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Curtius' Excavations at Olympia, Greece

An Olympic Excavation


Stadium, Olympia, Greece

Stadium, Olympia, Greece

Aschwin Prein
In 1875, German archaeologist Ernst Curtius realized one of his life long dreams: to excavate at the Greek site of Olympia, home of the ancient festival of Zeus. What he found there ultimately led to the re-institution of the Olympic Games.

The athletic festivals upon which our modern games are based were held at Olympia between 776 BC and AD 393. According to Greek legend, they had been held during the early Bronze Age as well, as early as the 10th or 11th century BC, and indeed the Temple of Hera at Olympia was built during the 11th century BC. The best records date to the revival of the Festival of Zeus in 776 BC. Games were held every four years, at the beginning and middle of the so-called "Great Year," a calendric trick used to rectify the differences in solar and lunar years. The first games at Olympia were foot races, run by any free-born warrior during the early fall of the year.

Curtius and Olympia

Ernst Curtius was 24 years old when he first visited Olympia in 1838, working at the time with the German scholar of Greek literature and art, Karl Otfried Muller. But it wasn't until 37 years later that he began the enormous task of completely excavating the entire sanctuary at Olympia. Of course, Curtius wasn't the first person interested in Olympia. Written records about the athletic festivals included a report by the Greek traveller Pausanias, who attended the games about the year 174 AD. Antiquarian interest in the site started in 1723, when the French scholar Bernard de Montfaucon [1655-1741] failed to get enough funding to take it on. The German archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann [1717-1768] was also interested in it around 1768, but his funding also fell through. A small French expedition was undertaken in 1829, but it wasn't until 1875 that all of the pieces were in place.

Excavating the Home of the Olympics

The scientific expedition--the largest of its kind at the time, and one of the largest ever carried out--was funded by the German government under the direction of Curtius and with the assistance and support of the best archaeologists of the period, including Friedrich Adler and Wilhelm Dorpfeld. Six years later, most of the buildings reported by Pausanias had been cleared and identified, including the Heraion, the Temple of Zeus, the Metroon, the Philippeion, the precinct of Pelops, and the Echo Colonnade. Artifacts from the expedition were to remain in Greece, according to the contracts drawn up between the Greek and German governments; but most of the largest statuary had been looted in antiquity, by the Romans for the most part.

The history of Olympia is a microcosm of the Greek state; its rise and fall, its occupation by the Persians, the Macedonians, and the Romans are reflected in its ageless rubble. Excavations since Curtius' day have been undertaken by several scholars, and are still being conducted under the supervision of the Deutsche Archäologische Institut. Artifacts and other objects taken from Olympia can be found at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia.

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