Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
from the trenches
Tomb of the Unknown Jock Volume 61 Number 5, September/October 2008
by Marco Merola


A fifth-century athlete's sarcophagus from Taranto, Italy, has been re-created in Beijing from scans of the original. (Marco Merola)

A great athlete's glory often lasts well beyond his lifetime—think of Jesse Owens racing across the finish line in Berlin in 1936 on his way to capturing his fourth gold medal. Now the story of another great athlete who triumphed in four events is living on, almost 2,500 years after his death, at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.


Amphorae won by the athlete are also on display. (Marco Merola)

One of the showpieces of the Games is an exhibition at the World Art Museum that showcases ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman sports. The highlights include copies of the sarcophagus and bones discovered at the famous Tomb of the Athlete in Taranto, Italy. Also on display are the original four amphorae the tomb's occupant received for winning first place in various athletic contests at a pan-Mediterranean festival similar to the Olympics.

The tomb was discovered in 1959 during construction of a building near the center of Taranto. Work was stopped and archaeologists soon came across the large stone sarcophagus and the four prize amphorae, which date to 480 B.C. and are decorated with sporting scenes. Inside the sarcophagus were the bones of a man (whose name is lost to us) holding an alabastron, a container for ointment used during sporting events. Immediately the archaeologists knew they had found an athlete's burial. But it wasn't until this year, when the sarcophagus and the bones were examined using modern imaging techniques, that the athlete's true story could be told.

(Marco Merola)

Using high-resolution laser scanning, researchers measured the sarcophagus precisely and saw previously unknown details of its painted frieze and traces of its once-bright colors. The data from the scans were transferred to a robotic arm that carved the copy of the sarcophagus now in Beijing from a block of resin (a process called rapid prototyping). Artists then manually applied the colored decoration.

Scholars at the Taranto Archaeological Museum also scanned the five-foot-five-inch athlete's bones. "It is clear that this man had sturdy bones designed to support great stresses," says Gaspare Baggieri, an anthropologist at the Ministry of Culture who has studied the bones since 1999. The new scans showed Baggieri that the athlete had enormous calves and thighs, leading him to believe that the sportsman was a great runner and strong jumper. Baggieri thinks that he also had large trapezius and deltoid muscles, as well as overdeveloped neck and shoulders, suggesting he was almost certainly a javelin or discus thrower and a boxer. These events are echoed on the sides of the amphorae found in the tomb, which show a long jumper with halteres (jumping weights), a discus thrower, a chariot race, and two hefty pugilists.

You can see the sarcophagus from the Tomb of the Athlete at the newly renovated archaeological museum in Taranto ( The museum showcases artifacts from the eighth to third centuries B.C., when Taranto was one of the biggest Greek colonies in Italy.