The Archaeological Museum of Olympia, one of the most important museums in Greece, presents the long history of the most celebrated sanctuary of antiquity, the sanctuary of Zeus, father of both gods and men, where the Olympic games were born. The museum's permanent exhibition contains finds from the excavations in the sacred precinct of the Altis dating from prehistoric times to the Early Christian period. Among the many precious exhibits the sculpture collection, for which the museum is most famous, the bronze collection, the richest collection of its type in the world, and the large terracottas collection, are especially noteworthy.
The museum building comprises exhibition rooms, auxiliary spaces and storerooms. The vestibule and twelve exhibition rooms contain objects excavated in the Altis. Finally, part of the east wing and the basement are dedicated to storage and conservation of terracottas, bronze, stone, mosaics and minor objects.
The Archaeological Museum of Olympia, supervised by the Seventh Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, was reorganized in 2004 to meet modern museological standards.
The Ancient Olympic Games -- The 5-day Olympic festival was held every 4 years between 776 B.C. and A.D. 393 at full moon in mid-August or September, after the summer harvest. Participants came from as far away as Asia Minor and Italy, and the entire Greek world observed a truce to allow athletes and spectators to make their way to Olympia safely. During all the years that the Games took place, the truce was broken only a handful of times.
By the time the Games opened, literally thousands of people had poured into Olympia; and much of the surrounding countryside was a tent city. Women were barred from watching or participating in the Games, although they had their own Games in honor of Hera, Zeus's wife, in non-Olympic years. Any woman caught sneaking into the Olympic Games was summarily thrown to her death from a nearby mountain.
No one knows precisely what the order of events was, but the 5 days included footraces, short and long jumps, wrestling and boxing contests, chariot races, the arduous pentathlon (discus, javelin, jumping, running, and wrestling), and the vicious pankration (which combined wrestling and boxing techniques).
Altis is the sacred ground of Olympia, which consists of various buildings: the Temple of Hera (or Heraion), the Temple of Zeus, the Pelopion and the area of the altar, where the sacrifices were made. When we enter in the archaeological site, the Altis is on our left.
The most important and impressive building is the Temple of Zeus, built between 470 and 456 BC. The stone used for its construction was from the shore of the Alfeios, whereas the friezes, metopes and roof were made with white Parian marble. The temple was built on top of an artificial elevation. It measures were 64.12 x 27.70 m and 20.25 m high. It was a peristyle temple with 6 x 13 Doric columns. The chryselephantine statue of Zeus by Phidias, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was housed in this temple. Awfully this statue was carried to Constantinople and destroyed during a fire.
Theodosius II ordered the destruction of the temple in 426. One century later, and earthquake devastated the ruins. The pediments, friezes and metopes are shown in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, except for some fragments which were taken to the Louvre.
When you enter in the Archaeological site, the first building you find on the right is the Gymnasium, a place for training and also for socializing and engaging in intellectual pursuits. The building was rectangular, and four galleries in Doric rhythm surrounded a central court, called Pedion Areos.
After the Gymnasium and connected with it is the Palaestra (pic 1), a large courtyard used as a boxing or wrestling surface. The building was 66 m square and the central court was surrounded by galleries also in Doric rhythm where athletes could train in bad weather.
Following the main road, the next building is the Theikolon, the place reserved for the priest in charge of the temples. Later we found Phidias workshop, which had the same dimensions as the temple of Zeus. This way, the artist could be aware of the impression of his works in their future place. Later the workshop became a paleochristian basilica (pic 2).
Leaving the main road and turning to the right we found the thermal baths, the swimming pool and the Roman Guest house (pic 3). These baths were built in the 5th century BC and the guest house dates back to the 2nd century AD and probably was used as a hotel for high-ranking officials.
The last big building following the main road is the Leonidaion, a lodging place for athletes. It was build in the 4th century BC and was funded and designed by Leonidas of Naxos, hence its name. The building was almost square, and there was a inner court with fountains and a garden.
There are many important other sculptures in the side galleries of the Archeological Museum. The Prominent among them is the old Archaic terra cotta of Zeus carrying off Gandymede. Even more famous in Gallery 7 is a late 5thC BC Nike by Paionios. The most famous sculptue is the Hermes carryjng the baby Dionysos done by Praxiteles. Another even older example of sculpture is a brass model of a horse.
Across the way from the entry to the Ruins of Olympia is the latest Archeological Museum which was finished in 1982. In its central hall are installed the two pediments of the Temple of Zeus. The east pediment is centered by a giant figure of Zeus. To his right, stand King Oinomaos and his wife, and to his left are Pelos and Hippodameia. Lateral to these on either side are sets of horses to be used in the chariot race.
The original running track is once again cleared and marks out the 600 Olympic unit distance. The desire to run the length of the track entices every one to try to run it but some cannot. (See that my wife could still do it).
Near the northeast edge of the Altis is the entrance to the Stadion. It still has a vaulted entrance and adjacent to the entrance are 12 pedestals which supported the Zanes. Many pieces of the Echo Hall are scattered nearby.
Just east of the Temple of Hera once was an exedra built by Herodes Atticus between 157 and 160 AD. It contained a fountain and was a source of water for the sanctuary. It was fed by a 3 km aqueduct. Segments of the stone that stored the water are restored to their sites and include several lion-head spouts. (Originally there were 83).
The Temple of Zeus is near the center of the Altis. There is nothing standing above the height of the base of the temple. There are many groups of drum rounds set around the area suggesting the magnificence that once stood here. The drums were made of shell-limestone and covered in stucco to look like marble.