Archaeological Museum of Olympia – Overview
Olympia Archaeological Museum of Olympia
The three museums of Olympia, 1) the Archaeological Museum, 2) the Museum of the Ancient Olympic Games and 3) the Museum of the History of the Excavations at Olympia, are within minutes walk from the modern Olympia town and the archaeological site.
The Archaeological Museum was founded in the 19th c. to house the finds that the excavations brought to light. As a growing wealth of artifacts kept accumulating, even after a century-long archaeological research, it became apparent that the elegant 19th-century building would not suffice. A new museum was built 1966-1975 and underwent a reorganization in 2004, in view of the Athens 2204 Olympic Games.
The museum’s collections are exhibited in 12 halls and over 3,500 years of history, from the 3rd millennium BC when humans first settled at Olympia to the end of Zeus’ sanctuary in the 7th c. AD. The Archaeological Museum of Olympia ranks among the most important museums in Greece. renowned for its sculptures and collection of ancient Greek bronzes, which is the richest in the world.
The two pediments from the Temple of Zeus are among the most magnificent examples of ancient Greek sculpture, and indeed from the period of its zenith. The east pediment shows the preparation for the mythical chariot race between Pelops and King Oinomaos, while the west shows the beloved subject of the struggle between the Centaurs and Lapiths, with the superb figure of Apollo at the centre.
The metopes of the temple represent the Twelve Labours of Heracles, the offering of the Stymphalian birds to Athena, Atlas bearing the apples of the Hesperides to Heracles, and so on. Paionios’ statue of Nike descending from heaven, an ex-voto of the Messenians and Naupactians in 421 BC, is one of the most significant sculptures of Classical times.
Other outstanding exhibits in the Museum are the terracotta group of Zeus with Ganymede, the colossal head attributed to the cult statue of Hera and the “diamond of Olympia”, the famous statue of Hermes with the newborn Dionysus, an original work by Praxiteles, displayed in a hall to itself.
Among the dedications to Zeus by the city-states in gratitude for their victories are bronze tripod cauldrons, vessels, armors, helmets and shields.
The collection of bronzes
More than 14,000 bronze artifacts, the largest number ever found in a region of the ancient Greek world were buried in the soil of Olympia. Human and animal figurines constitute a popular category of those metal works, dating back as early as in the 9th century BC. They often depict warriors, charioteers and, of course, athletes such as the mid-6th century BC statuette of a discus thrower or the early-5th century statuette of a runner.
An impressive group of the museum exhibits comprise the large bronze cauldrons, often decorated with griffins or sirens, imaginary and daemonic beings inspired by the Orient. Those were luxury offerings to the sanctuary manifesting the prosperity and artistic level that Archaic Greece had reached by the 7th and 6th centuries BC.
Apart from pilgrims and Olympic winners, warriors returning victorious from battlefields expressed their gratitude to Zeus by donating their weapons. Thus, Olympia turned out to be a repository of ancient Greek weaponry with a long series of helmets, shields, cuirasses, spears and other parts of armour recovered from the site and now on display in the museum. Of immense historical siginificance is the helmet of the Athenian General Miltiades, the winner of the battle of Marathon against the Persians (490 BC). A unique example of ancient war instrument is a battering ram of the 5th century BC.
The collection of sculptures
The Museum of Olympia houses masterpieces of classical art such as the sculptures of Zeus’ temple and two celebrated works of Graeco-Roman antiquity, the statues of Nike by Paeonios and Hermes by Praxiteles.
The temple of Zeus dominated the sanctuary not only due to its size but also due to its magnificently decorated pediments and metopes. The centauromachy scene with the emblematic figure of Apollo and the Labours of Hercules are considered the finest sculptures of the so-called Austere Style of the 5th century BC.
No later than 420 BC, Paeonios created his winged goddess Nike, the statue that became synonymous with the iconographic allegory of Victory and has shaped its representations in western art ever since: the statue of Nike is the one featured on the Olympic medals from 1896 to date.
Around 330 BC, the great master Praxiteles sculpted Hermes carrying the infant god Dionysus. This is one of the few superb original statues of the 4th century that survived, as the most celebrated works of this period are known to us solely through their Roman copies.
The statue of Hermes is one of the most magnificent art pieces of the ancient world. It is a symbol of beauty and aesthetics. It is the work of sculptor Praxiteles and depicts the god Hermes holding the infant Dionysos in his left arm. It was discovered during the excavations in Olympia, in 1877 by German archaeologists. The statue is a product of the 4th century B.C. and reflects the features of that period. The image of the god exudes peace and relaxation and his body has athletic characteristics that reflect harmony and eurhythmy. The Hermes of Praxiteles is one of the exhibits of the modern Museum of Olympia with the highest visit rate and is considered as the quintessential model of male beauty.
Pheidias and his workshop
Pheidias and his workshop
When the priests of Olympia decided that the temple of Zeus needed a new cult statue, Pheidias was the very man to be sought for. The artist whose sculptures beautified Athens, came and settled in Olympia and by 430 BC he delivered the colossal gold-and-ivory statue of Zeus, which would be listed among the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Both the chryselephantine Zeus and its counterpart statue of Athena in the Parthenon vanished in the Middle Ages, however Pheidias’ workshop was discovered during the excavations at Olympia and its contents are on display in a special hall of the Archaeological Museum. Raw material residues, tools, jewels and casts offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the sanctum of a leading ancient Greek sculptor who took the trouble to sign his personal cup, inscribing upon the base “I belong to Pheidias”; another unique exhibit at the Museum of Olympia.