The Charioteer of Delphi in the Clutches of WW II


Alexandra Kankeleit, an archaeologist who specializes in the study of Roman mosaics, has also been part of an extensive project of the German Archaeological Institute (Athens and Berlin), titled The History of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens during the National Socialist Era. As part of the project, she has examined a host of bibliographic and archival sources in both countries that document activities of German archaeologists in Greece from 1933 until 1944. Here she contributes an essay about the adventures of the Delphi Charioteer during the German Occupation in Greece.

The Charioteer of Delphi (Ο Ηνίοχος των Δελφών) is one of the best-preserved and most important bronze statues of ancient Greece. Since its discovery in 1896, it has been one of the main attractions of the Archaeological Museum in Delphi. As a symbol of ancient civilization and the eventful history of Greece, it is still a frequently recurring motif in the visual and performing arts (Figs. 1-2).

Fig. 1. Film still from “Ο Ηνίοχος” by Alexis Damianos (1996).
Fig. 2. Scene from a video game about the Oracle of Delphi.

During the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, the Charioteer was promoted together with the Discobolus of Myron and the Boxer of the Quirinal as the prototype of the Greek athlete in antiquity (see Olympia Zeitung 3, July 23, 1936, p. 46). Thus, his face adorned the covers of catalogs and propaganda material circulated in 1936 on the occasion of the Olympiad (Figs. 3-4).

Figs. 3-4. Publication “Sport der Hellenen” (Sport of the Hellenes) by Carl Blümel with a photograph by Hermann Wagner; and catalogue “Olympische Kunstausstellung Berlin, 15. Juli – 16. August 1936” (Olympic Art Exhibition Berlin, July 15 – August 16, 1936) with a graphic representation of the Charioteer by the Dresden artist, Willi Petzold in: “The XIth Olympic Games Berlin, 1936: Official Report, Vol. II

German scholars also increasingly turned their focus on the Early Classical masterpiece. In his Habilitation “Der Wagenlenker von Delphi” (The Charioteer of Delphi), the archaeologist Roland Hampe (1908-1981) pursued his goal of reducing the many “ambiguities, misunderstandings, differences of opinion” concerning the monumental bronze group. His manuscript was completed in August 1939 and published as a monograph in 1941 (Hampe 1941).

The Charioteer’s Odyssey

During the Second World War, the Delphi Charioteer suffered many trials and tribulations, as contemporary documents record. The investigation presented here was inspired by Kevin Andrews’s The Flight of Ikaros: Travels in Greece During a Civil War, published in 1959. This British-American archaeologist had visited the Athens National Museum only a few years after the liberation of Greece. In a touching report, he described the bleak situation in the empty museum rooms. In the office of the museum director he encountered, among other things, sherds and body parts of bronze statues that had been laid out there to dry:

In the director’s office, moist from long burial, the head, the shoulders and outstretched arm of the Charioteer of Delphi reposed in a single piece on a desk littered with potsherds awaiting classification; in a corner stood the green bronze legs up to the waist, straight and slender like a young tree sheared off below the branches.

Andrews 1959, 24; Andrews 2018, 5

These few sentences show the dramatic situation in which culture found itself in post-war Greece. The Charioteer, symbol of classical beauty and aloofness, lay wounded and helpless in an environment unworthy of him. Other great bronzes, such as the bronze statue of Poseidon, had suffered a similar fate due to the war. (For more on the bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon from the Artemision shipwreck, read: “The Artemision Shipwreck: Sinking into the ASCSA Archives.) I went in search of clues and wanted to find out how exactly the Delphi Charioteer had come to Athens.

World War II in Greece

The outbreak of World War II and the escalating conflict with the Italian government, which had been looming since 1939, had already led to a halt in excavations throughout Greece in June 1940 (Petrakos 1994, 73, 81-102). The Greco-Italian War broke out on October 28, 1940, and ended in 1941 with the defeat of the Italian aggressors. That event was followed, however, by an invasion by the German Wehrmacht (Defense Force) and the subsequent surrender of Greece in April 1941.

