A Runner’s Guide to the British Museum

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What is the early archaeological evidence of running? Diana Valk visits the British Museum to find out.

As I run around Hyde Park on Saturday mornings I am surrounded by people enjoying sports of all kinds: children learning to kick a football, stately horseback riders in tweed, cyclists tearing around the park, swimmers braving the cold water of the Serpentine and, of course, lots of my fellow runners. It makes me wonder when sport, and particularly running, became such an important part of people’s lives.

Sport has been around for thousands of years and we have the artefacts to prove it. For example, the Mesoamerican ball game which dates back to 1700 B.C. took place on elaborately decorated stone courts and used durable rubber balls, many of which have been recovered in excavations. Unfortunately, it’s much harder to figure out how long people have been participating in sports that rely on little to no equipment.

One thing that makes running so attractive to people today is the simplicity of the kit required and the fact that it can be done anywhere. At its core, runners only need a pair of good shoes, comfortable clothes, and a path to strike out on. We now have a plethora of cutting-edge equipment to supplement our running experience, but our ancestors would have needed much less, just the callouses on their feet and the desire to run.  This fact makes running a difficult sport for archaeologists to track.

With this idea in mind I decided to wander through the British Museum on the hunt for all things running.  In almost the first room I entered I was greeted by Hermes, the Greek god of, among other things, sport. The statue, located in Room 1, is Roman from the second century, but it is based on a much earlier Greek statue from the fourth century B.C. Though this particular Hermes appeared to be lounging around rather than running, he was wearing his winged sandals, which I saw as a good omen for my search.

Hermes and his winged sandals

From Hermes I made my way to the Ancient Egypt room (Room 4). Everywhere I looked I saw images of people, but all had straight legs with locked knees and both feet rooted to the ground. Did this mean that Ancient Egyptians didn’t run or was it that running didn’t mesh with the orderly aesthetic of artwork at the time? I had almost given up on the chance of seeing a bent knee depicted in Egyptian artwork when I stumbled upon a scene from a tomb chapel. It showed a group of children playing a ‘cops and robbers’ game. Their strides are long and their back feet are flexed suggesting they could be in mid sprint. There were no images of adults running, so perhaps it was only an acceptable pursuit for children.

Children running in an Ancient Egyptian carving

I wended my way through the ground floor rooms into the Ancient Greek and Rome section. It seemed that among these sculptures more hints of movement had crept into the depictions of people.  The Nereid Monument, a Lykian tomb built around 380 B.C. and found in what is now Southwest Turkey, is decorated with statues and friezes showing all manner of activity. This contrasted sharply with what I’d seen in the Ancient Egyptian rooms. I hadn’t yet chanced across an obvious illustration of running, but based on the placements of their legs and the flow of their clothes, I believe the soldiers in some of the friezes were running or at the very least, walking at a rapid pace.

A frieze from the Nereid Monument

As I made my way upstairs I was beckoned into Rooms 38 and 39 by a ticking noise. These rooms are devoted to the history of timekeeping devices and clocks of all manner line the walls. Although it doesn’t have to be, time has become an increasingly important part of running. With the invention of reliable clocks, runners ceased to compete solely against each other and began to battle the clock. The ever-increasing accuracy of clocks allows us to slice our runs into smaller and smaller slivers of time in the quest to analyse our workouts and races as effectively as possible.

I don’t know when timed runs first occurred, but I found mention of some early times in Fast Tracks: The History of Distance Running by Raymond Krise and Bill Squires. There is no mention of sprints or middle distances, but people were certainly recording their times for longer distances. For example, in 1753 Woolley Morris ran 10 miles in 54:30 (unfortunately, he dropped dead at the end) and in 1788 Foster Powell ran 100 miles in 22 hours. It was the mid to late nineteenth century when timed runs increased in popularity and I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that this coincided with pivotal improvements in clock-making technology including the appearance of the first electric clock.

The distant ancestors of our Garmins

I left the clocks behind me and although my feet had started aching, I continued my search. I finally ended up in a room devoted to Greek and Roman life (Room 69). There were figurines of boxers and pottery depicting charioteers. There were even several cases devoted to Achilles, the namesake for the vital, but frequently injured, tendon. Still I saw no runners. On the verge of giving up, I rounded a corner and found myself facing a cream-coloured amphora (a wine jar) showing an image of a nude man running. He wasn’t running in battle, but simply running. Next to this amphora sat a similar jar decorated in black and gold depicting four men running. These jars and the other artefacts in this case were associated with the Great Panathenaic festival, a festival of competitions held in Athens in the sixth century B.C.

Amphorae from the Great Panathenaic festival

The running competitions were the most celebrated events that took place in the Great Panathenaic festival and at the more prestigious Olympics. All races fell into the categories of sprints or middle-distances with the most famous being the stadion, a sprint of the single length of the stadium (approximately 200 meters). Similar to the winners of the 100-meter races in our modern-day Olympics, the winner of the stadion achieved immense fame. I noticed a lack of women on these jars. I’m unsure about the regulations for the Panathenaic festival, but in the Olympics women were initially not allowed to compete or even attend. Of course, this didn’t stop some women and there are documented stories of women watching the games disguised as men.

My trip to the museum was largely a success. Sport, and in particular running, are visible in the past, but only as part of a celebrated event like the Olympics. I was a little disappointed that evidence of recreational running was largely absent. It was only the one Ancient Egyptian carving of children running that suggested that people ran for reasons other than necessity or glory. This could be because there was no such thing as recreational running, or it might not have been deemed worthy of recording. It’s such a contrast to the present day where we find that many people of all abilities are not only running, but also documenting their running. It’s my feeling that people were running in the past. The events in the Olympics don’t spring from naught; they are inspired by the sports that people are already doing on their own either for fun or necessity. So, despite the lack of physical evidence that running took place in locations other than stadiums, I like to think that just like us, people in past societies also derived a pleasure from running.

Diana Valk has been a card carrying Serpie since she moved to London from the U.S in 2012. When she is not running she is thinking about bioarchaeology, Spanish verb conjugation, or the next book on her reading list.