Home > Uncategorized > The Mysterious Theft of a Column Capital from Olympia

The Mysterious Theft of a Column Capital from Olympia

This weekend, apparently, someone stole a column capital from the Early Christian basilica at the site of Ancient Olympia (in Greece).  This alarming theft has led to the suspension of the local ephor (the official in charge of antiquities for the region) and made the national and international pressI’ve visited the site of Olympia and checked out this church many, many times.  The press has not made clear which capital was stolen from the building and whether this was an ancient capital used as spolia in the building or an Early Christian capital (this short article makes it seem like it is a 6th century column capital).  I do not recall any particularly dramatic column capitals from the building — to be perfectly honest — although the church is known for its abundant architectural sculpture which was presumably carved from the vast quantity of marble available from the ancient site itself. 

The interesting (and perhaps ironic) thing about this story is that the Early Christian church is built into the so-called Workshop of Phidias.  This is an ancient structure (the visible brick superstructure, from what I understand is 3rd century A.D., but it may have been built on earlier foundations) built to the same dimensions of the cella of the Temple of Olympian Zeus.  The excavators apparently found in the area molds for terracota antefixes and other evidence for construction so the building is thought to have been where the sculptor Phidias created his famous statue of Olympian Zeus.  Because of these ancient associations, its proximity to the most prominent ancient ruins on the site (it is right outside the ancient Altis), and its well-preserved condition, the basilica in the Workshop of Phidias is among the most visible and visited Early Christian churches in the Peloponnesus (note my clever humor in this post).  Its visibility alone would make its assemblage of architectural sculpture particularly well-known, and its presence within the well-maintained and heavily visited tourist site of Olympia makes this church also particularly accessible to the casual tourist.  Most Early Christian basilicas in Greece remain off the beaten path, protected by rusty and collapsing fences, overgrown and neglected.  Like the Workshop of Phidias basilica, many of these less-visible churches preserve both ancient and Early Christian architectural sculpture.  While I obviously do not condone the theft of antiquities, it’s difficult to imagine a less suitable Early Christian basilica to loot than the Workshop of Phidias basilica. 

OlympiaCitationsOf course, the presence of the church within the site of Olympia certainly adds prestige to the material within the church whether it was re-used or carved new.  Moreover, for a real connoisseur the site represents one of the more important sites for the Early Christian period in the Peloponnesus.  While much of the Late Antique settlement on the site itself was removed during the 19th century excavation, scholars — particularly the late Thomas Völling — have made important strides in cobbling together the fragmentary record of the hastily excavated Late Antique phases and combining with important, relatively recent discoveries like the extensive “Slavic” cemetery excavated during the construction of the new museum at the site in the 1970s.   For the 4th-6th century, the church seems to have been at the center of a substantial settlement which included several larger houses and a maze of smaller houses.  The church would have been important for the folks who lived at the site of Olympia in the Early Christian period, but it hard to imagine that the looter of the column capital knew that.

For more information on Early Christian Olympia, here’s a handout that I created a few years back when asked to talk about the Early Christian phase at the site and in the right sidebar I’ve included some citations to the church at the Workshop of Phidias for the truly ambitious.

It will be interesting to follow this story develop.  The suspension of the local archaeological representative suggests that something more has happened here than the press has reported.  I’ll keep an eye on the press and  David Gill’s blog Looting Matters over the next few weeks to see if more comes out.

Update 1: This brief note (Archaeologist’s Horde) has transformed the column capital from 6th c. A.D. to 6th c. B.C.  That’s a big difference!

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. September 9, 2009 at 8:27 am

    I imagined that the news might be referring to an impost capital. I remember one or two were set up on a shaft or others scattered around in usual disregard.

  2. September 9, 2009 at 8:36 am

    That’s what I’d guess as well, but it’s odd that none of those impost capitals made into Vemi’s catalog so I began to doubt my memory. But still, I can’t imagine a worse place to take an impost capital from.

  3. September 9, 2009 at 11:08 am

    I still find it incredible that someone could manage to remove something of that size without being noticed….hmmm… I look forward with interest to finding out more.

  4. September 9, 2009 at 11:08 am

    “The suspension of the local archaeological representative suggests that something more has happened here than the press has reported.”
    Indeed this can be inferred also by the announcement of the SEA

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