Unearthing the First Olympics

Archeologists Rebuild Olympic Games Site in Nemea

Nemea is approximately 100 miles outside Athens. Courtesy National Geographic Society hide caption

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Columns mark all that's left of the Temple of Zeus in Nemea. Archeologists are slowly rebuilding the columns, one limestone disk at a time. All photos: Jessica Goldstein, NPR hide caption

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NPR's Chris Joyce digs in barefoot -- just like the athletes in the original Olympic Games once did -- at a recently unearthed starting block for running events. hide caption

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The ancient stadium of Nemea, surrounded by earthen embankments for spectators, has been restored after years of work. hide caption

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Athletes entered the stadium of Nemea through this tunnel dug through the embankment. Graffiti etched into the stone by ancient athletes can still be read on the walls. hide caption

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A rebuilt column of Nemea's Temple of Zeus, supported by wooden and metal struts. hide caption

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View an interactive map of the original Marathon run, and read more features at National Geographic Online.

Chief mason Yannis Arbelius talks to workers at Nemea. hide caption

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A crane lifts a limestone disk into place on a reconstructed column in Nemea. hide caption

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July 19, 2004 — With the 2004 summer Olympic Games only weeks away, Greece is in the grip of Olympic fever. But of course, it's not the first time — the idea of national athletic games was born in Greece more than 2,700 years ago.

The Greeks held their first games in 776 B.C. in Olympia. Eventually, they used four sites, the last one being Nemea, a wide spot in a valley of vineyards and olive groves about 100 miles west of Athens. After decades of work, Nemea's original stadium and running track at Nemea have been painstakingly restored.

In a National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on what archaeologists are discovering amid the rubble. It's becoming more clear that the ancient games were very different from the modern ones — but some things remain remarkably the same.

Archeologist Stephen Miller of the University of California at Berkeley first came to Nemea in 1973. The only thing he found still standing was the ruins of the Temple of Zeus, marked by just three columns rising from a broken limestone floor.

When the games were still being played in Nemea, there were no towns nearby. "But every two years, thousands of Greeks would come here and have a week-long party," he tells Joyce.

Athletes came from across the Greek world, which stretched from current-day Spain to the Black Sea. Poets, philosophers and musicians performed, and for a whole month, warring city-states called a truce. The games were sacred, and more important than war.

The Temple of Zeus was where the athletes first arrived, to swear to honor the rules — as well as the gods. Miller has hired a team to rebuild the temple. Chief mason Yannis Arbelius is teaching the crew, mostly farmers from nearby villages, how to re-create the temple's columns. The ancient Greek architects build the columns by stacking limestone disks one on top of the other to make the 40-foot-high columns. Right now, most of those disks lie on the ground.

"We are not absolutely certain how the ancients did it, but we think we understand it," Arbelius says. "We are concerned in the end that we have all done something that we can be proud of."

Scholars have relied on ancient writers and pottery painters as a guide to the ancient games, but Miller's work in the dirt has revealed new physical details. Inside a trench near the temple, for example, Miller has found what he thinks are starting blocks for a practice track. Two parallel grooves, set about five inches apart, have been cut into a block of limestone pavement — toeholds for runners, who competed barefoot and in the nude for all the events.

After decades of work, the actual competition stadium is now restored. It's a hard-packed dirt oval, about 600 yards long, surrounded by earthen embankments — the stands where spectators watched. There had been a changing room just outside, where athletes stripped and rubbed themselves with oil.

Athletes then entered the stadium through a 120-foot-long tunnel dug through the embankment, making for a dramatic entrance. When Miller unearthed it, he found graffiti carved into its stone walls, left by athletes waiting their turn.

Miller says he still gets chills when he reads them. One says "Akrotatos is handsome." Another, simply: "I win."

Miller has written a book on the sporting events of the ancient Greek Olympics, and organizes re-creations of many of those events at Nemea — all very authentic, except the modern athletes wear clothes. This year's Nemea Games will be held on July 31.

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