Ancient Olympia – Archaeological Museum

Archaeological Museum - Ancient Olympia

Archaeological Museum – Ancient Olympia

The Archaeological Museum is well camouflaged and set well away from the main site. It’s a modern building and like most Greek museums mercifully air-conditioned.

The museum has a lot of interesting material; surprising when you consider that the site was looted several times. There are unusual collections of tripods (donations to the temples); warriors’ helmets through the ages, remarkably well-preserved; and some enormous discs that used to sit atop the columns in the Temple of Hera.

However, the highlight of the museum has to be the statuary. The Nike by Paionios stood originally in front of the Temple of Zeus. In Greek mythology, Nike was the goddess who personified victory. Sculpted from highly prized Parian marble it is 3 metres tall and stood on a triangular plinth which was 10-12 meteres high, so from  its height alone it must have made a huge impact at the time.

Nike of Paionios - front view

Nike of Paionios – front view

She would have carried a palm branch in her right hand and an olive wreath in her left to crown the victor. As you walk around it you get an amazing sense of the figure alighting on the ground after her flight from Mt Olympos and this is emphasised by the way that her dress (himaton) is pressed tight against her body by the air pressure and by the way she stands balanced on her left foot whilst the right foot is still in the air.

Nike of Paionios - right side

Nike of Paionios – right side

The strange looking animal head at the bottom of the sculpture is an eagle – another symbol of victory.

Nike of Paionios - left side

Nike of Paionios – left side

The statue was commissioned by the Messenians and Naupaktians as a votive offering to Zeus for victory in battle, probably during the Peloponnesian War. Interestingly this image was depicted on medals awarded at the 2004 Athens Olympics and at the London Olympics in 2012.

Then there are the statues which decorated the two pediments of the Temple of Zeus. The first, a commonplace of Greek narrative architecture, is the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs which dramatises the struggle (and ultimate victory) of reason and civilisation over barbarism.

Battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs

Battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs

Battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs

Battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs

Battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs

Battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs

Battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs

Battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs

Battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs

Battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs

In the middle of the pediment stands Apollo, depicting the triumph of reason and civilisation.

Battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs - Apollo

Battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs – Apollo

The second pediment depicts another myth, the chariot race between King Oinamaos of Pisa and Pelops. Oinomaos was terrified by a prophecy that he would be killed by his son-in-law. So to make things difficult any suitor for his daughter, Ippodameia, had to race against the king in a chariot race and when they lost, the king had them killed. Pelops wanted to marry Ippodamia and, with the help of Poseidon, replaced the axle of Oinomaos’s chariot with wax. As Oinomaos’s chariot caught up with Pelops, the chariot flew apart and Oinomaos was killed as his horses dragged him to death. Oinomaos’s charioteer, Myrtilos, managed to survive and cursed Pelops as he had him thrown off a cliff into the sea: this was the curse on the line of Pelops that was a motor force behind the great Greek tragedies of the classical era.   

Chariot race between Oinomaos and Pelops

Compared to the way that the human figures are depicted the horses strike me as rather clunky, poorly observed and a bit comic.

Chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos

Chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos

Chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos

Chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos

Chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos

Chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos

The most outstanding item in the museum is the Hermes by Praxiteles, sculpted in the 4th century BC out of Parian marble, which was found in the Temple of Hera during the 1877 century excavations. The sculpture depicts the god Hermes leaning against a tree trunk holding the infant Dionysus. The story is that Dionysus’s mortal mother was incinerated when her lover Zeus appeared to her in his full divinity. Zeus however managed to save Dionysus by sewing him into his own thigh until it was time for him to be born. Zeus instructed Hermes, the messenger god, to take the infant Dionysus to Crete to be brought up by nymphs, away from the anger of Zeus’s wife, Hera. The status shows Hermes with the infant before taking him to Crete.

Hermes of Praxiteles

Hermes of Praxiteles

It is probable that Hermes was holding something out in his right hand (a bunch of grapes?) that the infant is reaching out to touch. Hermes’s body is shown in a relaxed ‘S shape. I think the musculature of the legs and difference in the way that the knees are depicted are remarkable.

