Well Finds

Well Finds, Festival Delegations and Festive Occasions, by Werner Gauer (p. 127, Olympics – Past & Present)

© 2013 Qatar Olympic & Sports Museum, Qatar Museums Authority and Prestel Verlag, Munich-London-New York.

By far the greatest portion of the numerous bronze finds that make up the richness and renown of the Olympia excavation has come to light in wells, located near the stadium and in the south-eastern area to its south (Fig. 1).(1) These are simple earth shafts of circa 80–100 cm diameter and ca. 4–6 m depth, drilled in the dry summer into the sandy Olympia soil. Only in a few cases has it been possible to observe, above the well bottom where the water would seep into the cavity, the cladding of the well walls with lumber, branches or brushwood. Lining of the well walls with stones or bricks is the entirely rare exception. Wells walled up to their mouths existed only since the Classical period, though most walled wells belong to the Hellenistic and Roman age. A larger number of them are located in the west of the Sanctuary near the workshop of Pheidias and the Greek baths; these wells are assumed to have served the running of the workshop and baths.

No doubt, the ephemeral wells in the east of the Sanctuary (no wells have been discovered in the Altis itself so far) were dug during the Olympic Games or shortly beforehand for the festival visitors’ water needs (Fig. 2). After the festival broken and now useless crockery was thrown in; so were damaged votive gifts, especially the weapons parts of the now rotten tropaia that had been set on the stadium walls and in other prominent open-air places: helmets, cuirasses, greaves, large shields, etcetera, but also tripod and cauldron parts and other bronze vessels, as well as devices made out of bronze and iron, sheet metal and statuettes, in one instance even the whole upper section of a statue, plus broken-off branches. In one well, which had been sealed airtight by a layer of clay, there was – as though freshly cut off – an ox tongue. Unfortunately, it crumbled away undocumented in the hands and before the eyes of the excavators.

The fragile clay vessels, above all, delivered valuable clues for determining the wells chronologically, but also clues as to their users’ life and activities during the festival. The fragments provide a glimpse of a great diversity of shapes and sizes, starting with the man-high pithos and an exceptionally near-intact, precisely one metre tall Punic transport amphora, to the fist-sized aryballos, used to store precious anointing oil, and a tiny salt dish. Coarse-grained flat mortars were used to grind cereal. In addtion, found in most wells, often in larger number, were simple jugs with a handle and a round mouth, into which was poured the water drawn from the well using bronze pails. Rarer and usually more finely made are wine jugs with a cloverleaf mouth. Small narrow-necked jugs, like the aryballoi and the Attic lektyhoi, were used for anointing oil or other precious liquids; several originated from Corinth or Sparta. A small number of more portly jugs with a narrow neck and funnel-shaped mouth demonstrate that oil was needed in larger quantities. Equally rare are the medium-sized amphora, in which wine was stored normally for an extended period (Fig. 3). Wine was mixed with water in the kraters; a number of examples of this form too were again imported from Corinth and Sparta, and from Athens. Drinking was done out of deep two-handled mugs and flat drinking bowls. In multiple cases these, too, were brought in from visitors’ home cities. An indigenous species of bulbous mugs with a vertical edge and strip handles, which are usually painted brown, occasionally also sparsely ornamented with circumferential stripes, is to a certain degree the leading shape for the earliest wells from the first half of the 7th century. One example is ornamented in a unique way with a rampant lion, which on account of its drawing style delivers welcome corroboration for the early dating. Alteration in shapes and proportions also provides a means of more precisely classifying these mugs and the wells, in which they came to light, within the aforementioned period. The great majority of the vessels was quite obviously produced and unpretentiously painted immediately before the festival, made by local potters out of the clay available on site. This was cheap utility crockery for a few days, crockery of the kind that is smashed at wedding-eve-parties. From the early Classical period onwards, use was also made of ‘urban’ crockery with a fine lustre glaze for eating (plates and salt dishes) and drinking (skyphoi and bowls). This crockery, occasionally with a stamped-on palmette decoration, was produced along Attic lines in the capital city of Elis. A species by itself is the thin-walled kitchenware, hard-fired with grainy red-brown or grey clay and mostly still blackened by fire in addition, which was manufactured since [sic: had been correctly translated with from] the early 5th century. Previously, as one soot-blackened example proves, smaller bronze cauldrons and tripods had been used for cooking. Deep bowls and dishes were used for serving soups and sauces. According to its scratched-in label, one storage amphora contained “garon”: this is the earliest evidence of a fish sauce that was popular throughout Antiquity and was still being made later in Pompeii, for example. Evidently, it had been prepared and offered for sale in Olympia too ever since the Archaic period.

In the VII Olympia Report (1961), Emil Kunze was the first [one: sic: this had been translated more idiomatically with the first] to mention the finds in a number of wells that had been excavated in deep strata in the so-called mosaic hall of the Nero house. In Olympische Forschungen VIII (1975) the author published the clay vessels from 43 wells found under the north stadium embankment and from 96 wells in the southeastern area. In the XI Olympia report (1999) Jürgen Schilbach presented the clay vessels from wells 98–129, meanwhile cleared in the southeastern area. Via research in older publications and diaries, Alfred Mallwitz was able to detect a large number of wells that had been excavated earlier but not recognised as such, and thereby extend the list of wells excavated so far to a total of 229. However, this does not indicate that all discovered wells have been recorded. It has not been possible to clear and empty some of them, as they are intersected by buildings. A considerable number, no doubt, is still hidden beneath the foundations of the Echo Hall of the Hestia Sanctuary (so-called southeastern building) and of the so-called Greek building adjacent to the east, of the late-Roman southeastern baths as well as under the stone rows located south of the Hestia Sanctuary, apparently used in the early Classical period to secure embankment works at the approach to the hippodrome in the southeastern area. Therefore, we can comfortably anticipate 250 to 300 wells in this overall area that can be allocated to the stadium. That would be, on average, three to four wells per Olympiad. A bigger estimated figure can be produced for the non-excavated terrain to the south-east of the stadium, in which the hippodrome – the horse-racing track – can be located and which, no doubt, for the greatest part has been inundated by the winter flooding of the Alpheios river. It cannot be ruled out that there, on and underneath the spectator walls of the hippodrome, an even bigger cluster of camp sites, and accordingly of wells, was located.

(1)           See Gauer 1971; Schilbach 1999, 285–322; Mallwitz 1999, 186–200.

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