Geometric and Archaic

(10th - 6th century BC)

Extensive deposits filled with ash and votive offerings from the sanctuary of Olympia indicate the existence of an early long cult tradition dating back to the 10th century and on. Since no buildings have survived from this early period, we must assume that these earliest offerings were placed directly on the altars, or displayed in open.

The region of Elis organized the first Olympic festival in the 8th century BC. According to the tradition, the Olympic games were first held in 776 BC. They included one single athletic event, the one-stade race, won by Coroebus of Elis, the first victor of the Olympic games we know of. Around 700 BC, the site was subject to major reorganization: the ground was levelled off, and many wells were dug to the east. Changes were made at the northern borders of the sanctuary too. Gradually, the programs of the Olympic festivals expanded to include other athletic events for boys.

Elis' authority and power was largely weakened in the 7th century, after a series of conflicts with its neighbours, especially the Pisatans in the south. Then, the sanctuary came into the hands of the Pisatans, who gained control of Olympia in 676 BC and organized the games until the late 7th century BC.

The first indications of building activity in the site date from the early 6th century BC. It is now that the worship of Hera appears in Olympia, and Hera's large Doric temple is built on the site. Built in ca. 600 BC by the Skiloundians, the allies of the Pisatans who controlled the sanctuary at that time, it was dedicated to Zeus' wife, Hera. This was one of the earliest examples of a monumental temple built in Greece. Inside the main room of the temple the stone statues of Zeus and Hera stood. Pausanias, who visited the area in the 2nd century AD, says that one of the back columns of the temple was made of wood. Obviously, the temple's columns were originally made of wood and were gradually replaced by stone.

The construction of other religious monuments such as the Pelopion, namely the shrine of Pelops, and the Treasuries, was undertaken in Olympia during the 6th century BC.

The Pelopion, remodelled in the 6th century BC, was dedicated to Pelops, the mythical founder of the games. It was a monument surrounded by a pentagonal enclosure. Here, people honored Pelops by sacrificing a black ram.

The Treasuries were temple-shaped monuments, built by the representatives of the Greek city-states which participated in the games, in order to store valuable votive offerings. They were erected on the natural terrace adequately levelled on the southern side of the Kronion hill. Sicyon was the first to dedicate a treasury. The Treasuries were situated in the following order moving from west to the east: Sicyon, Syracuse, Byzantion, Sybaris, Cyrene, Selinus, Metapontium, Megara and Gela. Most of these cities were colonies in the west and played an important role in the sanctuary and the games.

Secular monuments and athletic arenas were also under construction: the Bouleuterion, the seat of the highest council, in charge of all matters in relation to the sanctuary and the games, was now built. It consisted of two elongated structures with internal colonnades. Nearby was the altar and statue of Zeus Orkios (Zeus of the Oath) whereby the athletes were taking the oath during the first day of the games.

Stadium I was constructed around 560 BC: this was the Archaic stadium. It was a simple track ("dromos" in Greek), without embankments on the southern slopes on Kronion hill. Its starting-line, located in its short western side, was facing the great altar of Zeus. Soon it was replaced by Stadium II. This was built around 500 BC almost at the same place with the previous one, but with a slight shift to the east in order to leave some space for the cult at the east of the altar of Zeus. Its remodeling indicates the increasing number of people visiting the site by this period.

In the 6th century, other Panhellenic festivals such as the Pythian Games at Delphi, the Isthmian Games, and the Nemean Games were held for the first time in 590, 582, and 573 BC respectively. Meanwhile, the chariot race and other equestrian contests make their appearance in the Olympic festival, possibly in memory of the victory by the Mycenean hero Pelops against Oinomaos. This tradition was respected by Pisa, a region near Elis. More athletic games were now added to the Olympic festivals.

In 580 BC, Elis, in alliance with Sparta, occupied Pisa and regained the control over the sanctuary, which it retained until the last Olympic games. The period spanning from 580 BC to the late 5th century BC marks the most peaceful period of Elis.

Classical | Hellenistic | Roman