As early as October 1940, the Greek government was aware that the war with Italy would inevitably lead to a confrontation with Germany. Immediately after Metaxas’s famous “ΟΧΙ,” elaborate security measures were initiated and, in at least 18 museums, measures were taken to protect antiquities from bombing and looting (Petrakos 1994, 73).

In some cases, the protective measures were well documented through protocols and photographs. Especially in the center of Athens, every effort was made to bring the inventory of the museums to safety. The focus was on the National Archaeological Museum, the Acropolis Museum, the Numismatic Museum, the Byzantine Museum, and the Kerameikos Museum.

In the exhibition rooms of the National Museum of Athens, museum employees created deep trenches in which the marble sculptures were lined up and then covered with sand (Fig. 5). Showcases and exhibition halls were completely emptied (Fig. 6).

Fig. 5: Security measures in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens after October 30, 1940. Source: National Archaeological Museum, photo archive.
Fig. 6: Security measures in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens after October 30, 1940. Source: National Archaeological Museum, photo archive.

Sensitive objects made of ceramics or bronze were packed in shockproof containers and then hidden (Fig. 7). The coin collections were locked in bank vaults. In addition, high protective walls made of sandbags secured the museums and other historic buildings from the expected bomb attacks. The great time pressure and the fear of the approaching catastrophe made the people inventive. In some places, wells, graves, caves, or crevices were used as hiding places for the ancient works of art.

Fig. 7: Security measures in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens after October 30, 1940, the bronze statue from Artemision wrapped in tar paper. Source: National Archaeological Museum, photo archive.

When the “Kunstschutz” (Art Protection Department) of the German Wehrmacht arrived in Greece in April 1941, it noted the high level of professionalism in the implementation of security measures. Thus, the Art Protection officer in Greece wrote:

Finally, now the gratifying announcement that I have so far found no damage either to collections or to ruined sites. Most museum objects are carefully packed, the μάρμαρα even buried.

University Archive Cologne, Estate of Andreas Rumpf, Signature Access 364 No. 052, Hans von Schoenebeck to Andreas Rumpf, 27.04.1941.

His colleague and later successor Wilhelm Kraiker expressed a similar opinion:

Already at the outbreak of the Italian-Greek War, extensive protection measures had been taken by the Greek government to protect against bomb damage. They had been properly carried out in the larger museums, as the spot checks ordered by the Art Protection Department showed.

BArch RW40-116a, final report by Wilhelm Kraiker “Der Kunstschutz in Griechenland,“ 13.02.1945

Protective Measures

A document in the historical archives of the Greek Archaeological Service provides information about the protective measures taken for the Delphi Charioteer. Written on November 7, 1940, by the museum employee (and self-appointed curator) Alexandros E. Kontoleon (1859-1943), it is addressed to the Greek Ministry of Culture (then “Ministry of Religion and Public Education”) at Athens (fig. 8).

I have the honor to inform you that Fragiskos D. Pamphilou, foreman of the Ministry of Education, has brought the Charioteer [of Delphi] to the Epigraphic Museum with great care and caution. The famous and unique bronze statue was well and safely placed in the west corner of the museum. To further protect and secure this masterpiece, several plaster panels were placed in front of the statue, covering it completely. This work was very delicate and lengthy and was done with great care so that no damage was done to this unique work of art.
The Curator of Antiquities at Delphi
A. E. Kontoleon

Ministry of Culture Greece, File 586A

Fig. 8. Letter from Alexandros E. Kontoleon dated November 7, 1940. Source: Ministry of Culture Greece, File 586A.

This document shows that in Delphi protective measures were already taken within the first week of the War. Nonetheless, there is one not insignificant question. Which “Epigraphic Museum” was Kontoleon referring to? As is known, there is only one Epigraphic Museum in the whole of Greece and that is in Athens. Would the Charioteer really have been transferred to the Epigraphic Museum of Athens in November 1940? This would have been a unique and perhaps very critical action given the size and fragility of the Charioteer.

Fortunately, Vasilis Petrakos, the Secretary General of the Athens Archaeological Society, was able to shed light on the situation: “Alexandros Kontoleon refers to a magazine of the then Museum of Delphi as the Epigraphic Museum. It was an extension of the original building of [Andreas] Syngros. The magazine where the inscriptions were kept was located under the hall with the Naxian Sphinx. In 1959 I saw it still completely unchanged“ (Petrakos in an email on 09.03.2019).

