Sunday, June 9, 2013


Helmut Kyrieleis, Olympia: Archäologie eines Heiligtums. Zaberns Bildbände zur Archäologie. Darmstadt: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2011. Pp. 144. ISBN 9783805334211. €29.90.

Reviewed by Stefanie A. H. Kennell, Vancouver BC, Canada (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Site of the Hellenic world's greatest festival, the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia has been excavated since 1875 and carefully published for specialists. Not since Mallwitz' 1972 Olympia und seine Bauten, however, has a survey of the archaeological progress at Olympia been available to the general public. Kyrieleis, a former director of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens (1975-1988) and the Olympia excavations (1985-2004), remedies that lack. This volume brings together the results of more recent fieldwork and problem-oriented studies to paint an up-to-date portrait of the sanctuary's cultural and artistic significance in the light of archaeological research. The introduction (7- 10) gives notice that we will not receive an all-inclusive picture of ancient Olympia, but rather an account from the beginnings to the Macedonian hegemony. Kyrieleis explains that he views subsequent monuments and structures as generic products of the Hellenistic poleis and the Roman empire. Accordingly, Olympia's continued functioning was a matter not of continuity but of conservative Traditionspflege, of the admiration of post-Classical visitors for the traditions of the glorious past in a place where "religious, ethical, and artistic values of ancient Greek culture had manifested themselves in a matchless fashion" (10). Might this contemplative vision of Olympia be tempered by the sweaty presence of Hellenistic- and Roman-period athletes for whom the sanctuary's contests were something more robust than heritage activities?

Kyrieleis sketches the history of the excavations (11-18), remarking on the sanctuary's historical development from the origins to Late Antiquity (6th century A.D.) as shown by the excavations (19-22). He usefully draws special attention to new research into the sanctuary's origins following up on Dörpfeld's excavation (1906-1909) of a Bronze Age settlement. Re-examining the area of the hero shrine of Pelops, researchers found a "black layer" (schwarze Schicht) of burnt matter, animal bones, ceramics, and votives dating from the Geometric period (9th/8th centuries B.C.) together with Post-Mycenaean potsherds datable to the end of the 11th century B.C., evidence not of continuity of cult, but of Bronze Age remains as a focus for Early Iron Age religious practices.

The treatment of Olympia's architecture (23-29) is appropriate for the place where Dörpfeld first practiced Bauforschung, developing the basic field techniques for observing, documenting, interpreting, and dating built structures. Further excavations and unresolved questions entailed continuing study of architectural remains in the 1930s and after World War II (until 2005 for the purposes of this volume). Kyrieleis stresses the role of conservation and restoration (anastylosis) in archaeological practice, highlighting the 2004 re-erection of the column at the northwest corner of the Temple of Zeus (26), the Heraion (which evolved from a wooden structure of c. 600 B.C. to the limestone temple Pausanias saw in the 150s-60s A.D.), and the partial restoration of the Philippeion, a circular edifice marking Philip II of Macedon's post-Chaironeia (338 B.C.) supremacy over mainland Greece. Given the book's focus on Olympia from its beginnings through the Classical period, the minimal treatment of eye-catching but post-Classical structures is understandable. The absence of remarks on the date and function of the Kladeosmauer is not. This wall, the largest man-made structure on the site, was constructed to the sanctuary's west shortly before 700 B.C. to divert the Kladeos from its old course closer to the Hill of Kronos and prevent flooding, enabling the development of the Altis (Olympiabericht 12 [2003]).

The sanctuary's signature edifice, the 5th-century B.C Temple of Zeus, receives an entire chapter (30-45) reviewing over a century of research on the building and its sculptural decoration and tracing ancient repairs and renovations. Kyrieleis reveals the temple's significance as a construction megaproject (Großbaustelle) requiring immense resources of time, money, skilled manpower, materials, and coordination, illustrated by reference to the coinage of Elis, the city that controlled the sanctuary (36-38). The combination of architecture, pedimental sculpture (Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs on the west end, the contest between Pelops and Oinomaos on the east), and metopes (Labors of Herakles) make the temple a total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk 38-42). Its Severe Style sculptures, he notes, disappointed 19th- and early 20th-century German beholders expecting the high Classical elegance of Phidias' creations (43-44); not until the work of Buschor and Hamann in the 1920s, with new, better-lit photographs, was their artistic excellence finally recognized.

