Archaeologists have been excavating Olympia, site of the ancient Olympic Games, for well over a 100 years, but the location of the Hippodrome has remained a mystery.
The Hippodrome was the place where the Greeks competed with their horses and chariots in death-defying races. Many assumed that nothing had survived the flooding by the Alfeios River, as the area has been covered in a deep layer of silt since ancient times.
Using modern geophysical methods, however, they systematically searched the area for the first time. Geomagnetic and georadar techniques were able to map soil disturbance such as watercourses, ditches, and walls and the data they retrieved showed a rectangular structure about 1200 metres in length. The researchers believe that this is the ancient racecourse which ran parallel to the stadium. The actual starting gates, with boxes for up to 24 teams of horses, are believed to be under a huge mound of earth which had been left after excavation of a temple.
The area east of the sanctuary of Olympia had not been investigated before, even though ancient texts identified it as the site of the Hippodrome.
Aerial view of Olympia. Lines show extent of the Hippodrome
Comment: The word Hippodrome comes from two Greek words, ‘hippo’ meaning horse and ‘drome’ meaning a place for running and racing. The naming of many of the ancestral horses-like animals used the word ‘hippus’ to identify them as part of the horse family (such as Eohippus, Orohippus and Mesohippus). You might be wondering then about the Hippopotamus; although they are a distant relation in the ‘ungulate’ (hoofed) family tree, they are not horses – this fact did not stop people from calling them ‘horse of the river’ or ‘river horses’ (‘hippo’ meaning horse and ‘potamus’ meaning river).