Monday, September 2, 2013

Olympia... the Sanctuary Lives On

This has been the most challenging blog for me.  Both Shirley and I took too many photos... and it was a trick to even know what they were.  It was a big puzzle.  After four days of serious work I have revised this every day in an effort to get the right names on each photo.  Shirley says, "good luck!"

Would you believe I hated history as a student?  Please tell me if you see any errors... or can solve the mystery photo at the end.

This artist's sketch helps put into perspective the ruins of Olympia... even if the picture is not completely accurate.  These facilities once throbbed with life and action... and even today, every four years, the Olympic flame burns here to start the Olympics.

" bright star more quickening than the sun must thou search in the void firmament by day, so neither shall we find any games greater than the Olympic thereof to utter our voice..." -for Hieron of Syracuse, winner in the horse race..." -Sir Richard Francis Burton, 1821-1890 -translation

Not enough time to do both the Archaeological Site and the Museum of Olympia. So we just did the UNESCO Archaeological Site. The museum will have to wait for another day. This would be an easy place for me to come back to.

There was fresh digging in progress immediately after walking thru the entrance gates.  The French   began excavations in 1829.  German explorations of 1875-81 threw much light upon the plans of the buildings.  Excavations resumed in 1936, 1952, and 1960-61.  Many valuable objects were discovered...

The most important was the statute of Hermes.  It would be quite a thrill to be digging and come upon a piece like this!

This was the map of this site near the entrance... and in spite of the sun spots and shadows, it gives the best layout and legend for this property.

After the fact I have tried to find pictures of as many of these buildings or ruins... but I have only addressed about three-quarters of the 24 shown in the legend.

We all know Olympia was the place the Greeks held their games... but I didn't realize it was not a town.  It was a sanctuary containing various buildings associated with the games and the worship of the gods.

Even though earthquakes and wars have levelled this place, the archeologists have uncovered the ruins... and this sanctuary lives on.

This is the Gymnasium (2nd century BC) The foundations make it about 375 feet by 688 feet.  That's about the size of two CFL football fields side by side.  It had training areas for practice in foot race, javelin and discuss throwing.

At first glance some of these foundation ruins just look like more rocks... but this is the Kronion Thermes. (2nd century BC - 5th century AD)  These are the hot baths of the Hellenistic period.

Prytaneion (5th century BC)  This is where the officials met.

It also housed the hearth of goddess Hestia and is where the sacred and everlasting flame was lit.

This sketch on the plaque shows a very sizeable building. This is where dignitaries of the Sanctuary carried out sacrifices at the altars... and guests of the games feasted.

Shirley poses inside the Philippeion... a circular memorial started by Philip II, who died two years later... so likely it was finished by his son Alexander the Great in the early 300's BC.

Like most memorials, this one was built to celebrate Philip's victory at the battle of Chaeronea (338 BC.)  It had 18 Ionic columns around the perimeter, which was about 50 feet diameter.

Inside it had nine Corinthian columns.  The memorial contained gold and ivory statues of Philip's family, Alexander the Great, Olympais, Amyntas III and Eurydice I.

I like these Ionic capitals...

but why mix in Corinthian capitals around the inside? Up to this point in time it was not common to combine two previously incompatible elements of structure in the same work.  Was it designed to use both styles in the beginning... or was it changed after Philip died and his son took over?

Shirley and I stopped to visit with some of our Alberta friends... Ewalt, Wayne, Geri and Gail.

We also bumped into Byron.

This is the ruins of the Temple of Zeus (built between 472 - 456 BC) Once upon a time it housed one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World... the renowned Statue of Zeus.

In it's glory days the Temple of Zeus was a focal point of Olympia, dedicated to local and Pan-Hellenic deities.

The Statute of Zeus was a giant 43-foot tall figure made by the famous Greek sculptor Phidias circa 435 BC.  It was made of ivory plates and gold panels over a wooden framework, representing the god of Zeus sitting on an elaborate cedar wood throne ornamented with ebony, ivory, gold and precious stones.

