Archaeology and Sports History
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By Dr. Labib Boutros
Late Director of Athletics
American University of Beirut (LIB)
Paper delivered at the international seminar on the theme "History of Sport Science" (6 - 10 Nov 1979, Berlin (GDR).

One article by Dr. Boutros on this site. See also: "Phoenician Sports Founded the Olympic Games"

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Dr. Labib Boutros

Journalist and professor of sport, Dr. Labib Boutros, born in 1935 in Beirut (Lebanon), was doctor in pedagogy of sports sciences of the Martin Luther University of Halle (GDR). After pursuing competition sport with success, he was swimming champion and recordman several times. He was selected to take part in the 1969 Universiad. He devoted himself to training, journalism and was the sports anchor of a major Lebanese television station. He was a second prize winner at the Mexico Olympic Games in 1968 competition open to all world journalists. Polyglot, Labib Boutros spoke Arabic, French, German and English. Dr. Boutros passed away in 1997.

I. Archaeology as a science

The field of archaeology has had a long history, dealing with ancient people the world around and with topics as diverse as the social cultures.

The word "archaeology" comes from the Greek: archaeos (ancient) and "logos" (theory or science). Therefore, Archaeology means the Science of ancient times, through discovering remains and traces of the past Civilization.

In general, archaeology is developing into a distinct discipline. Archaeologists occupy at the present time an important responsibility in several departments, such as art, history, classics, anthropology and other topics. This branch of science has its own techniques for discovering and assembling information and data.

As an academic discipline, archaeology has a history of about 100 years. But, by the end of the fourteenth century a few persons were practicing a form of archaeology. The persistent motive of archaeology has been for a certain period just to collect antiquities in general. But, for scientists and professional scholars, archaeology is to discover means and facts of social and cultural lives of the ancient societies. This could be through buildings, inscriptions, reliefs, wall paintings, coins, tools, ceramics, etc., excavated in the sands or under ancient constructions. Archaeologists, in this work, must describe, classify and record the information discovered, and study the data.1

II. History and archaeology

Archaeology is based generally on the idea that there are ancient remains of human activity to be studied and published to the aim of world history. In this field, archaeology is going to develop a wide part of the science of history.

However, because archaeology deals with man in the past, the historians study the results of the excavations considered through the perspective of time in order to enrich our knowledge.

It is obvious that archaeology and history should have a very closed relation, and a big interest is to be established between archaeologists and historians, because the archaeologist also needs the historian to develop his information and draw a certain philosophy of history. In this meaning, Glyn Daniel, the editor of the journal "Antiquity" states: "We are all historians, we are all studying the past of man. The past is the goal of the historian whether he is text-aided or not".2 Archaeology began especially with an interest in the Greeks and Romans and developed first in the 18th century. Classical archaeology has been established on a scientific basis since the beginning of the 19th century, especially with the works of:

  • Jean-Francois Champollion (on Egypt, in 1808-25)
  • Heinrich Schliemann (on Troy, in the 1870’s)
  • Ernst Curtius (on Olympia, in 1875-81)
  • Arthur Evans (on Knossos, in 1900)

III. Sport historians and archaeology

From the field of archaeology, historians of any branch choose their topics and focus their investigation on specific subjects. Sometimes, the results of excavations gave to scholars the idea of following a particular subject of history: sports history. Here, sports historians can draw out new data and information and enrich the science of sports history with new knowledge.

In fact, a sports historian is an investigator who has to work on particular remains, with historical background in hand, already given by different means. As sport was one of the highest interests of the ancient people, its remains could be widely found in the fields of excavations.

Accordingly, we must acknowledge that a good part of information, now in sports history, is largely based upon the work and contribution of archaeologists, who have revealed to us the results of their research. It is evident that the discovery of sports grounds (such as stadia, gymnasia and palaestrae), equipment and others, in Olympia, Egypt and recently in Phoenicia, gave wide information concerning the history of sport and physical education. In particular, excavations in Amrit (Marathus) and Tyre gave me the opportunity to set up the first information about the history of sport in Phoenicia.