The wonder of the world that was Phidias' chryselephantine cult image of Zeus occupies the next section (46-52). Starting from Pausanias' description, Kyrieleis discusses the sculptor's workshop (converted into a church in Late Antiquity) and the techniques used to fashion the statue and its accessories. The image's fate after the rise of Christianity prompts optimistic speculation regarding the capacity of Libanius and Themistius to influence the religious policies of Arcadius and Honorius to protect pagan cultural goods and buildings.

A sizable part of the book (53-90) is devoted to showcasing the smaller finds, providing a salutary corrective to popular perceptions of Olympia molded by the aesthetic/art-historical way in which museums present artifacts. Kyrieleis the archaeologist strives to give a broad idea of "the nature, make-up, and significance" of the sanctuary's characteristic objects, examining individual classes of finds based on material and date. He illuminates their extent and nature with a discussion of Geometric-period artistic production as expressive of Homeric society (54-61): statuettes symbolize value and status, while tripod cauldrons are the prestige- and tradition-embodying votives par excellence. Bronze is Olympia's preferred material for votives, far outweighing other categories such as ceramics or statuary (61-68). Bronze appears in reliefs (69-70) and ornamental appliqués, their forms and motifs often influenced by or even originating in the artistic production of the Near East (70-77). Some votives were of iron, "a highly underrated material archaeologically" (77-79): roasting spits, knives, and keys (the last offerings to Zeus Herkeios, protector of home and family, or by high-society priestesses?). The dedications of weapons and armor (79-86) date largely to the late 8th to mid-5th centuries B.C. Helmets, breastplates, greaves, shields, spear heads and butts, and other equipment are so abundant they constitute a history of Archaic and Classical Greek warfare. That many were found in the area of the stadium reminds us that victory (not peace, or a spirit of excellence) as guaranteed by Zeus was paramount at Olympia. The delights of figural and ornamental polychrome architectural terracottas conclude the section (87-90).

Lacking local marble and scavenged by Late Antique metal recyclers, Olympia boasts few large freestanding sculptures. Kyrieleis reviews what survives (91-104). Archaic statuary comprises a few fragments of carved limestone and marble and some small bronzes. The marble Nike of Paionios, commemorating the Messenians' victory over the Lacedaemonians in 425 B.C., and the Hermes of Praxiteles are treated more expansively, with attention to historical and monumental context (94-99). Since the German excavators already knew from Pausanias' description that a Hermes of Praxiteles once stood in the Heraion, they immediately identified the statue they found there in May 1877 as Praxitelean. Kyrieleis sees no reason to dispute this identification, mentioning that some believe the statue to be a later work (perhaps a late Hellenistic or Roman copy of Praxiteles' Hermes). After those earlier remarks (43-44) on unsympathetic pre-1920s German perceptions of Severe Style sculpture, he makes a piquant decision to contrast "scientific discussion" of the Hermes with an example of "subjective" contemporary taste, French sculptor Aristide Maillol's reactions to both the Hermes and the Zeus temple's pedimental sculpture in 1909—"the Hermes of Praxiteles… is official art; it is dreadful, it is sculpted as if in toilet soap…The Centaurs and Lapiths of the Temple of Zeus, behold Nature itself; they are real and magnificent beasts" (99). Of the large bronzes of men, gods, and animals that once thronged the sanctuary, only tantalizing fragments and inscribed bases remain (100-104).

