Archaeological Museum of Olympia
In mere minutes, you can walk from the archaeological site to the three Olympia museums, which are among the most important in all of Greece:
- Archaeological Museum of Olympia
- Museum of the Ancient Olympic Games
- Museum of the History of the Excavations at Olympia
Each takes you back in time, unfolding the history of the Sanctuary of Zeus and the Ancient Olympic Games.
A Glimpse into the Archaeological Museum of Olympia
The Archaeological Museum, founded in the 19th century, housed findings from excavations in Olympia that, over time, were brought to light.
However, due to the highly-seismic area and, after a century-long archaeological research, the growing wealth of artifacts would no longer be able to be accommodated in the elegant, 19th-century building.
After nine years of construction, a newly built Olympia Museum opened its doors in 1975. Since then, it underwent significant renovations to its exhibition areas in 2004, in light of the modern Olympic Games in Athens of that same year.
The New Archaeological Museum Collections
The collections of the new Archaeological Museum span 3,500 years! Over 12 halls unfold the history from when humans first settled in Olympia in 3000 BCE to the twilight of Zeus’ sanctuary in the 7th century AD.
Renowned for its sculptures and its expansive collection of ancient Greek bronzes, the Archaeological Museum of Olympia ranks among the most important museums in Greece.
The Collection of Bronzes
More than 14,000 preserved bronze artifacts were buried in the soil of Olympia – by far the most significant number ever found in any region of the ancient Hellenic world.
Human and animal figurines constitute a popular category of these metal artifacts, dating back as early as in the 9th century BCE. 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.
The museum boasts an impressive collection of large bronze cauldrons, often decorated with griffins or sirens, imaginary and daemonic beings inspired by the East. These were luxury offerings to the sanctuary, displaying the prosperity and artistic level achieved by Archaic Greece by the 7th and 6th centuries BCE.
Pilgrims, Olympic winners, and warriors returning victorious from battlefields expressed their gratitude to Zeus by donating their weapons.
Thus, Olympia became a depository of ancient Greek weaponry with an extensive inventory. Helmets, shields, cuirasses (body armor), spears, and other items recovered from the site are now on display in the museum.
One historically significant exhibit in the museum is the helmet of Miltiades, the Athenian General who won the battle of Marathon against the Persians in 490 BCE. Another unique ancient war exhibit is a battering ram from the 5th century BCE.
The Collection of Sculptures
The Museum of Olympia houses masterpieces of classical art, such as the sculptures of the Temple of Zeus, as well as two celebrated works of Greco-Roman antiquity – the statues of Nike by Paeonios and Hermes by Praxiteles.
The Temple of Zeus dominated the sanctuary, not only for its size but also its splendidly decorated pediments and metopes. Two of the most exceptional sculptures of the “Austere Style” of the 5th-century BCE – the Labours of Hercules and the centauromachy scene with the symbolic figure of Apollo are found here.
The statue by Paeonios of the winged goddess Nike in 420 BCE, which is synonymous with the iconographic story of “Victory” is a treasured exhibit in the museum.
Olympic medals from 1896 to today feature the statue of Nike.
Almost 100 years later, in or around 330 BCE, the great master Praxiteles sculpted Hermes carrying the infant god Dionysus (above). The statue of Hermes is one of the few magnificent, original sculptures from the 4th century BCE to have survived the test of time.
Most of the ancient Greek celebrated works of this period are known to the world solely through their Roman copies.
Pheidias and His Workshop
Pheidias was sought by the priests of Olympia to create a new religious statue for the Temple of Zeus. The artist whose sculptures on the Acropolis awed Athenians soon settled into his workshop in Olympia.
By 430 BCE, Pheidias delivered what became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – the colossal, gold-and-ivory statue of Zeus.
Sadly, by the Middle Ages, both the chryselephantine Zeus and its counterpart statue of Athena in the Parthenon vanished.
However, Pheidias’ workshop was discovered in one of the excavations in Olympia. All its contents are on display in a unique hall in the Archaeological Museum. Visitors get a behind-the-scenes look into his space revealing tools, jewels, and even his cup with the inscription on the base that reads, “I belong to Pheidias.”