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Greece Shells Out for Germany, Lends Olympic Treasures

September 09, 2012

Publius Asklepiades

A bronze discus inscribed with the name of Publius Asklepiades, a victor in the Pentathlon, and dated 241 BC. It was found at Olympia and is dedicated to Zeus. Source: Archaeological Museum Olympia/Martin Gropius Bau via Bloomberg

The idea of Greece making whopping loans to Germany might sound far-fetched as the debt-laden home of the Olympic Games staggers from one bailout to the next.

Yet the borrowed booty now on show in Berlin, evidence of Greek largesse, is impressive. The country’s museums lent the Martin Gropius Bau more than 500 treasures for the biggest exhibition about ancient Olympia. Many of the items have never been shown before. Some were only recently excavated.

Rapacious centaurs, a weighty discus, some sculpted six- packs and cultish offerings are among the exhibits in this celebration of the human body, the Olympic spirit and Greek- German cooperation. German archaeologists have worked at the site in the western Peleponnese for 135 years and the show also documents the history of the excavations.

So those for whom life has lost meaning since the end of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London need not despair. The games are on again in Berlin.

Running, wrestling, javelin, long-jump, bare-fisted boxing, chariot-racing and torch relays are among the disciplines illustrated in ancient statues depicting the Usain Bolts of their day, as well as on pottery and on coins.

Pankration was a crowd-pleasing martial art where anything went, bar biting and scratching. Health and safety regulations were lax, and javelin and discus events were perilous for those sitting in the front rows of the stadium.

Bull Barbecue

Conceived to honor Zeus, the games were accompanied by many processions, religious ceremonies, oracles and the sacrificial offering of 100 bulls that were then served to the public. (I guess we’d call that a barbecue today.)

Prizes included huge amphorae of oil and precious metals, gold laurels and -- no surprise -- medals, or small coins depicting sporting disciplines, many of which are on display. The Olympic Village was basic and crowded. Athletes used strigils to wash; metal tools to scrape dirt, sweat and perfumed oil from the body in the days before soap hit the shops.

One of the most beautiful exhibits comes not from Greece, but from the Vatican -- the sculpture of a female runner poised to race, in a short tunic tied over a shoulder with one breast bared. Women were banned from watching the games and were barred from taking part, too. Yet they did have their own games in honor of the goddess Hera, where unmarried girls took part.

Many bronze objects have been preserved, among them pots and little sacrificial figures, a wonderful figurine of a horse and the tips of spears.

Oath to Zeus

Before the games, temporary wells were dug to provide drinking water in Olympia. It was not permitted to remove any sacrificial objects from the site after the event. So they were disposed of in the obsolete wells, which offered them protection.

The games were held in Olympia for more than 1,000 years, petering out in the fifth century, when Christianity replaced cult practices. They took place every four years in the late summer and athletes had to swear at Zeus’s altar that they would train for at least 10 months beforehand.

A reconstruction of Olympia’s Zeus temple is the centerpiece of the exhibition. It reveals that centaurs cannot hold their drink at a party. The western gable of the temple shows the wedding of Pirithous, who made the mistake of inviting the creatures -- part man, part horse -- to the festivities.

The sculptures from right to left show the frisky beasts losing control as the wine flows, attempting to carry off women and boys until the humans fight back and regain control of the situation.

With the presidents of Greece and Germany as patrons, the message of the exhibition is clear: culture binds, even in times of economic and political strife.

And German-Greek cooperation on the excavations has been a success story worthy of celebration. In 19th-century contracts that were well in advance of their time, there was no agreement to divide the spoils, so there is no antagonism of the kind that haunts Greek-U.K. relations over sculptures taken from the Parthenon, known as the Elgin Marbles.

“Mythos Olympia; Kult und Spiele” (The Myth of Olympia; Cult and Games) is showing at the Martin Gropius Bau through Jan. 7, 2013. Information: http://www.gropiusbau.de

(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Mark Beech on music, Richard Vines on food and Elin McCoy on wine.

To contact the reporter on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at chickley@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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