The Heraion at the mouth of the Sele is an ancient sanctuary in Magna Grecia dedicated to the goddess Hera, originally located at the mouth of the River Sele, about 9 km from the city of Paestum, in the modern commune of Capaccio-Paestum. The sanctuary is located about 1.5 kilometres from the modern coast as a result of the deposition of alluvial sediment by the river.
The existence of the sanctuary is reported by historic sources, but for a long time was not corroborated by other evidence. Strabo located the sanctuary of Argive Hera at the northern border of Lucania, on the left bank of the river Sele, about fifty stades from the city of Paestum and attributed its foundation to Jason during the expedition of the Argonauts. The same sanctuary is located on the other bank of the river by Pliny the Elder. These differing accounts made the rediscovery of the remains difficult.
The sanctuary was founded at the beginning of the sixth century BC by Greeks from Sybaris and dedicated to Argive Hera, protectrix of navigation and fertility.
Initially cult activities must have been performed in the open, in a sacred area equipped with an altar and bounded by porticos for hosting pilgrims. At the end of the sixth century, a grand temple was built, which was probably octastyle (with a facade of eight columns) and peripteral. Two other monuments were built some distance in front of it at the same time.
After the arrival of the Lucani at the end of the fifth century BC, the sanctuary reached its highest peak, with the reuse of more ancient material for the construction of new buildings: a new portico and then a meeting house. At a certain distance a square building was also built, in which many loom weights have been found – it is theorised that young maidens about to be married would weave a peplos for the cult statue which was offered to the goddess at an annual procession, in this building. A marble statue of Hera was also found there, seated on a throne with a pomegranate in her hand.
In 273 BC, the area was conquered by the Romans, who founded the colonia of Paestum. The weaving building was destroyed and a wall was built around the sacred area. The sanctuary survived until the second century AD, in a slow decline, until the area silted up and eventually all memory of the site was lost. The cult of Hera survived in Christianised form as the Madonna del Granato (Madonna of the Pomegranate), whose cult in the vicinity of the sanctuary recalls the depiction of Hera with the pomegranate. The sanctuary was brought to light by the excavations of the archaeologists Umberto Zanotti Bianco and Paola Zancani Montuoro between 1934 and 1940.
Around seventy metopes carved in local sandstone have been recovered in excavations. Thirty eight of these belong to a more ancient group (second half of the 6th century) and must have dedicated buildings which cannot now be reconstructed. The metopes of this group depict episodes from the Twelve Labours of Heracles, the Trojan War, the life of Jason and Orestes. They are carved by lowering the background around the figures; the part in relief remains very flat. Details of the figures were probably painted in colour.
According to Roland Martin, these thirty-eight metopes of the older ground would have decorated a Treasury (Thesauros), with a rectangular floor plan and a doric facade with two columns in antis. The capitals of the doric columns contrasted with the ionic capitals of the antae. The doric frieze, which had no structural function, would have been placed in front of the wooden beams which supported the roof. The triglyphs, strongly projecting, like those of Temple C at Selinus, are the same size as the metopes. The indentations visible on the rear of the metopes show that they were inserted between the triglyphs after the installation of the wooden beams.
The more recent group of around thirty metopes depict some young maidens dancing in bass-relief.
The metopes are kept in the Museo archeologico nazionale di Paestum, which was built in 1950 to house these discoveries. Their arrangement in the museum represents the presumed structure of the temple which they were originally attached to. However, it must be noted that neither the interpretation of the narrative cycle, nor the arrangement have met with unaninimous agreement among scholars.
The excavations of the sanctuary have also revealed a large number of votive gifts (mostly terracotta statuettes of the goddess), which were ritually buried at some point. A first deposit was found near the temple and was made up of five ditches lined by stone slabs and covered with stone as well. Some evidence of burning relates to the sacrifices offered at the time of the burial. The materials were deposited between the sixth and second centuries BC.
A second large ditch was also discovered, containing around six thousand objects, including terracotta statues and little bronze objects, dating from between the fourth and second centuries BC, but with some coins from the second century AD which were deposited in a flood during the Roman Imperial period.
A large portion of the votives are on display at the site of the sanctuary in the Museo Narrante del Santuario di Hera alla Foce del Sele, located in a reconstructed farm house (the masseria Procuriali). Wikidata ID: Q3785099