Trip 2: “Deep Peloponnese” (part 1)

The second trip of the ASCSA took us into the “Deep” Peloponnese. No, not some scary, hidden place impossible to escape. I suppose the depth of journey simply refers to its relative distance from Athens. Our sites focused on the western and southernmost sections of the “island of Pelops.” We visited four of the seven regions of the Peloponnese: Elis, Arcadia, Messenia, and Laconia. Unlike the previous trip which had us moving to a new hotel every night, this one spoiled us with settling into a town for two and sometimes three consecutive nights. The pace was more relaxed and yet equally draining. Overall, morale was high and the sites were amazing to say the least.

Olympia was our first “home” away from Athens this time around. For three days we explored the ancient home of the Olympic Games. There are so many ancient buildings, foundations, baths, and statue bases preserved due to the alluvial silting of the Alfeios River and its tributary the Kladeios. These rivers left over four meters of river mud for the German excavators of the 1870s to dig up in order to find the site.  Believe me, three days was more than enough. The first day was devoted to the major sacred buildings of Olympia: the Heraion (a temple to Hera built around 600 BC), the Temple of Olympia Zeus (the largest temple in the Peloponnese), and the Pelopeion (a sanctuary precinct devoted to Pelops, a mythological figure associated with the founding of the Olympic Games). These three cult centers were contained within what is called the Altis, a walled-off though not inaccessible section of the ancient site. In antiquity it would have demarcated sacred and profane space to visitors, although the entire site had a religious dimension. Just one anecdote about the Heraion: the remains of a mummified hoplite soldier were rediscovered among the wreckage of a roof collapse (though I can’t seem to remember when that was or find any evidence online; perhaps it is a tall tale), and it is thought to be one of the combatants from a skirmish within the Altis that took place in 368 BC when the Arcadians sought to take control of Olympia away from the people of Elis who ran the Olympic Games for several hundred years. After the Altis, we had a brief look at the “treasuries” of various city-states which would have housed expensive dedications from pilgrims to the site. The treasuries line the pathway which the ancient Greeks would have used to enter the Olympic stadium, or rather, the stadion, where the ancient games took place. I had the privilege of presenting the first site report of the trip on the history and organization of the ancient Olympic Games. It was remarkable that I gave my presentation on the southern slope of the stadion overlooking the remains of the starting blocks for the foot races. [I’ll give a thorough and succinct history of the ancient Olympic Games in another post.]

Day two at Olympia focused on the Museum which houses the monumental pediment marbles from the Temple of Zeus, as well as famous statues such as the Hermes of Praxiteles, the Nike of Paeonius, a dedicated helmet of Miltiades (the mastermind of the Athenian victory at Marathon), and lots of bronze griffin heads (I have a thing for griffins—so cool!). When we were not in the museum, we spent time examining the numerous other buildings of the Altis: the Echo Colonnade (aka a Painted Stoa [porch] where the echo of your voice for ricochet seven times), the Bouletarion (a council chamber), and the Philippeion (a monument of Philip II of Macedon [Alexander the Great’s father] complete with statues of his family). While walking on the south side of the site, one of our guest group leaders recognized a German archaeologist doing work in an open archaeological trench. This serendipitous meeting segued into a thirty minute private tour of an active dig. Before returning to the Museum for some more parading and photo-snapping, I took a brief stroll through the Olympic Botanical Garden. That long day ended with ouzo and a report on Pindar in the hotel lobby. Post-dinner that night, I had two memorable moments. 1) a Greek ice cream shop employee asked if I was Greek (I guess my accent must be good or something). 2) Our friend Peter introduced us all to “Wizard People, Dear Reader” (YouTube it for a masterful fan fiction of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; you won’t be disappointed). The morning of day three took us one last time on a frigid morning to see the Nymphaeum of Herodes Atticus (a fancy foundation by a wealthy Greek guy and Roman senator who built things all across Greece as a reminder of his wealth and patronage), some of the athletic facilities (the Palaestra and Gymnasium), Roman baths, and the workshop of Pheidias (the sculptor of the Cult Statue of Olympian Zeus [one of the ancient wonders of the world]) which was later turned into a Christian basilica.

We said goodbye to Olympia and traveled into Arcadia. We took the bus to the museum in Pyrgos. To be honest, there was not much to get excited about except these two-headed clay Cerberus dedications (I don’t even remember where they were from). This was the only time it rained on us the entire trip, but fortunately the museum and bus sheltered us from most of it. The next stop was at the Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassae. Now this is a temple! At first site nowadays, all you can see is the white circus tent-like covering shrouding the temple. This was done in an effort to preserve the stones from further weather damage in the extreme swings of the central Peloponnese. It has been under restoration since 2001. Over the centuries, earthquakes have damaged the temple, but also, the ancient architects build the western end of the temple on a layer of sand and clay which has understandably eroded over time. Once in the tent, you can see the tawny tint of the hard limestone blocks and columns. Sinewy fractures seem to spiral up the tired columns. Due to our privileged ASCSA access, we were able to enter the cella (the central room) of the temple to examine the interior columns and floor. This temple is perhaps most famous architecturally for having the first Corinthian column (though it does not survive today). After wrapping up at this secluded mountaintop in Arcadia, we drove onto our next hotel in Dimitsana, but not before winding through the tough, technical switch-backs of roads through the mountains. Just outside of Dimitsana was the Open-Air Water Power Museum, which provided a welcome relief from looking at marble for the past few days. In this still-functioning facility we saw how the process of tanning worked, as well as a water mill, gunpowder mill, and raki distillery. The time in Dimitsana was wonderful—after getting to the hotel (which, by the way, had one of the most spectacular views of the trip), three of us went for a little run through the cobblestone streets up and down some sharp hills. Dinner almost featured local venison, but alas, the hunters would not return until the next day. A few of us ended the night at a café with delectable desserts and drinks. The high altitude and interior location of the town made it especially cold, but the quaintness of the place charmed us all.