The varied activities that took place at the sanctuary of Zeus occupy the rest of the book. "Olympia—Elean and Panhellenic" (105-110) features inscriptions on stone and metal that regulate cult practice, competitions, Elis' relations with other cities, and (in the case of treaties of friendship and inter-city dispute settlements) political activity in the wider Greek world. The festival's operations are the focus of the next section (111-116), which shows how participants and spectators were looked after. Archaeologists found many weights and measures stamped with Elis' mark, evidence of well-controlled bazaars for provisions, as well as hundreds of temporary wells dug to supply drinking water and filled in after the festival's end. They also found traces of the war in the sanctuary in 364 B.C., when the Arcadian League expelled the Eleans from Olympia (Xenophon, Hellenica 7.4.28-32): hastily refilled trenches, sherds, coins, arrowheads, and unmarked (non-Elean) measures.

The last section discusses the archaeology of the ancient Olympic Games (117-136). A 6th-century bronze tablet commemorating the heavy athlete Kleombrotos of Sybaris exemplifies the pan-Greek regard for Olympic victors. Esteem for victorious athletes manifested itself not only in personal prestige but also in material privileges granted by cities. Kyrieleis distinguishes the ancient Greek view of competition and victory from modern attitudes to "sport." The weapons found in and near the stadium are characteristic of the Zeus worshipped at Olympia, the god of prophecy who granted victories both military and athletic (Strabo 8.3.30; cf. Hdt. 9.33-35); Greeks, united by language and religion, understood that prophecy and victory went together. Agon meant struggle, competition: "it would not have occurred to the ancient Greeks to refer to the Olympic contests as 'Games' " (120). Zeus as Lord of Victories thus introduces a brief survey of the venues (121-123). The 4th-century B.C. stadium visible today was restored only 1958-1963, while the hippodrome is basically unexcavated, though test excavations have been conducted south of the stadium. That in earlier times some contests were held in the Altis west of the stadium and spectators sat below the treasuries to the north is left unsaid. Kyrieleis then considers the material (often epigraphical) evidence for the Olympic Games: inscribed halteres (jumping weights), Bubon's 143 kg (314.6 lb) rock, statuettes, statue bases (sometimes also naming sculptors), a 7th-century B.C. bronze figurine whose hands once gripped tiny halteres signifying he was a pentathlete, and bronze plaques inscribed with rules governing competitors (124- 132).

Kyrieleis ends with two chronological observations (132-134). The first concerns the temporary wells already mentioned, which are extremely important for the festival's chronology and location. Because they were filled in hastily with whatever was on hand, the fill can be dated with fair precision. The earliest wells are of the early 7th century B.C., substantially later than the Olympics' traditional foundation date of 776 B.C. The second down-dates the end of the ancient Olympics. In 1994, while excavating a structure near the Southwest Baths, Ulrich Sinn found a Bronzeplatte reused as a latrine stopper. This mutilated bronze plaque turned out to be an Olympic victor list (the structure is the athletes' guild house and should appear on the site plan [11] immediately south of the "SW- THERMEN"). The latest name on the list is Aurelius Zopyros, an Athenian victorious in boys' boxing in A.D. 385, disproving the supposition that Olympia's last competitors trickled in from the fringes of the Hellenized world in the 360s.

The volume is an excellent introduction to ancient Olympia for the non-specialist: skillfully written (some of the longer sentences may vex those less than adept in German, making an English translation desirable), beautifully produced, and lavishly illustrated. Individual artifacts and assemblages large and small are skillfully photographed—some items even outdoors in sunlight—and cleanly reproduced, with Olympia's natural beauties much in evidence. A double-page spread (32-33) showing three phases of the Temple of Zeus' lion's head waterspouts framed by wildflowers and ivy and a smaller image (62, Abb. 44) of a mini-herd of bronze cattle votives are particularly striking. Most inscriptions are quite legible; the Bronzeplatte (133, Abb. 135) does require a magnifier. The endnotes furnish basic bibliography on many intriguing and occasionally controversial points (S. E. Bassett, The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople, Cambridge 2004, should be added). Typos are rare (139 nn. 52-53: for "Dargon" read "Dagron"; 139 n. 54: for "Fitten" read "Fitton").

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