Archaeological Evidence:

Zeus Cult, Hero Cult and games in Ancient Olympia

The site of Olympia was inhabited several times in prehistory. The first people in the area built a large tumulus surrounded by a circuit enclosure (perivolos), made of large river stones. This was thought to be a monument of Mycenean origins, dedicated to the Mycenean hero Pelops, but nowadays archaeologists believe that it dates from the late third millennium BC. We do not know where its builders dwelt or why they abandoned the site. Later on (ca. 2000 BC), people lived in apsidal houses, situated at the northern part of the site. It seems that these houses did not follow a regular village plan, but they contained burial jars and other pottery finds.

By ca. 1600 BC, the Myceneans inhabited the area, as shown by the Mycenean graves found in the vicinity of the Museum. We do not know if there existed an altar dedicated to the Mycenean hero Pelops, or if ritual traditions existed for the site of Olympia in these early periods. Claimed ancestry of the games by a deified hero was a recurrent phenomenon of the Geometric period, since hero cult became one of the customary means of defining local community identity. Future excavations are crucial for further clarifications of this issue.

We can only be sure that Olympia became a religious center during the late Mucenean period. By this time and on, many people visited the site, dedicating a number of clay and bronze figurines to its deitie(s). The excavators found these votive offerings in an extensive black deposit of ash, dated to the 12-8th centuries BC. Among the finds were late Mycenean vases, animal figurines (bulls and horses), two-horse chariots and charioteers, warriors with spear, shield and helmet, and tripod cauldrons, a find typically used as prize for winners. The offerings were dumped in a layer levelled off during the cleansing and the reorganization of the site during the early 8th century BC. It is not clear if these offerings are all related to the cult of Zeus. Many of these offerings cannot be attributed to particular deities. Judging from them, it seems probable that the cult of Zeus was introduced to Olympia at a point after the 12th century BC.