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Berkeley Archaeologist Rebuilds Greek Temple in Ancient Nemea

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Berkeley Archaeologist Rebuilds Greek Temple in Ancient Nemea

By Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs
Posted January 26, 2000

In ancient Nemea, near where Greek athletes competed in the original Olympics, called the Panhellenic Games, a Berkeley archaeologist is rebuilding a 2,400-year-old temple that puts a new face on the old Greek god, Zeus.

Usually shown with thunderbolt in hand, Zeus is the epitome of patriarchal power. But at Nemea, if Stephen Miller, professor of classics, is right, this Zeus could have been holding a lamb.

The so-called "Nemean Zeus" is a god of grazing, not thunder, said Miller in an evening lecture at Berkeley last month, where he outlined progress being made to partially reconstruct the ancient temple where Greek runners would have conducted their religious rites.

Miller's team has nearly rebuilt two of the 34 columns in the 9,240-square-foot temple. They hope to have the two 42-foot columns completed by June 2000, in time for the second revival of the games at Nemea. Another six columns are scheduled for completion by the time of the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004.

Miller was responsible in 1996 for inspiring the first revival of the games at Nemea, which brought more than 500 people from around the world to emulate Greek athletes of 25 centuries ago.

Nemea's modern-day runners wore tunics and ran barefoot on the track uncovered by Miller in 20 years of archaeological research there. They also used the original locker room and jogged through a 130-foot entrance tunnel covered in ancient graffiti, before sticking their toes in the same grooved stone blocks used by Greek runners. A reconstruction of an ancient mechanism, based on the catapult, started the race. Reconstruction of the temple is being done to conserve the stones now deteriorating on the ground, and hopefully, to shed new light on this Greek god, said Miller.

The Panhellenic Games began at Nemea in 573 B.C., one of four such contests in ancient Greece, and ended at Nemea some 300 years later. At that point, the temple was abandoned, said Miller. Its Zeus statue probably was moved to the Greek city of Argos, which had a temple dedicated to Nemean Zeus, and then its bronze was melted down and reused.

Miller believes the temple's cult figure would have had pastoral traits because the word "Nemea" means "grazing" in English. Moreover, he discovered in excavations last summer that the entire valley flooded every winter in antiquity and could only have been used for pasture -- and games -- in the summer.

"No one could have lived at Nemea or planted crops," said Miller.

"This is not the Olympian Zeus, the king of the gods who philanders and hurls thunderbolts," he said.

"This is Nemean Zeus, a shepherd. What did he look like? What were his attributes? Does he have a lamb in his arms? I would love to know."

Miller said there are two other known Greek sites with temples dedicated to the Nemean Zeus, but no one ever focused on his character because they didn't know that the valley in which ancient Nemea was located was restricted to pasture land. Even so, he said, Nemean Zeus was a minor cult for this mythological god, which has many other representations, most associated with power.

Unfortunately, the temple's interior cannot be reconstructed because materials were carted away in the early Christian era, to be used in a church at Nemea. Christians also took the foundation stones for the columns and left them lying on the ground for the next 1,500 years, until Miller arrived to put them up again.



January 26 - February 1, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 19)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
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