The landscape architecture of sacred groves in Ancient Greece and modern London

Nemea has the only sacred grove found by archaeologists

Nemea has the only sacred grove proven by archaeology

Western cities are full of  echos Greek architecture, almost all inspired by surviving Greek temples which were built in sanctuaries and sacred groves as houses for gods. Greek temples were not buildings in which people congregated to pray, as Christians and Muslims congregate. As Vincent Scully argues, temples were located in landscapes which were  sacred long before the temples were built. Often, these places also had sacred groves, comprising either wild or planted trees, before the temples were built. I therefore suggest that all those cities with echos of Greek architecture should also have sacred groves. They would be  wonderful gestures to the origins of western landscape architecture. London’s Waterloo Quarter has commissioned a Christmas Forest for 2009, thankfully turning its back on all those centuries in which the Christians felled sacred groves. See  Waterloo Forest designed by landscape architects naganJohnson.

Pierre Bonnechere writes that ‘At present the sacred grove of Nemea is the only one archaeology can claim to have discovered with certainty. Called an alsos from the first literary evidence, the site was landscaped [ie planted] in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., and perhaps earlier: twenty-three planting pits, carved into the crushed rock at the south of Zeus’s temple, were uncovered and found to contain carbonized roots of cypress (or perhaps fir) trees. The excavators have now replanted the site, restoring its former appearance (Fig 1: they have followed Pausanias, who mentioned cypress trees in the second century AD)’ (Conan, M., Sacred gardens and landscapes: ritual and agency 2007 p.18).  See also Sacred Groves: Sacrifice and the Order of Nature in Ancient Greek Landscapes 2007 Barnett R. Landscape Journal, 26:2. University of Wisconsin Press, 252-269 (kindly made available by Rod Barnett at

Image courtesy Miriam Mollerus

5 thoughts on “The landscape architecture of sacred groves in Ancient Greece and modern London

  1. benz

    I too received an invitation to Deborah’s installation and I was very pleased to see something like this being installed even temporarily. I have put a number of sacred groves in a number of my competition submissions. Places with trees that have tranquility, a ‘spiritual character’, contemplative… It is apt that we should have such open places in our cities where we perhaps can take refuge.

  2. Marian

    It seems that trees are in in London this Christmas, and not just Christmas trees. See the ambitious project by Angela Palmer to bring 10 rainforest trees to Trafalgar Square to highlight climate change. See The enormous stumps went up yesterday and will be there until 22nd November when they go to Thorvaldsens Plads, Copenhagen, Denmark (7-18 December 2009). This is not a sacred grove per se but the sheer size and majesty of these ancient trees cannot fail to make one think of longevity and mortality – be it ours or our planet’s.

  3. Tom Turner Post author

    I would not have put the Ghostforest trees on white plinths but apart from that they look marvelous. Incidentally, the planet does not need saving: it is Homo sapiens sapiens which needs to be saved, if one thinks it worth doing.
    Regarding the word ‘spiritual’, I find it easiest to understand as a contrast to ‘materialist’. Much of what people do is governed my material objectives, including food, possessions and physical comfort. But other things are done for other reasons, which can well be described as spiritual. This seems to be a driving force behind the most admired chief executive of recent times: Steve Jobs. He does not want any more money – but he does want to create perfect products. Ghostforest needed more work to make it perfect.

  4. Christine

    Both the landscape installation Waterloo Forest and the art installation Ghostforest are great projects.

    However I disagree with Tom about the white plinths: as they tend to accentuate the incredible ‘reddishness’ of the trunks, which in turn accentuate the ‘reddishness’ and warm and cool colourtones of the surrounding stone buildings in Trafalgar Square as well as on the buildings on the axial views (Big Ben) and the skyline.

    The white plinths give visual depth to the composition.

  5. Phaedra Greenwood

    Why do we return to wild nature again and again? And which places hold, for us, the sacred wildness that we seek?
    As Rod Barnett, author of “Sacred Groves: Sacrifice and the Order of Nature in Ancient Greek Landscapes” suggests,
    we seek the heart of the sacred grove not to find the peaceful calm that escapes us as we sit in front of our computers, but
    to release energy into chaos, which permits “the passage of the sacred into human systems by means
    of the loving and transgressive gift of sacrifice.” (Begins to sound very Christian, doesn’t it?) In the mathematics of non-linear dynamics,
    Barnett says, the sacrifice or dissipation of energy is the pathway to order. But perfect order is death, the alpha and omega of transformation. A ballpoised on the end of a clown’s finger. What do we have to sacrifice to sustain a nonlinear, forever changing reality? Which is what we are.
    Everything! Including and especially what we are.


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