BMCR 2020.07.52

Olympia in frühbyzantinischer Zeit: Siedlung – Landwirtschaftliches Gerät – Grabfunde – Spolienmauer

Thomas Völling, Holger Baitinger, Sabine Ladstätter, Arno Rettner, Martin Alan Miller, Olympia in frühbyzantinischer Zeit: Siedlung - Landwirtschaftliches Gerät - Grabfunde - Spolienmauer. Olympische Forschungen, Band 34. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2019. x, 166 p.. ISBN 9783954903634 €78,00.

Olympia is one of the best-known excavation sites in Greece and its name immediately brings to mind a wealth of ancient treasures and archaeological discoveries mainly connected with the classical past of the sanctuary and the history of the Olympic games. It is also one of the most visited archaeological sites in Greece, with more than a hundred thousand visitors coming from around the globe to see the antiquities and the museums of Olympia. Almost none of them comes to Olympia to see the remains of the small Byzantine settlement that flourished on top of, and around, the main temple of the sanctuary during the fifth and sixth century.

Thomas Völling, the main author of the volume under review, was one of the first persons to understand the importance of the Byzantine remains of Olympia. Working under the auspices of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), which is responsible since 1875 for the excavation at Olympia, he has worked both on the publication of materials, mainly metalwork and architecture, and occasional broader syntheses on the site. Among the author’s many earlier works, one should mention his publication of the seventh- and eighth-century Slavic cemetery of Olympia, a unique study for the field of Byzantine Greece, which he co-authored with Hungarian scholar Tivadar Vida.[1] His untimely death at the age of thirty seven in 2000 meant that much of his most synthetic work on early Byzantine Olympia remained incomplete and unfinished.[2] A group of scholars, friends, and colleagues took on the noble initiative to prepare, complement, and complete this important work for publication.

The first such monograph, by Holger Baitinger on the tools from Olympia, appeared in 2007.[3] The volume at hand is the second such publication and contains Völling’s main arguments on the early Byzantine settlement and its monuments. It is largely based on research that Völling carried out in the archives of the DAI, as almost the entire Byzantine settlement, the fortifications, and the Christian church had been excavated during the Alte Grabung (old excavation) conducted by the DAI between 1875-1881, which focused on the temple of Zeus and its surrounding monuments. These early excavators encountered later phases of settlement in the Olympian soil long before the desired classical antiquities. These were documented according to contemporary practices, then dismantled, making them accessible today only through surviving documentation (diaries, notes, plans, photos) and, of course, through finds, mostly small metal objects, stored in the depots.

Although the Byzantine remains were removed, Völling and the contributors of the volume express their respect for the scientific ethos of the early generation of excavators (p. 119). “They were sent to Olympia in the belief that as many of the works of Greek art described by Pausanias could be found there. Measured against the high expectations, the yield was low. Instead, they were repeatedly confronted with comparatively inconspicuous legacies from a much later epoch and still paid them due attention.” The existence of the current volume needs to be credited to a certain extent not only to Völling’s and the other contributors’ dedication to early Byzantine Olympia but also to these earlier excavators, who, although they did not understand much of what they were excavating, created the invaluable record left for us today.

We could say that the volume Olympia in frühbyzantinischer Zeit is a palimpsest of three levels of archaeological discovery. The first is the late nineteenth-century discovery of the early Byzantine settlement during the Alte Grabung. The second level is Völling’s re-discovery of the remains in the early 1990s through the study of the excavation diaries. And the third level is that of a group of exceptional scholars, who completed Völling’s work of almost two decades ago.

The first chapter of the book is a concise general introduction to Olympia during late antiquity, a chapter that was finalized by Sabine Ladstätter based on a number of lecture manuscripts and material prepared by Völling. This covers the period from the end of the third century up to the seventh, a span of time at Olympia that can be subdivided into: the phase of late Roman rule (third century to the reign of Theodosius II) when the sanctuary still functioned in some ways and the Olympic Games still occurred, followed by the early Byzantine phase from the fifth to the seventh centuries, when an agricultural settlement arose on top of the sanctuary. The latter had two distinct subphases: one during the fifth century, and the other during the mid-sixth, which ended in the seventh century in conjunction with the arrival of Slavic populations in the area.

The second chapter is dedicated to agricultural tools and equipment, mostly iron, from the excavation of the early Byzantine settlement of the fifth and sixth centuries. The initial catalogue prepared by Völling was finished with great care and complemented with additional items by Holger Baitinger. Two main groups of tools are presented: a smaller one of eleven objects, which  includes spout-shaped plowshares, cross hoes, and harvesting knives that probably date to a period before the Byzantine settlement and are interpreted as the dedications of an agrarian local population to the sanctuary. A second, larger group of twenty-six objects can be assigned to the early Byzantine period with some probability. The available items form a limited set that would be used for soil cultivation of small areas requiring equipment for the management of orchards and vegetable gardens.  Yet, as the authors emphasize, plowshares indicate the existence of wooden plows, which would have been necessary to work over extended agricultural areas. A few iron harvesters for both garden and field crops complete the picture, but interestingly there is a complete lack of tools connected with animal husbandry, which should have been an important activity in such a settlement.