The 11th-century historian George Kedenos records a tradition that it was carried off to Constantinople, where it was destroyed in the great fire of the Laseion, in AD 475. Alternatively, it has been said that it perished along with the temple, which burned down in 425 AD. Either way it is no more.

The Temple of Hera... was dedicated to Hera, the wife of Zeus.

The temple was destroyed in an earthquake in the 4th century AD.

Only a few of these Doric capitals remain today.

Hera's Alter is where the Olympic flame is lit each time the games start anywhere in the world.  It sure doesn't look like much... but that is what the plaque here tells us.

 Nymphaion (2nd century AD)  Photo Ronny Siegel... How did he get this with no people?

This looks like part of the small temple at each side of the fountain... see 3-D sketch below.  Interesting dentil detail.

This is a monumental fountain. They say it had a two story facade... but that is just the part with the 22 sculptures. This fountain was donated by Herodes Atticus and his wife Regilla.

These two small columns are also part of the small temples.

This aerial shot on the plaque not only shows the semi-circle footprint of the large fountain... but also the Temple of Hera.

The Metroon (4th century BC)... another temple.  Dedicated to the mother goddess, Cybele, Rhea, or Demeter.

The peripheral of the temple was 33 feet by 66 feet. During Roman times the temple was used as a cult place in honour of the Roman emperors and the inner room was adorned with their statues.

The Bases of Zanes, once held bronze statues of Zeus on 16 bases.  Under the statues they posted the fines imposed on athletes who had committed the offence of cheating. The inscriptions on the bases named the athlete and the nature of the infringement for which he was penalized. The location of the Zanes was along the entrance to the Stadium... a perfect warning to all competitors on their way to compete.

The vaulted archway to the Stadium is called the Crypt or Memorial Entrance. It used to have a lot more blocks... likely 40 feet or so of vault.  Of course everyone wants to have their photo taken with the arch... so Shirley took mine. You will see future photos showing how the wider top of the archway was used as an overpass for pedestrian traffic above.

Looking back at the vault you can see not only how huge each block is, but also a lot of the original vault is missing.  See how each one of the blocks in the vault are tapered?

When building arches on the orphanage in Mexico I learned that to build an arch you first build the form to hold the blocks in the exact shape of the arch... and then after they have the vault built, they remove the form under it.  I made a plywood form for the 24 arches we made... but it is not uncommon to build the form of blocks or bricks.  Very labour intensive.

Geri and Werner pose and wave to us in this ancient Stadium... 5th century BC. The embankments did not have stone seats... but they say it could accommodate 45,000 spectators. The only seats were on a platform reserved for the judges.

Werner gets in position on the starting blocks. Even today this is one busy place. How many athletes would you guess have lined up here to start a race? Thank you Shirley for this photo.

Another view of the Stadium from the plateau at the Treasuries.

Site of the Treasuries (6th -5th centuries BC)

The plaque tells the story of twelve temple-like buildings donated by the Greek city-states and their colonies in South Italy and Sicily to the Sanctuary.

Only five of the twelve ruined Treasuries are identified with certainty: those of Sikyon, Silinous, Metapontion, Megara and Gela. Any of those names ring a bell?

Shirley and Geri liked the Treasuries... an ideal bench to sit and rest... have a drink of water.

The Echo Portico (middle of the 4th century BC.)

Famous building for it acoustics, where the sound was repeated seven times.  Look top centre between the Treasury buildings and Echo Portico and you can see the overpass... over the entrance vault.

In front of the portico was erected the monument of Ptolemy Philadelphus and of Arsinoe (284-246 BC.)  Their gilded statues once crowned the two ionic columns 27 feet high.

Nero's House was an elaborately built villa with a court surrounded by columns, many rooms, gardens and a luxurious bath, the so-called Octagon... a "hot tub!"