Only a few days after the Charioteer was transferred to the magazine under the hall of the Naxian Sphinx, all previous measures had to be revised. On November 11, 1940, the staff of the Greek Archaeological Service received a circular from the Ministry of Religion and Public Education in which the guidelines for securing bronze sculptures and other sensitive objects were clearly defined (Petrakos 2013, 305; Paschalidis 2013; Sykka 2016).

According to this, bronzes were to be wrapped in wax paper (λαδόχαρτο or κερόχαρτο) or tar paper (πισσόχαρτο) and then hidden in wooden boxes in shockproof and watertight containers. The Charioteer was then disassembled into its component parts (Demangel 1944, 1-4, fig. 1), divided between two crates, and placed in a grotto in the sacred precinct of Delphi (Petrakos 1994, 93-94 with fig.; Petrakos 2021, vol. I, 26, 97). In dismantling the statue, those responsible were guided by the cuts and fractures that the statue had when it was found in the 19th century (pers. comm. Georgianna Moraitou, Head of Conservation Department at the National Archaeological Museum).

Situation in Greece After April 1941

During the Occupation (23.04.1941 to 12.10.1944) Greece was divided into three zones by the Axis powers: the two largest cities, Athens and Thessaloniki, several Aegean islands, and more than half of Crete remained in German hands. Bulgaria controlled northeastern Greece, eastern Macedonia, and northern Thrace. Italy was responsible for central Greece, the Peloponnese, the Ionian Islands, and large parts of the Aegean until September 1943. Delphi was, therefore, in the Italian Zone of Occupation. Although Italy controlled most of Greece in terms of area, the influence and supremacy of the German Wehrmacht were clearly felt throughout the country.

Thus, Delphi was a popular destination for German soldiers during the Occupation, which is well documented by private photographs and the leaflets of the Kunstschutz in Greece (“Merkblätter für den deutschen Soldaten an den geschichtlichen Stätten Griechenlands”): German soldiers in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and in front of Athenian Treasury. Comparable evidence for Italian soldiers at Delphi is not known to date.


Despite the initial positive assessment of the security measures in the Greek museums, the Art Protection Commissioner Hans-Ulrich von Schoenebeck (1904-1944) expressed fundamental criticism as early as July 1941:

One of the most important tasks, of course, is to determine the damage. Some has occurred, of course, but, thank God, objects of real value are not destroyed. Much more serious is the damage caused by full-scale rescue efforts, which has been carried out with the same conscientiousness and comprehensive completeness as a total war, at least in theory. Even the most insignificant provincial Roman reliefs have been buried up to seven meters under the ground. In the process, of course, the misstep occurred that in the end the money was no longer enough and, for example, the god of the sea [the bronze statue from Artemision] was buried under a meager pile of sand. […] How the Greek state will ever compensate for the partly catastrophic damages of these large-scale rescue operations is unclear. Where the funds are to come from, which will run into millions of Reichsmarks, is unclear. Probably the Greeks presupposed their victory and, in the worst case, thought of the generous gifts of Americans, etc.

UAK, Andreas Rumpf Archive, Signatur Zugang 364 Nr. 052, Hans von Schoenebeck to Andreas Rumpf, 04.07.1941

The same opinion was expressed three years later by Wilhelm Kraiker (1899-1987): “Since the rescue operations had to be carried out in a very short time according to the order of the Greek Minister of Culture at the time and often lacked expert personnel, they were sometimes carried out improperly (Kerameikos in Athens, Olympia, Salonika), so that in some cases considerable and in some cases irreparable damage was caused. This damage caused by improper preservation efforts is in any case greater than the damage caused by combat operations” (Metternich Estate No. 102, “Report on Military Art Protection in Greece” by Military Administrative Councillor Kraiker, 20.07.1944).

Von Schoenebeck was subsequently to exert massive pressure on the Greek antiquities administration – both verbally and in writing. In doing so, he focused primarily on Athens and demanded that his Greek colleagues bring all antiquities out of their hiding places and put the museums back into operation.