The third chapter, completed by Arno Rettner based on the original catalogue by Völling, presents the early Byzantine grave-finds from the cemetery of Olympia. Völling concluded that more than 400 Christian graves were excavated during the old excavation. Of these, 337 were documented to some extent based on the surviving excavation records, and receive comment in a catalogue. Most of these inhumations were in the form of cist and tile graves, complemented by a smaller number of pit graves, masonry-built graves, and a single pithos inhumation. Almost a quarter of these graves contained some kind of grave finds, providing a measure of the level of wealth and social stratification within this small settlement and a means of dating them to the sixth and early seventh centuries. The majority of the finds are bronze jewellery (earrings, armbands, finger rings, hairpins, necklaces, etc.) and occasional belt-buckles. In addition to personal ornamentation, a small number of graves (14) contained ceramic pots, mostly small jugs, and even fewer (3) small glass vials, perhaps connected to burial practices. Also noteworthy is the pattern of dispersion of the Christian graves of Olympia, clearly visible in the large-format folding topographic plan included in the publication. A large cluster of graves can be connected with the church, especially its west side, while the rest of the inhumations seem to have been inserted in spaces between the houses. The cemetery of Olympia is an important addition to our knowledge of early Byzantine burial practices and customs in the Peloponnese and south Greece in general, and comes into direct discussion with other known large cemeteries from elsewhere, such as those at Messene, Argos, Corinth, and the recently published example at Isthmia.[4]

The final two chapters, the fourth and fifth, of the book focus on the impressive late antique fortifications, one of the two Byzantine monumental building initiatives that are still partially visible at the site.[5] The Olympia fortification wall is impressive not so much because of its size but mostly for its uniqueness in the area that lacks early Byzantine fortifications and because of its characteristic building technique that includes ancient spolia (in German Spolienmauer).

Chapter four, begun by Völling and completed by Sabine Ladstätter, presents in detail the late antique fortification of Olympia, discusses its topography, and offers a detailed description of the remains as excavated: the straight walls, the four towers and the east gate they flanked. Although the wall of Olympia had initially been dated by nineteenth-century excavators (R. Weil and F Adler) to the Byzantine period, this view changed in the 1950s when it was interpreted as a third-century construction connected with the invasions of the Heruls. Völling and Ladstätter convincingly argue against this view and offer a new date for its construction between the first half of the fifth century and the middle of the sixth based on new data and observations. Thus, the Olympia late antique fortification is associated with a number of other similar works in the Peloponnese, such as those at Isthmia, Sparta, and Corinth.

In the fifth chapter, the only one that is not based on pre-existing work by Thomas Völling, Martin Miller discusses the same fortification in a more theoretical framework, aiming to offer a general history of the sanctuary of Olympia in the late antique period. The possible function of the small fortress is discussed in detail and the various possibilities are examined: could it have been a Roman garrison stationed here, was it a defensive construction for local residents, or did it serve to protect treasures still present at Olympia? He concludes that the existence of the fortification (and the church) signal that the Olympic games had already ceased when the temple of Zeus was partially incorporated in the fortification wall, and various other ancient buildings were already in ruins and being dismantled at the time so their architectural elements were available for use as spolia. Miller also asks the important question of ownership over the remains of the old sanctuary in the early Byzantine times, a question that is crucial to our understanding of many aspects of later use, dismantling, or conversion of old sanctuaries across the Mediterranean from the fourth to the sixth centuries.

The present volume puts the small early Byzantine settlement of Olympia at the center of a general discussion of the evolution of Roman and post-Roman society in southern Greece in the troubled sixth and seventh centuries. Also, it underlines once again the importance of systematic archaeological work both in the field and also in the record of the old excavation. The important legacy of Thomas Völling’s work endures in this fine, carefully produced volume, and fuels the growth in interest in late antique and early Byzantine Olympia and the western Peloponnese in general.[6]


[1] Tivadar Vida and Thomas Völling, Das slawische Brandgräberfeld von Olympia, Rahden 2000.

[2] G. Kossack, Thomas Völling zum Gedenken (10.8.1962-3.8.2000), Prähistorische Zeitschrift 76 (2001), 6–9; H. Baitinger, Archäologisches Nachrichtenblatt 5 (2000), 456–457; U. Sinn, Nikephoros 13 (2000), 313–314

[3] Holger Baitinger and Thomas Völling, Werkzeug und Gerät aus Olympia, Olympische Forschungen 32, Berlin 2007.

[4] Joseph Rife, Isthmia IX. The Roman and Byzantine graves and human remains, Princeton 2012.

[5] The other is the early Byzantine Christian basilica (fifth or sixth century) that was built inside the so-called “Workshop of Pheidias” and is being studied by Franz Alto Bauer and a team as part of another project.

[6] Stephan Lehman and Andreas Gutsfeld, ‘Spolien und Spolisation im spätantiken Olympia,’ in Iris Gerlach and Dietrich Raue (eds.), Sanktuar und Ritual Heilige Plätze im archäologischen Befund, Rahden 2013, 91-104; Anna Lambropoulou and Anastasia Yangaki, ‘On the history of Olympia during the transitional period of the Byzantine era: A reappraisal of the published ceramic data from the settlement,’ Athenische Mitteilungen127/128 (2013/2012), 317–354.