Introduction – Fall 1985

By: David Gilman Romano

Originally Published in 1985

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One of the most popular aspects of modern western culture is its universal in­terest in sports and athletics. Our world is permeated with athletic contests, youthful athletic images, athletic slogans and athletic accouterments. College and professional athletics are multi-million dollar businesses, and the modern Olympic Gaines have taken on major world political, social. and economic proportions. Running, jogging, and physical fitness are a current obsession with millions of Americans.

What, you may ask, does this have to do with The University Museum and Expedition Magazine? How do modern athletics relate to the study of archaeology amid anthro­pology? You may be surprised to learn that there is a good deal of ev­idence for athletics from the history, literature, and archaeology of an­cient and more recent cultures, and that this evidence often relates to the contemporary world in nu­merous ways. The theme of this issue of Expedition is athletics, with examples from a number of varied cultures represented by the collec­tions and the research of The Uni­versity Museum.

The word “athletics” today can mean many things. It can include amateur as well as professional par­ticipants. It may at times encompass such competitive activities as bas­ketball, baseball, crew, football, hockey, soccer, wrestling, tennis and track and field, to name only a few. The word athlete is originally an ancient Greek word with a very specific meaning, “one who competes for a prize,” and is related to two other Greek words athlos meaning “contest” and athlon meaning “prize” (Fig. 1). The orig­inal and still primary meaning of athletics, therefore is tied very closely to the concept of a compe­tition for which a prize is given. The papers in this issue are mostly re­stricted in theme to formal athletic competition in which there is a con­test and sometimes a prize. Non­competitive sports, recreational ac­tivities, pastimes and hoard games are generally excluded from consid­eration.

Some of the earliest information about athletics is from ancient Mes­opotamia. Professor Ake Sjöberg of the Babylonian Section of the Museum and his colleagues are reading, translating, and inter­preting thousands of Sumerian cu­neiform tablets of the third and second millennia B.C., a number of which have to do with the evidence for Sumerian athletics. This project, when completed, will tell us much about what may well be the earliest examples of athletic competition in the world.

Based on all the available evi­dence at the present, the earliest record of formalized athletic con­tests and full-blown athletic festivals conies from ancient Greece. Greek literary, historical, and archaeolog­ical sources confirm the existence of a rich tradition of athletic competi­tion. It is, of course, this tradition upon which the introduction of modern track and field competition in the western world was based in the 19th century, and that was the inspiration for the inception and or­ganization of the modern Olympic Games. So indebted are we to an­cient Greek athletics that not only have we modeled many of our track and field events on theirs. but we have also borrowed their words for these events, e.g.. pentathlon, dekathlon, diskos. the name of the marathon is from the ancient Greek place name in Attica, site of the im­portant battle between the Greeks and the Perkins in 490 B.C. Ac­cording to Herodotos. a 5th century B.C. historian, an Athenian profes­sional day runner by the name of Pheidippides was sent to solicit help from the Spartans upon the news of the Persian landing at Marathon. Pheidippides covered the distance of about 150 miles in two days. This ancient legend accounted for the in­troduction of the modern marathon in the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. (The marathon was never an ancient athletic event.) The site of many modern athletic contests is the stadium: originally a Greek word stadia meaning “standing place,” it refers to the re­ligious structure found as a part of Greek sanctuaries. It was, of course, the place where Greek athletics were contested and where specta­tors were accommodated. As far as we know. there was no precedent for the Greek stadium in any earlier civilization (Figs. 2, 3).

The Mediterranean Section of Tile University Museum has among its holdings a number of examples of Greek vases with scenes of an­cient athletes and athletics. Two of the finest of these are illustrated on the cover of this issue. The late 6th century B.C. black figure amphora. on the left, depicts a boxing match between the two central figures, each of whom has his hands wrapped with oxhide strips. early boxing gloves (himantes). A trainer or judge stands to the left and an assistant stands to the right holding additional leather strips. The early 5th century B.C. Attic red figure kylix, on the right, depicts a wrestling scene where two athletes com­pete under the watchful eye of the trainer to the left. Above the ath­letes. on the wall of the training area. is seen a diskos in a sling and two halteres or jumping weights. which were carried by ancient long jumpers. Behind the wrestler on the left are probably two javelins set into the ground. Wrestling, discus, long jump and the javelin were bur of the five events of the ancient pen­tathlon. The fifth event was the stadion, a footrace one length of the stallion or 6(X) feet.

