer,“…a goodly key of
bronze, and on it was a handle of ivory…” (note 16). We have many archaeological
examples of this type of key, such as the pieces found in Argos and at the urban Heraion
of Paestum (Figure 8).
Figure 6. An Attic votive relief (fifth
century BC) depicts a priestess of Hera
carrying a key in her arms.
Figure 7. An Attic red-figure krater
depicts Iphigenia, a priestess of
Artemis, holding a votive key.
|Figure 8. Bent votive keys, Paestum.
|Figure 9. Straight votive keys, Paestum.
|The second type is the “straight pressure key” (Figure 9). This is a later type and appears
in representations such as the votive relief of the priestess of Hera, dated to the fifth
century BC (Figure 6) and in the coins of Hera at Argos, dated to the fourth century BC
(Figure 4). It might also be the example shown in the Attic red-figure hydria of the fifth
century BC (Figure 2). Some keys of this type have been found in the Heraion at Foce del
Sele and date to the end of the sixth century or the early fifth century BC (note 17), but in
general their dating is very uncertain.
There is an evolution of the shape of the “pressure key” that takes us from its common use
(at least in Homer's time) until its stylization as an object of a votive nature, something that
perhaps we have already seen represented on the coins of Hera of the first half of the
fourth century BC. The “bent pressure key” starts going out of use during the fifth century
BC, to be replaced by the “straight pressure key,” as the images show. Perhaps we can
also see at this time a change in the hole for the key in the door, which sometimes seems
to be a vertical elongated hole (Figure 10) and in the bolt-lock mechanism itself.
The discovery of a “bent pressure key” (in locus L15.3) at Bylazora, (tentatively dated to
post-Phase II, end of the fifth century BC (note 18)), suggests a votive nature for this key.
Is it perhaps an old key, useless, which was offered to protect a home or a woman at
childbirth? Or maybe it was intentionally manufactured in the "old style" to be such an
The presence of this type of key on the acropolis of Bylazora, along with other objects of a
votive nature (miniature vessels, small clay animals, stamped loom weights) suggests that
we are near one of the city’s temples or shrines, one possibly dedicated to the Paionian
parallel of the Greek Hera. But it is certainly too early to propose this confidently, and we
will have to wait for following campaigns to shed light on the votive offerings, the temples,
and the gods of the city.
Figure 10. An Attic red-figure pyxis
(450-400 BC) shows a door with an
elongated key hole.
Figures 1, 3, 5: Eulah Matthews & William Neidinger
Figures 2, 7, 4, 8, 9, 10: Pablo Aparicio Resco
Replica of iron votive key (Figure 3) created by Richard
Smith and Robert Neidinger