The emperor who played his violin while Rome burned at one time had it all. I'm sure no cost was spared to make this pad the ultimate residence.  Nero participated at the games here in 67 AD.

Council House Bouleyterion (6th-5th century BC.) The meeting building for the Olympic Council. It would be nice if they would put some of this puzzle back together again!

When I stand beside these sections of the columns you can see they are about five and a half feet diameter.

This is where the athletes came for steroid tests... and gave their sacred oath before beginning the games.  See the semi-circle with statues centre right...

At one time this curved base held several statues on display.

Leonidaion Thermae (3rd-6th century AD) This devastated building complex has a well preserved luxury accommodations with hot baths. Mosaics and a perfect wall heating system are still preserved.

It may not look like much today, but in it's day this was the Four Seasons of Olympia... with large and luxurious accommodation for distinguished visitors to the Olympic Games.   It was built approximately 330 BC and was remodelled twice in Roman times.

This site plan shows the best footprint of the Leonidaion. See the large square to the right with the number 5?  There is another square and clover leaf in the middle. This is the footprint of the Leonidaion... the largest structure in this sanctuary. Rooms were all around the perimeter looking into the central water/landscape feature.

Here you can see the clover leaf with recessed water feature... a central water feature around the hotel units. And there is a circle in the middle... likely with a statute or a fountain or some type of special feature.  I loved this the first time I saw it... but I didn't understand any of it until now.  This is first class design!

Each side of the Leonidaion had 12 columns... 48 columns all the way around.

These are the baths for the Leonidaion... one of the first Health Spas!

 It looks like it is slated for some restoration.

The largest rooms at each end had vaulted barrel ceilings.  Was this for massages or...?

It appears that these walls were partly built with fired bricks and mortar on the outside... with the centre filled with rock rubble and a wet dirt/sand and mortar mixture. These walls are between 24 to 30 inches thick.

The Workshop of Pheidias and Early Christian Basilica.  A significant advancement in understanding Phidias' working methods came in 1954 - 1958 with the excavation of the workshop here at Olympia. This is where Phidias created the Statue of Zeus.

These columns are the Palaestra... the place where the wrestlers trained for the Olympics. The building dates from the end of the third century to the beginning of the second century BC.

The building was symmetrical... about 210 feet square with two rows of ionic columns on all four sides. It had a central courtyard covered with sand used for wrestling.  Plenty of room there to have several matches happening at once.

Just before we left this site... not far from where the fresh excavations were happening we saw this unusual piece.  If any one knows what this is about, please let me know.  They have gone to considerable effort to protect this artifact or what ever from getting wet... but I have no idea what it is.  Any help would be appreciated.

Coming here didn't make me want to become an Olympic champion... but it has given me a better understanding of the roots of today's Olympics. I didn't realize how much all the temples, the sacrifices and all the different gods played into the whole event. Most of this happened before the time of Christ, so idol worship and all the trimmings were the soup de jour... and not much has changed since.

Now if I can just get up off my butt and go walking for an hour!

"My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty.  She is ninety-seven now, and we don't know where the heck she is." -Ellen DeGeneres


  1. No one can accuse you of not being a history buff now, Pa! Wow, that was one meaty post.

    Love those arches!

    And nope, can't help you with that last, very strange-looking "thing."

    1. I am quite surprised how much I enjoy doing this blog post. Does that make me a history buff?

  2. Good luck on the "mystery picture". I did a quick search for new olympian excavations with the variables of "altar" and "fountain" and "table" -- no dice.

    My favorite part of your post was the Zanes. I went and looked up the kinds of fines that were levied on naughty athletes. And it was the fines that paid for the statues. Ha!

    1. That is a great tidbit of information. This Olympic thing has become a major business.

      Do you think someone will make a statue with Lance Armstrong's fines?

    2. By the time Lance is done paying fines we could build another Statue of Liberty..

    3. Very good, Shelby. I like that idea. Now who has the money? Maybe you should forward this blog to them!