Many aspects of the modern Olympic Gaines have striking simi­larities with the ancient Games, in­cluding the political dimension that has received so much publicity in recent years. This is the subject of the essay on the ancient Olympic Games included here.

The Romans were influenced to a great degree by the Greek athletic tradition and held Greek-like festi­vals in Rome itself. The Romans were also innovators in the athletic sphere: for example, they conceived of a new type of elaborate architec­tural complex devoted to baths, pools, racecourses and other recreation areas. Spectacles for which the Romans were more famous, lie strictly speaking outside the realm of athletics. Professor Donald White of the Mediterranean Section sum­marizes our knowledge about Roman athletics and Dr. Murray McClellan comments on a Roman ball game and its connection with an object from the Museum, collection. Ball games were an important part of Roman life, as they were in an­cient Greece, though technically not “athletic.” in the sense that they were casual recreational sport rather than part of a competition for a prize.

The Etruscans, neighbors of the Romans to the north, also appear to have borrowed heavily from Greek athletic tradition. We have limited written information about Etruscan athletic practice, but there exist col­orful and informative wall paintings from Etruscan tombs with depic­tions of athletic scenes, as well as occasional bronze, terracotta or stone sculptures of athletes. Karen Vellucci gives us insights into the difficulties of obtaining a dispas­sionate account of Etruscan ath­letics.

Important original research re­lating to the subject of Mesoamerican athletics is being conducted by the American Section of The Uni­versity Museum, The excavations at the Maya site of Tikal in Guatema­la between 1956-1970 produced quantities of new information. In­cluded here is a report on the sub­ject of the ball courts at Tikal by Dr. Christopher Jones, one of the exca­vators of the site, prior to formal publication of this information in the Tikal Report Series of The Univer­sity Museum.

Lacrosse, a native North Amer­ican game, may have been first de­veloped by the Iroquois in the 16th century. Dr. Marshall Becker de­scribes the organization and rides of the original game and comments on its political and social importance.

Finally, to bring the subject of athletics still closer to The Univer­sity Museum. Dr. John Cotter gives us a glimpse of athletics from Co­lonial America and specifically from Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania, an early leader in the development of intercollegiate ath­letics in this country.

These examples of athletics come from diverse cultures in different parts of the world and span a period of several thousands of years (Fig. 4): but still there are, surprisingly enough, a number of common themes that run throughout. For in­stance, there is some association with religion or religious practices ill the evidence for athletics from Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Etruria and Guatemala. Major athletic facil­ities were developed for athletic competition in the Greek. Roman and Maya worlds as well as in Phil­adelphia. In addition. there is among the Greeks, Romans and North American Indians a clear con­nection between athletics and mili­tary preparedness. Athletic compe­tition for women can be clearly at­tested from the Greek and Roman worlds and can be tentatively sug­gested for the game of lacrosse as Native Americans knew it. We know that prizes were given to victorious athletes in Mesopotamia, Greece, Huiiw, Etruria, and Guatemala, as well as in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania.

The intersection of Thirty-Third and Spruce Streets is, of course, the address Lind the home of The Uni­versity Museum. At the same inter­section across the street to the north is Franklin Field (Fig. 5), the home of the University of Pennsylvania athletics and the annual site of the Penn Relays, organized in 1895. the world’s oldest and largest relay meet. Franklin Field is one of the most famous stadiums in America today. This close proximity of museum and stadium is an interesting coincidence when one considcrs the close connection between phys­ical training, athletics, and learning in the ancient Greek world. For it was the Greek gymnasium that was not only the center of athletic training for the youth but also the cultural center of the community and the school. The gymnasion, literally the place of naked people… would often include a palaistra, wrestling place,” and a dromos, “running place,” as well as rooms for ballgames, classrooms, and Li­braries. The stallion, although technically not a part of the gymna­sion, was sometimes found nearby.

The Muses were the Greek per­sonifications of poetry, music, and dance, and later all intellectual pur­suits. The museion in ancient Greece was originally a place asso­ciated with the Muses, and at times it was markcd by an altar or a temple. Schools were often called the place of the Muses or mu­seion, and it is known for example that two of die most [anions public gymnasia of ancient Athens, Plato’s Akademy and Aristotle’s Lykeion. each contained a museion. Our in­tersection of Thirty-Third and Spruce Streets and the buildings found here. museum, stadium, gymnasium and palaestra, are, therefore, from an historical stand­point appropriately placed.

Cite This Article

Romano, David Gilman. "Introduction – Fall 1985." Expedition Magazine 27, no. 2 (August, 1985): -. Accessed February 25, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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