Nemea is a land of legends and traditions. It was the home land of the Nemean Lion, slayed by the legendary Hercules. The archaeological site is located on the foothill of the mountains of Arcadia, 333 meters above sea level. The strategic location of Nemea and its climate were the reason that the Panhellenic Games of Nemean were held in the region. During the winter, the region was turned into a swamp, during the summer though it was the ideal place to practice sports. The most significant monuments of the Archaeological Site of Nemea are the temple of Zeus and the Stadium. Since Nemea did not have residents, the management of the games belonged initially to Cleonae and then to Argos.
In Greek mythology, Nemea was ruled by king Lycurgus and queen Eurydice. Nemea was the place where the infant Opheltes, lying on a bed of parsley, was killed by a serpent while his nurse Hypsipyle fetched water for the Seven on their way from Argos to Thebes. The Seven founded the Nemean Games in his memory, according to its aition, or founding myth, accounting for the crown of victory being made of parsley or the wild form of celery and for the black robes of the judges, interpreted as a sign of mourning. The Nemean Games were documented from 573 BC, or earlier, at the sanctuary of Zeus at Nemea.
1. Τhe Sanctuary of Zeus
The temple stands at the end of the Classical Doric temple tradition and at the beginning of the new Hellenistic combination of architectural forms. The temple was slightly shorter than the generic Classical proportion (6×13), as it had six columns across the ends and twelve on the sides (6×12). Three columns have always stood since the time of the original construction of the temple.
The temple lacks the opisthodomos which was a characteristic of the older Classical tradition. There was an extension of the interior which represents the adyton which contained an unknown sunken crypt. The interior cella was front-east of the adyton, and had 14 Corinthian columns on the floor level, with Ionic columns above. It was one of the first ancient buildings to combine all three architectural orders.
In 1884 CE French archaeologists made surface excavations following the drainage of the valley by French engineers the previous year. More comprehensive excavations were carried out between 1924-6 CE under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, once again in 1964 CE and then more systematically from 1973 CE by the University of California at Berkeley, which continues to the present day to excavate and manage the site and museum.
The two main places of sacrifice at the Sanctuary of Zeus where the temple of Zeus and the Shrine of Opheltes. The shrine to Opheltes was built on a small man-made mound and covered an area of 850 square metres enclosed by a low stone wall. Within were two altars, a cenotaph to commemorate Opheltes and at least some trees planted to form a sacred grove in one corner. The 4th century BCE shrine was a renovation of the earlier 6th century one and archaeological evidence demonstrates that the altars were used for animal sacrifice, the pouring of libations and the giving of votive offerings such as small statues and pottery. The triple reservoirs measure 3 x 9.8 m and reach a depth of 8 m; their exact function is not known.
2. The Stadium
The Stadium, which could accomodate 40.000 spectators, was built 400 m SE of the Temple of Zeus. The track (total length of 178m) was bordered by a stone water-channel with stone basins at intervals for drinking water. The stone starting line was on its western extremity. A rectangular building with an internal colonnade on its western side served probably as a “changing room”. From it, the athletes and the judges entered the Stadium through a vaulted tunnel. The spectators sat in roughly levelled terraces (degrees), cut in the soft rock, while two or three rows of seats were constructed between the starting-line and the stoas.
The Stadium in which Panhellenic games were held every two years in honour of Opheltes, was built at the end of the 4th century B.C., as part of a renovation project of the Sanctuary. In about 270 B.C., the games were transferred to Argos. Despite an attempt in 235 B.C., of Aratos of Sicyon to bring them back to Nemea (and indeed, for a while, they took place alternately in Nemea and Argos), the games were definitively transferred to Argos not long after. The stadium was excavated in 1974-1981 by the American School of Classical Studies (University of Berkeley, California) under the direction of S. Miller.