The heroine of my latest novel, Aphrodite’s Tears, is an archaeologist with a passion for ancient civilisations. I imagine she would have been thrilled to read of a recent discovery by archaeologists: a clay tablet inscribed with what is believed to be the earliest written record of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, dating back to the 3rd century AD.
The find was made by the Greek Archaeological Services working with the German Institute of Archaeology based in Greece, in one of the richest sources for Ancient Greek artefacts: the city of Olympia.
In my early twenties, when I finished my degree in French literature, I spent some time travelling in Europe, and Olympia was high on my list as a place to visit. I had long been fascinated by the Ancient Greeks, and archaeology, and had read with interest about this ancient city.
In its glory days, Olympia was a sanctuary – a sacred place. Its buildings included temples dedicated to Hera and Zeus; the Pelopion, the tomb of Pelops of mythology; and the Philippeion, a memorial to Philip II of Macedon.
The Temple of Zeus was famous for housing the Statue of Zeus by the sculptor Phidias, made c. 435 BC. It was supposed to be absolutely stunning, a depiction of the king of the gods sitting on his throne, crafted from ivory and gold and some thirteen metres in height. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but was lost during the 5th century AD.
Olympia was also renowned for another important aspect of Greek culture: this was the home of the original Olympic Games, held every four years from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD. In the Prytaneion, home of the priests, the Olympic flame burned on the Altar of Hestia. The first stadium was constructed in the sixth century BC, and was developed over time to make sloped seating for spectators around the track, and the hippodrome was built for chariot-racing.
So what became of this important sanctuary and hub of the Games? Over a period of time Olympia was damaged by floods and earthquakes, until eventually the flooding saw it buried under silt. It was never forgotten, though, but it was not until 1829 that archaeological excavations began as part of the French Morea expedition. The Germans took over in the 1870s, and have led the way since, unearthing thousands of objects of interest (which can be seen in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia) and many ruins of the original buildings.
Work continues on the site to this day – hence the Odyssey find; but even more importantly, Olympia has come to have a spiritual significance in our world once more. Every four years, the flame for the modern Olympic Games is lit in front of the Temple of Hera, through sunlight reflected onto a mirror, and then carried via relay to the home city.
My own experience of visiting the ruins at Olympia has never left me. The setting is so beautiful – amid the green wooded hills. Serene. Calm.
I walked among the ruins. I sat and imagined all that had taken place around me over the many, many centuries. I stood at the memorial to Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympic Games, beneath which, according to this wishes, his heart was buried. I looked around, at all the ruins, and I remembered the wisdom of the Greek leader Pericles:
‘What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.’
Those stone monuments matter a great deal. But the people who built them, who visited them and lived within them: those are the echoes that really touched me in that ancient sanctuary.