July 15, 2008

The site of the ancient hippodrome course in Olympia, where the emperor Nero competed for Olympian laurels, has been discovered by a research team.

Prior to this, the hippodrome had only been known from written sources; archaeologists had failed to locate its actual site.

"This discovery is an archaeological sensation," said Professor Norbert Müller of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. The research project extended over several weeks before being completed in the middle of May 2008.

German archaeologists have been continuously excavating the site of where the ancient olympiad was held since 1875; this research has become a tradition and innumerable archaeologists, historians, and sports historians from all over the world have been involved in trying to solve this secret for over a hundred years.

The research team included Professor Müller (a sports historian), Dr Christian Wacker (a sports archaeologist from Cologne) and PD Dr Reinhard Senff (chief excavator of the German Archaeological Institute - DAI.

Pausanias, a travel writer of the ancient world, described this course for horse races, its starting mechanisms, turning points and altars in much detail in the 2nd century AD: "If you climb over the stand of the stadion along the side where the hellanodikai are seated, you reach a terrain, where the horse races and the starting mechanism for the horses are located. The starting mechanism has the form of the prow of a ship, with the tip pointing to the racetrack.
"Along the side where the prow touches the column of Agnaptos, it is broad. At the farthest tip of the prow there is placed a bronze dolphin on a pole (11).
"Both sides of the starting mechanism are more than 400 feet long and there are starting gates incorporated in them. These starting gates are assigned by lot to the competitors in the horse races. A cable is stretched out as starting barrier before the chariots or the ridden horses. An altar of unbaked brick, plastered on the outside, is constructed every Olympiad in the centre of the prow. (12)
"On the altar there is an eagle with outstretched wings. The race director operates a device inside the altar. When it is put into motion, the eagle flies up, so that it is visible for the spectators, and the dolphin falls to the ground. (13)
"The first cables to fall down are those on both sides of the column of Agnaptos and the horses in these positions leave first. They now draw level with those who have drawn the lot for the second place and the starting ropes are lowered here; this procedure continues until all the horses are level in a row at the tip of the prow. At this point the drivers can begin to demonstrate their skills and the speed of their horses." (14)
It was Kleoitas who invented the starting device and he was so proud of his invention that his statue in Athens bears the following inscription: "The first inventor of the starting mechanism for horses at Olympia made me: Kleoitas, son of Aristokles." It is said that a certain Aristeides modified this invention. (15)
"The racecourse has one side longer than the other, and on the longer side, which is an earthen bank, there can be found, at the passage through the bank, Taraxippos, the Horse-Frightener." (Pausanias VI 20.10-15)

To date, it had been assumed that nothing of the hippodrome had survived, as the area described by Pausanias to the east of the sanctuary of Olympia has been flooded by the Alfeios River since ancient times and has become covered with silt. In modern plans and descriptions it is usually stated quite simply that "nothing remains of the hippodrome due to flooding in medieval times".

This served as an additional incentive for the German researchers: Using modern geophysical methods, they systematically searched the area for the first time. The experts Armin Grubert (Mainz) and Christian Hübner (Freiburg), who specialize in the use of geomagnetic and georadar techniques, were able to map soil disturbances such as water courses, ditches, and walls. Conspicuous, rectilinear structures were indeed discovered along a stretch of almost 1200m. The researchers believe this to be the racecourse, which ran parallel to the stadium. Structural remains identified as the temple of Demeter that is known to have been sited near the hippodrome were discovered in the northern part of the area investigated in the spring of 2007.

Of particular interest is the fact that at the halfway point of the northern access to the starting-gates - where Pausanias describes entering the hippodrome - there is a circular arrangement with a diameter of about 10m, clearly marked in the ancient soil layer, which could be the remains of the sacred structure described here by the ancient writer. The actual starting-gates, with boxes for up to 24 teams of horses, are most probably located under a gigantic pile of earth excavated by the archaeologists investigating the temple area since 1875.

The investigation of the area east of the sanctuary of Olympia, made possible by the research funds provided by the Institute of Sports Science of the University of Mainz and the world's governing body for horse sports, the FEI, has produced the first concrete indications of the location of the racecourse and its geographical dimensions. Ten students were on hand to assist the sports historian Professor Norbert Müller, who is an authority on Olympia. "The DAI, with its branch in Athens, has done sports history a great service through its contribution," said Müller. "The project could become a new attraction for the sports world, similar to the excavation of the ancient Olympic stadium 50 years ago."

The area east of the sanctuary of Olympia had not been the subject of archaeological investigation before, although the ancient written sources show that this must have been the site of the largest construction, in area terms, built to host competitions.

According to Pausanias, the hippodrome lay south of the now researched and reconstructed stadium, and must now be several meters below the current level. It is only here, between the adjoining hills on the other side of the road to Arcadia in the north and the bed of the Alfeios River in the south (which has since been straightened) that the topology is suitable for the accommodation of a racecourse with a length of more than one kilometer.