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A New View of the Birthplace of the Olympics

Taking an innovative approach to one of ancient architecture’s most intriguing questions

September/October 2016

Olympia Hera Temple


For a variety of field projects over the last decade, archaeologist Phil Sapirstein has lugged more than 20 pounds of high-tech laser imaging equipment around the Mediterranean gathering data to create 3-D models of ancient monuments. “I have been working on architectural history for quite a while,” says Sapirstein, who teaches at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, “and one of my main focuses has been the general problem of the origin of architectural styles, especially the Doric style, in the Archaic period [ca. 700–480 B.C.].”


More often than not, little remains of Archaic buildings. The mid-seventh-century B.C. Old Temple at Corinth, dedicated to the god Apollo, burned down and was replaced, obliterating most evidence of the original building. Other structures from the period were flawed due to the lack of experience with engineering and construction techniques needed for monumental stone architecture. The early temple of Hera on the island of Samos, for instance, which Sapirstein characterizes as an “experimental building,” didn’t survive because it subsided into the marshy land on which it was built. Further complicating the effort to identify these early buildings, the stone was often reused, obscuring its original context.


What does frequently survive, however, are the temples’ ceramic roof tiles. Sapirstein realized that these tiles, which are relatively abundant, were an underutilized source of information, especially when examined using 3-D imagery. “I started working with 3-D modeling software early on because you often have to reconstruct the roofing system from very tiny fragments,” explains Sapirstein. “With this software, I could see what the roofs actually would have looked like and how they functioned. It worked great.” But Sapirstein knew the technology was impractical, if not impossible, for most archaeologists to use. “You have to acquire a scanner, which takes some doing, and it’s really expensive,” he says. “You then have to know how to use it and how to process the models. It’s a huge investment.” Sapirstein wanted to find an alternative method—and for this he returned to one of the temples that started it all.


The temple of Hera at Olympia, or the Heraion, dates to around 600 B.C. and is one of the oldest surviving Greek stone Doric temples. In his Description of Greece, the second-century A.D. traveler Pausanias describes legendary events that, along with actual stylistic attributes of the Heraion, led Wilhelm Dörpfeld—a German archaeologist working in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the scholar most closely associated with the structure—to date the original building to 1096 B.C. However, while there is evidence of ritual activity at Olympia dating back to the eleventh century B.C., there were no permanent large structures at this early date. And even when the Olympics first took place, probably well after the traditional date of 776 B.C., there were likely no sizeable buildings at the site.


Located in the north part of the Altis, Olympia’s sacred precinct, the Heraion is probably the site’s first monumental stone building. Dörpfeld dug trenches under the temple and found two structures he interpreted as predecessors. But scholars today no longer believe there were in fact any previous buildings on this spot, and that what Dörpfeld had actually uncovered was the Heraion’s foundation. “The Heraion is actually very well preserved,” says Sapirstein, “and doesn’t appear to have been significantly altered or renovated after its construction, despite its thousand-year history of use. It’s one of the very few of these early buildings we can date from stratigraphic and not just stylistic evidence.” The temple is also the first well-preserved peripteral Doric temple—that is, having columns completely surrounding it. “This is an important moment in Greek architecture,” says Sapirstein. “The fact that the Heraion’s columns are made of stone, which is expensive and labor intensive, signifies a major expansion of the investment the Greeks put into building a monumental structure.”


Olympia Slideshow



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