Hermes of Praxiteles

Hermes of Praxiteles

It is said to be one of the best preserved Greek classical sculptures and how Praxiteles achieved such a high polish on the marble is a wonder. Unusually, the back of the sculpture is unfinished, as it is still rough and you can still see the chisel marks.

Hermes of Praxiteles

Hermes of Praxiteles

However it is the face of Hermes that is the most magnetic element of the sculpture and it is noticeable that this changes as you walk around it. From the front the god looks serene:

Hermes of Praxiteles

Hermes of Praxiteles

However, from the right side it appears that the god is sad:

Hermes of Praxiteles

Hermes of Praxiteles

On the left hand side though the Gods face looks as if he is smiling.

Hermes of Praxiteles

Hermes of Praxiteles

I also like the way the sculptor has depicted the chubby baby Dionysus and how he looks playfully up at Hermes.

A great masterpiece of Greek sculpture indeed.

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Ancient Olympia

Hill of Kronos, Olympia

Hill of Kronos, Olympia

Driving up from the south-west Peloponnese, the site of Ancient Olympia is incredibly difficult to find. There are modern signs for the site on the approach roads, but they are misleading. No sooner have you turned off in their direction than you are out in the middle of the countryside with no other road sign in site, hoping against hope that round the next bend, Ancient Olympia will hove into site.

After an hour of fruitless driving, we decided to head of the modern town of Olympia and within a few short minutes had found the ancient site.

Ancient Olympia is a huge site and mercifully shaded by pine trees (planted in the early twentieth century, according to Peter Levi, on the orders of Queen Sophia) and olive trees. The first buildings that you encounter on the site are the Gymnasium and the Palaestra, an area used by athletes for training in running, javelin and discus throwing, and wrestling, surrounded on three sides by a portico.

Gymnasium & Palaestra, Olympia

Gymnasium & Palaestra, Olympia

Traditionally the first games took place here in 776 BC, at the conjunction of the Alpheios and Kladios rivers, under the Hill of Kronos, but there is evidence that the site was inhabited from c.10,000 BC.

With very few exceptions, which we’ll come to shortly, most of the site is in ruins with just the stone outlines of walls visible and many columns, tops of pillars and stones spread across the site. The destruction was caused by a fire and two earthquakes in the 6th century and to a lesser extent by the attacks on pagan sites sanctioned by Theodosius I. Until the nineteenth century excavations, Olympia was covered in several meters of silt and it was believed that this was due to the nearby rivers flooding. However, it is now thought that the silting over of the site is due to a succession of tsunamis.

Here is the Prytaneion where the athletes stayed and were entertained at official expense:

Prytaneion, Olympia

Prytaneion, Olympia

One of the parts of the site that is still standing is the Philippeion, begun by Philip II of Macedon after the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC and completed by his son, Alexander the Great. This circular building contained statues, no longer present, of Philip and his family.

Phlippeion, Olympia

Phlippeion, Olympia

Beyond the Philippeion is the oldest building on Olympia, the Temple of Hera (wife of Zeus). Built originally in the seventh century and then rebuilt in the sixth, it is also one of the most complete on the complex. It was here also that the Praxiteles statue of Hermes (I’ll deal with that in a separate post) was found.

Temple of Hera, Olympia

Temple of Hera, Olympia

In front of the Temple of Hera is an insignificant looking area which was the altar of Hera, and it was here that the Olympic flame was originally lit.

Altar of Hera, Olympia

Altar of Hera, Olympia

To the right of the altar and the temple is a building called the Nymphaion, a water feature with fountains and basins. It was a gift to Olympia from Herodes Antipas, a second century AD Roman Hellenophile.

Nymphaion, Olympia

Nymphaion, Olympia

Next to the Nymphaion stand the treasuries of some of the city states (mainly Greek city states in Italy) that took part in the Olympic Games and which house votive offerings (eg bronze statues).

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A series of plinths line the processional way to the Stadium: these originally held inscriptions describing fines imposed on athletes for cheating and were meant as a reminder to the athletes on their way to the stadium of the penalties of unsportsmanlike behaviour. The entrance to the Stadium is beneath a magnificent stone arch, which may originally have been a tunnel.

