Based on Legend, approximately around 776 BCE, Koroibos crossed the finish line at the altar of Zeus and was crowned the first winner in Olympic history. Thus was the beginning of the ancient phenomenon of the Olympic Games. A time where all war would come to a pause as men would test their valor against fellow man in peaceful physical competition. This competition was partaken in stadiums at select locations. These men were considered elite athletes and representative of many men. This made the games important in more ways than competition. They were also political, social and a major source of pride within ancient Greece. But these Olympic games only came around every four years, so others followed. Along with the Olympic games three others joined forming the Panhellenic athletic festivals. They were the Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean games. The sites for these games grew in extravagance as well as popularity over time and in turn the stadiums the games were to be held in also grew in extravagance.
The stadium at Nemea was particularly one of extravagance and prestige. The University of California at Berkley has done a great deal for the Nemean site in the past 25 years. They have uncovered a stadium dated circa 330 BCE along with a tunnel, which is said to have been an athlete entrance to the stadium. Extensive study of the Nemean stadium and tunnel has been done and the site is well documented. The impacts of such a great archaeological find is wonderful and has inspired many to even reenact the infamous Nemean Games. Through basic review of fact and study the following will briefly detail the findings of the stadium at Nemea and its tunnel.
The site at Nemea had many visitors, known to have started as early as 1766, excavating parts mostly in search of treasures from the Sanctuary of Zeus. The earliest mention of the stadium was from Colonel William Leake, approximately during the 18th century, from where he located the stadium. Unfortunately no real excavation was done until 1973 when the University of Berkley began a large scale dig under the advisory of the American School of Classical Studies, Athens and the guidance of Stephen G Miller. The investigation began an extensive yearly excavation from 1974- 1983 and since then many smaller projects have steadily occurred. The success of the project is obvious, as there have been many improvements to Nemea since the study has begun. Firstly, the erection of a museum was done to display the many objects found throughout the excavation of ancient Nemea. Also beautiful archaeological parks have been created at the Sanctuary of Zeus as well as reconstruction of the Temple of Zeus itself. And maybe the greatest reconstruction of all, there was a reenactment of the ancient Nemean Games in 1994 to mark the opening of the stadium as an archaeological park. The games have continued every two years since and are in fact to be held June 3-4, 2000.
The stadium itself, uniquely constructed by excavation of southern land while using the materials from the south end to fill in the north end thus leveling the field. The basic estimate for construction is 330 BCE and it was believed to be in use for the Games until 271 BCE where after the Romans were known to use it as grazing land. The stadium can be broken down into a few basic parts for descriptive purposes. These are the Dromos (running surface), the seating of the stadium, the Apodyterion (Locker Room), and the Krypte Esodos (tunnel). Each part with its own components and intricacies coming together to build one of the ancient worlds great festival sites.
The running surface, or Dromos, of the stadium was formed in yellow clay. Prior to the event the clay was dug and rolled out to form a hard crust on the soft bed of clay. The track was 600 feet in distance marked by stone every 100 feet. A stone channel rounded the course bearing water to athletes and spectators. The starting line, or Balbis, was a series of stone with grooves carved in for standard starting position. This position was that of one foot before the other with arms outstretched. A devise known as a Hysplex was used at the start. It was believed to give started an even start and worked much like a catapult.
Seating at the stadium was a simple process attempting to give spectators the most beneficial viewpoint possible. Most of the seating was located in the soft facade of the south end’s hillside. These simple steps served as comfortable seating while giving excellent view of the games. There were a few rows of actual constructed stone seating found at the west region of the stadium. These seats were made of recycled material from other parts of the stadium. The judges for the events were placed on a special structure called the, Hellenodikaion, located at the East End of the stadium. This structure was raised above the track to oversee any rule breaking that may have gone on.
Prior to entrance into the tunnel, there is a small building, known as the Apodyterion. The basic purpose of this building was a locker room for athletes before they performed. It was used to change clothes as well as prepare for the competition through application of oils and avoidance of the mocking crowd. The Krypte Esodos or Stadium Tunnel as it is known is the most intriguing aspect to the stadium at Nemea. The pathway between the locker room and the stadium, having a distance of 36.35 meters the tunnel, was dated to approximately 320 BCE.
The Krypte Esodos is linked to Alexander due its vaulted arch. This style was prominent as an influence of the east post Alexander’s endeavors. It served many purposes, some practical, while others for dramatics. The tunnel was used by athletes to enter the stadium without the nuisance of the crowd jeering at them and at times striking out against them. It also was a perfect way to enhance the superiority as that the athletes were viewed to have. A dramatic entrance from a tunnel of unknown origin makes it as if the athlete is spawned of the gods and in fact a superior man. Along the walls of the tunnel contain many articles of graffiti from its times. One of which challenges archaeological dating of the tunnel. The name Telestas is carved into a stone and above it the phrase “I win.” As far as records can show Telestas was a boxing champion at Olympia circa 340 BCE, twenty years prior to the estimated construction of the tunnel.
Throughout the preceding correspondence we have taken a tour through the ancient city of Nemea’s Stadium and its relative parts. The detailed analysis of the stadium has given us a window to peer into the past. The information used to provide this analysis was the result of many years of hard work on the site and is greatly appreciated. The perseverance of people like Stephen G. Miller and his team from the University of California, Berkley has given us the opportunity to better learn of our past. It is that reason why we can learn of the goings on of the ancient world.
Discoveries like the Tunnel are ones of most importance. They provide us with a personal look at the athletes in the games. The graffiti on the walls of the tunnel are like tiny memoirs of athletes’ anguish and admiration. Documentation of victory and even playful propaganda, make up the walls of the tunnel and give the past a relative understanding. The more we learn about the stadium the easier it is to relate to this past nearly 2500 years ago.
As it is seen the stadium at Nemea is a grand structure with a plethora of components that combine to form a building scaled enough to express the great legend and history in the Games and what they meant to the Greek people. From the carefully laid track to the beautifully designed tunnel, the stadium exemplifies the grandeur of the games in ancient times and the fact that in present day Greece these games are re-instituted can only show how timeless the Games truly are.
Boyd, Thomas D. “The Arch and the Vault in Greek Architecture,” AJA 82 (1978) 83-100
Lee, Hugh M. “Stadia and Starting Gates,” Archaeology 49 (1996) 35
Miller, Stephen G. “Tunnel Vision: The Nemean Games,” Archaeology 33 (1980) 54-56
Miller, Stephen G. “Turns and Lanes in the Ancient Stadium,” AJA 84 (1980) 159-161
Nemea Home Page, University of California at Berkley web site. http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~clscs275/index.html