The next morning was bitterkalt but we pressed on to ancient Gortys, the site of an Asclepion (a healing sanctuary associated with the god of medicine, Asclepius). The healing sanctuary drew upon water from the adjacent Lousios River which prattled down below the site. From there it was on to the site of ancient Megalopolis (lit. “the big city”). It was almost disturbing how the temperature changed once we descended into the floor of the valley. Megalopolis was a pan-Arcadian foundation in 371 after the battle of Leuctra when Spartan influence in the region was quelled for a time, and it was the home of the Arcadian koinon (confederation) but only for four years when a major schism in the koinon occurred. The remains today consist of a large agora (market area), a Temple to Zeus Soter (the Savior), and a theater that could accommodate upwards of 20,000 people. This theater has a peculiar feature—“normal” Greek theaters had a permanent structure called a skene where the scenic background for a play could be displayed. This theater, however, has evidence for a track system upon which a skene can be rolled out from the side. This arrangement is likely because just behind the orchestra (where the skene would stand) is another building called the Thersilion, which was a large council chamber for the meetings of the 10,000—the voting members of the Arcadian koinon. This moveable skene is controversial at this site, but there is (possibly) another such system at the theater in Messene. Next, we traversed back up the curvy roads to another mountaintop site on Mt. Lykaion. The archaeological remains lie about 1,100 meters above sea level and sits just below the summit. It was the site of a festival to Zeus (after all, this is where Zeus was born, at least according to one tradition). The name Lykaion comes from the ancient Greek word for wolf (λύκος), and the site is associated with an ancient tradition about werewolves—according to Plato (Rep. 565d-e) there was a ritual in which human meat  was mixed with that of a sacrificed animal, and whoever ate the human parts (yes, cannibalism) was turned into a wolf for nine years. Werewolves and human sacrifice—such a great site! The entire group went to summit Mt. Lykaion (apparently something no entire Regular Year group has done). (I went a circuitous way to the summit which I’ll describe in another post). After the physically taxing hike, we drove down to Pylos where we spent the next two nights in what turned out to be a seaside paradise.

Our hotel in Pylos overlooked the small harbor with a view of the island of Sphacteria in sight as it forms an external barrier to the larger bay. Pylos is most famous for its Mycenaean Palace, dubbed the House of Nestor after the famous Pylian who fought at Troy. Naturally, our first site the next day was the palace. Our guide was one of the current excavators of the site, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati, and a friend to the four Cincinnatians in the Regular Program who have all dug at Pylos. His tour of the site was masterful, and he put Pylos and the broader region of Messenia into the broader context of the Mycenaean world. To be honest, it is difficult for me to make sense of pottery sherds, tiny votive offerings, and the foundations of buildings, but his story was connections to other Mycenaean sites, Minoans on Crete, and with the inclusion of the over 1,000 Linear B tablets, the narrative of the site in the last month before its destruction around 1300 BC was memorable. The next stop was the Mycenaean tholos tomb, a beehive-shaped hole in a mound with a monumental entrance covered with dirt. Just outside the tholos was a patch of dirt recently unearthed and covered by some plastic orange construction netting. This was where excavators discovered the so-called Tomb of the Griffin Warrior in the summer of 2015. It does not look like much now, but the wealth of the finds inside created a shockwave of excitement through the world of classical archaeology. To learn more check out the project’s website: None of the finds are in museums for us to see yet, nevertheless there was plenty to see from previous excavations in the Pylos museum. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by a welcoming committee including the director of the museum and the mayor of the town, along with juice and cookies. It was a pleasant surprise, and one that I enjoyed but would never have expected. The museum had literally thousands of clay pots, cups, and pans, bronze swords, gold signet rings, and some of the Linear B tablets on display. One of my favorite things was the fragments of a fresco from the Palace depicting Mycenaean soldiers wearing their characteristic boar’s tusk helmets in battle against what appear to be Flintstone-like people wearing one-shouldered animal skins. The battle took place over a 2-D river that stretched vertically through the whole scene which made it a bit cartoony. The afternoon was a treat for the group. After a quick stop at an early Helladic tholos tomb above the beach at Voidikilia, we got about two hours to go for a swim and enjoy the spectacular Voidikilia bay. I am not a swimmer, so after eating my lunch on the beach I went to explore on my own. On my way to see the church of Profitis Ilias (the prophet Elijah—there are an uncountable number of hills and mountains named after this prophet who entered Heaven on a chariot of fire), I had a true celebrity siting which I’ll recount in my next post. After the sun-kissed afternoon at the beach, we had a quick break at the hotel before going out on yet another adventure. This time we took a tiny boat across the harbor to the island of Sphacteria to see the various European monuments of those who fought on the Greek side during the 1827 sea battle of Navarino (the Italian name for Pylos). There are large marble (of course) monuments put up by the French, English, Russians, and the Greeks at various spots around the island to commemorate their victory against the Ottoman Turks in the Greek War for Independence. The island is both breathtaking to see from Pylos and from the island itself as we beheld the orange setting sun. Before the sun set, we heard a report at the Russian monument (where there is also an adorable wooden church) about the ancient battle of Sphacteria in which the Athenians managed to capture one hundred and twenty Spartan soldiers—an embarrassing blow to Spartan invincibility. The report was great, but I was getting eaten alive my mosquitoes so I was happy to head back to Pylos and rest from the busy day.

I’ll end my post here at the halfway point in the trip since I am behind (again) on my writing schedule. Stay tuned for part 2 and another post on the Olympic Games as well as my running experiences so far.

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