Arch at entry to Stadium, Olympia

Arch at entry to Stadium, Olympia

Amazingly, the 200 meter long stadium was only discovered in the 1940s, but it’s really what Olympia is all about.

Stadium, Olympia

Stadium, Olympia

At first the main race at the Olympic Games was a race from one end of the Stadium to the other. It was then extended to two lengths and eventually included other elaborations, such as running in armour.

Races were run barefoot (and naked) and the start line has two parallel lines, one for the toes of the right foot and one for the toes of the left foot:

Starting line - Stadium, Olympia Half way down the Stadium on the right hand side are some stone benches where the race judges sat and, opposite the judges seats, is a stone altar to Hera.

The Stadium could hold 15-20,000 people or rather men, as no women (apart from the Priestess of the Temple of Hera) were allowed on site. Ordinary people, slaves and women   had to watch the Games from the Hill of Kronos.

Moving on from the Stadium we walked down to the Octagon and the House of Nero. It is really difficult to get a feel for the octagon shape from the remains. Nero had a house built here when he came to the Games in 67 AD to take part in a chariot race in the Hippodrome. Strangely, he managed to have himself declared the winner, despite being thrown out of his chariot and not finishing the race.

Nero's House, Olympia

Nero’s House, Olympia

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One of the most impressive and biggest buildings on the whole site, built between 470-456 BC, is the Temple of Zeus to whom the Games were dedicated. The Temple is surrounded by the debris of massive, fallen columns. One of the columns was restored in 2004 by the German Archaeological Society on the occasion of the Athens Olympics.

Entrance to the Temple of Zeus, Olympia

Entrance to the Temple of Zeus, Olympia

Temple of Zeus, Olympia

Temple of Zeus, Olympia

Temple of Zeus, Olympia

Temple of Zeus, Olympia

The Temple originally held one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Zeus by Phidias. It must have been an enormous and impressive piece of work, amplified by the fact that a pool of water probably stood in front of it. After the Theodosian campaign against paganism, it was taken off to Byzantium where it was destroyed by fire some time in the fifth century.

Altar near the Temple of Zeus

Altar near the Temple of Zeus

The famous altar of Zeus consisted of a huge ash pile from the remains of animal sacrifices which eventually was 20 feet high. At each games 100 oxen were sacrificed to Zeus on the morning of the 3rd day of the Games. After the Games the ashes were damped down, plastered over and the top flattened.

Between the Temple of Zeus and the Temple of Hera is the Pelopeia , a curiously shaped area with a grass mound in the middle, dedicated to the hero, Pelops.

Pelopeia, Olympia

Pelopeia, Olympia

In the south-west area of the site is the Leonidaion, a sort of hotel for visitors to the Games.

Leonidaion, Olympia

Leonidaion, Olympia

At the south-west extremity of the site, beyond the Leonidaion lie a Roman house and a Greek bath house.

Roman house. Olympia

Roman house. Olympia

Greek Baths, Olympia

Greek Baths, Olympia

One of the more complete buildings on the site is what is described as the workshop of the sculptor, Phidias. There is a small vessel on display in the museum with the engraving “I belong to Phidias” on the bottom. The base of the workshop building is stone, but on top of that a Christian basilica has been built-in red brick. It is a curious mix of pagan and Christian in one building, although I wonder why they chose this particular building to convert to a church as opposed to one of the temples.

Workshop of Phidias, Olympia

Workshop of Phidias, Olympia

Inside workshop of Phidias, Olympia

Inside workshop of Phidias, Olympia

The Games were eventually stopped by Theodosius I in 393 AD and the eternal flame which had burnt for over 1000 years was extinguished.

It is sad to see the site of what was an incredible series of events in Antiquity reduced to such ruins. We were indeed very grateful to Queen Sophia for the shade of the pine trees as the heat was very fierce on the day we  visited. The area surrounding Olympia is very well landscaped with oleanders and other plants and, as cars and tour buses have to park at a short distance from the site entrance, it is lovely and peaceful. There were waves of tours as we walked around, but it is such a huge site that it never felt crowded.