Ancient Olympic Chariot Racetrack Located?

James Owen
for National Geographic News
July 24, 2008
As the Beijing Olympics draw near, archaeologists are reporting the discovery of the long-lost chariot race track at the Greek birthplace of the games.

German researchers claim to have identified the hippodrome at Olympia, in Western Greece, some 1,600 years after the historic sports venue disappeared under river mud.

The ancient circuit, where Olympic competitors raced in chariots or on horseback, was found in May by a team including Norbert Müller of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.

Müller, a sports historian, declared the find "an archaeological sensation."

Researchers located the site using geomagnetic technology, a method that allows archaeologists to trace ancient structural features hidden beneath the soil.

Part of the oblong track's distinctive outline was documented some seven feet (two meters) beneath fields and olive groves and extended almost 656 feet (200 meters) in length.

East of the sanctuary of the Greek god Zeus, the track ran parallel to the stadium at Olympia where athletes performed, according to Müller and co-researcher Christian Wacker of the German Sports and Olympic Museum in Köln (Cologne), Germany.

Outlines of walls or ramparts were highlighted, "which can be most clearly connected with the ancient hippodrome," the researchers said in a statement.

The findings provide the "first clear indications" of the hippodrome's location, they added.

Ancient Mystery

The exact position of the hippodrome has long been a mystery, even though archaeologists have been excavating at Olympia since 1875.

Situated on the floodplain of the Alfeiós River, the site was buried under silt some 1,600 years ago.

No visible remains survive, but ancient texts suggest the circuit was some 3,444 feet (1,050 meters) long.

Pausanias, a second-century travel writer, left a detailed account of the track, including its V-shaped starting stalls and their elaborate opening mechanism, as well as its sharp turns, marker posts, and altars.

A circle of stones measuring about 33 feet (10 meters) in diameter also was revealed by the soil survey, which may represent one of the structures Pausanias referred to, Müller said.

Slow Down

The German Archaeological Institute at Athens, which was also involved in the research, is more cautious about the findings.

Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier, the institute's director, cautioned that a direct link has not yet been identified between the recently discovered outlines and the ancient racecourse.

"It could be the hippodrome but I don't think we can say that the hippodrome is 'discovered,'" Niemeier said. "This really has to be confirmed by test excavations and so on."

But the research site is in the "right area" for the hippodrome based on historical evidence, Niemeier said.

Any excavations would first require the permission of Greek authorities, he added.

Hard to Find

Richard Woff of the British Museum in London described the difficulty of pinning down the hippodrome's precise location.

Woff, who isn't connected to the research, said the hippodrome's main structures were most likely its starting stalls and the central barrier that charioteers and riders raced around.

"Apart from that, there probably wasn't a lot to it," he said. "So not only was it buried by silt, there's also the fact that there wasn't much to bury."

The hippodrome events were the most prestigious at the ancient Games, which were under way by 776 B.C.

"The main reason for this was that only the wealthiest people could afford to enter the chariot and horse races," Woff said. "Horses were very much a status symbol in ancient Greece."

While paid professionals would have ridden the horses and chariots, the winning prize went to the owner, he said.

This gave women their only opportunity of claiming an Olympic title since they were barred from either competing in or watching the Games.

"There's evidence a woman did win at the Olympics by doing that," Woff said.

Meanwhile the chariot drivers, who wore long white tunics, are thought to have been the only competitors at Olympia who didn't perform in the nude.

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