However, many sports historians have had recourse to archaeology and provided us with books on sports history, since the end of the last century. Among the most important historians who worked in the light of archaeological evidence, we have to quote Adolf Furtwangler (1853-1907), Julius Jüthner (1866-1949)3, Norman Gardiner, Wilhelm Dorpfeld, Walter Hyde and others, who published many books on sport history relying on archaeological statements.4

IV. Archaeology, as a source of knowledge to sport history

When texts do not exist, archaeology will be the most important source of information, if not the last means of work.

In Greece: Excavations conducted in many sites, such as Olympia, Delphi, Epidorus and Corinthus gave new data to sport history. Scholars like Bernard de Monfoucond (in 1723), Richard Chandler (in 1766), Johann Winckelmann (in 1767), suggested conducting excavations in Olympia, in order to discover the cultural history of the country. The first excavation in Olympia was carried out in 1823 by the French "Expedition Scientifique de Moree". The work was completed by the German archaeologists Ernst Curtius and Friedrich Adler, who conducted six campaigns between 1875 and 1881. Wilhelm Dörpfeld came after and conducted the work in Olympia, between 1921 and 1923 and 1927 and 1929. Since 1937, the excavations have been submitted to Emil Kunze. Important sports grounds have been discovered over the years such as the Stadium, the Gymnasium and the Palaestra.5 Since then, all scientific research on Olympia and Greek sport has been based on monumental works like "Die Ergebnisse", edited by Curtius and Adler, between 1887 and 1897. Later on, Dörpfeld published his two volumes "Alt-Olympia" in 1935.

The athletic remains in Greece attest in general the classical texts on sports activity. For example, Pausanias in his "Description of Greece" in the second century A. D. reported that archaeological evidence was borne out in Olympia as well as in the other sites. Thus, we can state that archaeological evidence and historical document complement each other.

In Egypt: Illustrations, designs and wall paintings of sports performances were drawn or engraved in tombs or temples of the Egyptian Pharaos. These documents were discovered especially in Beni-Hassan, Sakkara, Tell el-Amarna, Al-Karnak, Deir el-Bersheh, Deir el-Medineh and West Thebes.6 These sport motives of ancient Egypt have been gathered and published in various books, the most complete of which is by Touny/Wenig.7 With these archaeological documents a wide chapter of the sport history of this country has been revealed. If these documents had not been discovered the sport history of Egypt would have remained in obscurity.

V. The role of archaeology in discovering the sport history of Phoenicia

The role is to give you a living example of the importance of the contribution of archaeology to the development of the science of sport history, may I bring to your attention my own experience.

Ten years ago, when I began my research in the field of sport history, I chose to study the history of sport in Lebanon (previously called Phoenicia). No work had been undertaken before on this subject. No previous studies, no texts, no documents in hand. As you can imagine, my task was not easy at all. Thus, I started first to examine the classical works. But, since the documents on the Phoenicians were insufficient, I had recourse to the archaeological sites of the country. There I inquired on the localities and remains, in which the worship rite ceremonies had taken place, taking into account the fact that sport used to accompany the religious festivals in the traditions of the ancient world. In following this way, I obtained valuable information for my subject, because the excavations in two different sites, in Amrit and Tyre, gave me a lot of data dealing with athletics.

For two years, I had the opportunity to study these athletic remains. My report was published in my Diplomarbeit under the direction of Professor Dr. Gerhard Lukas, Director of the Sektion Sportwissenschaft at the Martin- Luther-Universitat (Halle-GDR). On this occasion, I wish to express my best thanks to Prof. Lukas and his assistants. The title of my work was "Die Anfänge des Libanesischen Sports, lhre Verbindung mit dem Phöinizischen Kult und den Ausgrabungen in Tyr und Amrit".

(The beginning of Lebanese sport, its connection with the Phoenician cult and the excavation in Tyre and Amrit.)

This work was enlarged, in 1974, and published in a book of 200 pages, in Arabic.

In Amrit: one of the considerable cities of northern Phoenicia, a neglected Stadium was brought to my attention. This site was excavated in 1860 by the French archaeologist Ernest Renan. But, ever since its athletic stadium has remained in obscurity. The Stadium is adjacent to the city temple and the distance between them is about 200 meters. Concerning this Stadium, I wrote in my book "Phoenician Sports":

"Clarification of the existence of Sport in Phoenicia precedent to the Greek time is to be found in the Stadium of Amrit. This Stadium provides the most certain proof of our time that the Phoenicians celebrated religious sport festivals near their temples".

