Ernst Curtius and the Excavation of Olympia

Olympia, draft by Friedrich Thiersch, 1879

On September 2, 1814, German archaeologist and historian Ernst Curtius was born, who directed the excavation of Olympia from 18751881, the most opulent and sacred religious shrine of ancient Greece and site of the original Olympic Games.

Ernst Curtius was born in Lübeck, Germany, and entered the University of Bonn in the 1830s. In this period, it is assumed, that Curtius discovered his interest in the Greek culture and he was acquainted with Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker, who highly influenced the young student and taught him in classical studies. In 1834, the Curtius moved to Göttingen where he studied under Karl Otfried Müller. The teacher was known to be enthusiastic about the field of archeology in combination with art. To complete his studies, Curtius moved to Berlin, but was highly disappointed from the city, the people, and especially the museums. He described Berliners as unreliable and spoiled, and the museums as poorly equipped. However, he continued his archaeological studies and increased his interests in ancient vases [1,2].

Curtius was invited to teach in Greece starting in 1837, as the home schooling the children of a befriended teacher. It is known that Curtius put great efforts in learning the language and enjoyed the high culture even though he had only little time for archaeological studies in the first year. Curtius returned to Berlin in early 1841 and earned his doctoral degree and in 1844, he was appointed professor at the University of Berlin. His now famous talk on Olympia took place in 1852 in Berlin and he initiated the first excavations in the area. Curtius became professor of archaeology in Göttingen, after Eduard Gerhard passed away.

In 1875, the excavations at Olympia started and were directed by Ernst Curtius. Already in December of the same year, the first statues were exposed. Soon, the famous Heraion, or also known as the Temple of Hera was located. The Temple of Hera was destroyed by an earthquake in the early 4th century AD and never rebuilt. In modern times, the temple is the location where the torch of the Olympic flame is lit, by focusing the rays of the sun. Hermes of Praxiteles and many other statues were found. For his outstanding achievements, Cutius was asked to join the Prussian order Pour le Mérite for Science and Art.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture on Greek Mythology by Ken Dowden.

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