In Tyre, the ancient Metropolis of Phoenicia, the excavations provided valuable athletic remains, resembling the sport constructions of Olympia. In two adjacent places in Tyre the archaeological efforts brought to light:

  • A Roman hippodrome.
  • A Greek palaestra.
  • A Roman palaestra (built under a Greek gymnasium).
  • And a Roman bath (Thermae)

Henceforth, we can conclude, that without this archaeological evidence, information about Sport in Phoenicia could not be brought up. However, considerable data from the Phoenician stadium of Amrit leaves a strong impression. That is to conclude that the tradition of organizing sport events linked with worship rites was established first in Phoenicia. Afterwards it was introduced to Greece through the Phoenicians who emigrated to Greece, guided by Cadmus and his successors, beginning in the 16th century B.C.

...From (the) athletic remains, in Amrit and Tyre, I had the possibility to discover some aspects of the history of sport in Phoenicia between around 1500 B.C. and 400 A.D. This means that archaeology allowed me to trace a forgotten page of sport history in Phoenicia, and to develop its chapters in the future.


...Archaeology is a distinct branch of science dealing closely with history, in order to reveal the social and cultural lives of the ancient societies. This field gave to many scholars the idea of following a specific subject of history, sport history.

Archaeology is a field of interest to sport historians, especially those who have no texts in hand. This was the case, when I began to study the history of sport in Phoenicia. We sport historians, have to have recourse to archaeology, as we do not have more information given by texts or other means. Moreover classical works concerning sports already published and known, cannot give us further information.

Therefore, the best procedure to be followed is an examination of the sites of excavations, which provide abundant data and proper cultures of the ancient people. In closing, I can say that sport history ought to be well developed in the future, especially through archaeology. Therefore, we have a great interest to work from now on, closely and deeply, with our colleagues, the archaeologists.


  1. Consult: Hole, F./Heizer, R: An introduction to prehistoric Archaeology. New York 1969. Daniel, G.: A Hundred years of Archaeology. London 1950.
  2. Daniel, Glyn, Antiquity 41 (1967) p 170.
  3. Consult especially: Furtwängler, A.: Olympia, die Ergebnisse der von dem Deutschen Reich veranstalteten Ausgrabung, published by E. Curtius and F. Adler. Berlin 1890-97 Volume 4. Furtwängler, A.: Die Bedeutung der Gymnastik in der griechischen Kunst. Leipzig 1905 Juthner, Julius: Antike Turngeräte. Vienna 1896
  4. Gardiner, E. Norman: Greek Athletic Sports and Festivals. London 1910. Olympia, Its History and Remains. Oxford 1925. Athletics of the Ancient World. Oxford 1930. Dörpfeld, W.: Alt-Olympia. Berlin 1935. 2 volumes. Hyde, W. W.: Olympic Victor Monuments and Greek Athletic Art. Washington 1921.
  5. Cf. Fellmann, Berthold: Die Geschichte der deutschen Ausgrabung, published in "100 Jahre deutsche Ausgrabung in Olympia". Munich 1972, pp. 37-48.
  6. The documents show a variety of athletic exercises: wrestling, boxing, fencing, ball games, swimming, acrobatic performances, etc.
  7. Touny, A D /Wenig, Steffen: Sport in ancient Egypt. Leipzig 1969.
  8. The results of this research are in: Boutros, Labib: Die Anfänge des Libanesischen Sports, lhre Verbindung mit dem Phönizischen Kult und den Ausgrabungen in Tyr und Amrit. Thesis. Martin-Luther-Universitat, Halle- Wittenberg 1971. - Der Sportunterricht an den Libanesischen Schulen. Doctorat thesis, Martin-Luther-Universitat, Halle- Wittenberg 1973.
  9. Boutros, Labib: Phoenician Sports, their influence on the origin of the Olympic Games. Beirut 1974 (in Arabic)

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