Petrakos has thoroughly documented the exchange of blows between the Greek authorities and the German Kunstschutz in his publications (Petrakos 1994, 125-128; Petrakos 2013, 344-360; Petrakos 2021). In the documents he cites, von Schoenebeck together with the archaeologist and cultural attaché of the German Legation, Erich Boehringer, played a decisive role on the German side. On the Greek side, Minister of Education, Konstantinos Logothetopoulos (1878-1961), and Ministerial Director, archaeologist Antonios Keramopoulos (1870-1960), were responsible for the processes.

According to Petrakos, the decisive actions were as follows:

  • On July 22, 1941, the Minister of Economy, Sotirios Gotzamanis, rejected a request by Logothetopoulos to allocate 1,000,000 drachmas for the reopening of the museums. He considered it safer if the antiquities remained in their hiding places.
  • On August 5, 1941, a senior officer of the German military administration in Greece, Franz Alfred Medicus, asked the Greek Antiquities Authority to draw up a list of all hidden antiquities. The Athenian museums were to be made accessible, and the Art Protection Department, represented by von Schönebeck, was to receive increased support.
  • On August 27, 1941, Medicus received a reply in which he was informed in no uncertain terms of the dramatic situation in the country. The author, presumably Keramopoulos, made it clear that the Greek population was struggling with the consequences of the war, famine, and other survival problems. They simply lacked the means to recover the ancient art treasures. The museum pieces would not be in danger anyway. In fact, the mild winters and clement climatic conditions in Greece would have helped them survive thousands of years underground (Petrakos 2013, 334-336).
  • On September 29, 1941, Logothetopoulos announced to the directors of the National Archaeological Museum and the Akropolis Museum that von Schönebeck would visit them, “so that he could check whether the antiquities were suffering from damp or any other cause” (Ministry of Culture, Greece, File 586A).

The Germans continued to put pressure on the Greek authorities to bring out the buried antiquities but Logothetopoulos refused to oblige. The theft of an archaic clay tablet (“pinax”) from the reopened Kerameikos Museum (November 9, 1941), presumably by a member of the Wehrmacht, and some illegal excavations on Crete, in which employees of the Kunstschutz were involved, did nothing to strengthen the confidence of the Greek archaeologists in the German Kunstschutz.

In July 1942, von Schoenebeck left Greece. Kraiker, who had worked closely with him, continued his pursuit.

The Charioteer Goes to Athens

On August 31, 1942, Logothetopoulos asked Keramopoulos to go to Delphi as soon as possible, in order to supervise the exhumation (εκταφήν) of the Charioteer and its transportation to Athens so that all necessary conservation work could be carried out there (Ministry of Culture, Greece, File 568Δ).

The transportation of the Charioteer to Athens in September 1942 was followed by protests from the local population in the Delphi area (I owe this information to film director Vasilis Kosmopoulos, who evaluated newspapers and eyewitness accounts). Also, the “kidnapping” of the statue is said to have contributed to the premature death of the local curator Alexandros E. Kontoleon.

Shortly thereafter, the Ministry assigned a committee to examine the contents of the two crates that contained the pieces of the Charioteer. The members of the committee were: Athanasios Sophianopoulos, Professor at the Technical University, Christos Karouzos, Director of the National Archaeological Museum, Irini Varoucha-Christodoulopoulou, Ephor of Antiquities, and Phoebus Stavropoulos, also an Ephor of Antiquities. The Art Protection Department was not represented, according to the ensuing report (Ministry of Culture, Greece, File 568Δ). After the examination, the statue was neither reassembled nor exhibited.

Restoration and Return

Although never on display during WW II, the Delphi Charioteer was featured in the leaflets of the Kunstschutz, as well as in an elaborate commemorative book by Schoenebeck and Kraiker, titled Hellas (1943) [Figs. 9-10].

Figs. 9-10. Hellas, draft of the title page (Metternich estate) and the Charioteer photographed by Hermann Wagner.

After the War ended, a lack of communication led to numerous rumors about the whereabouts of the Charioteer. The communist newspaper Aπελευθερωτής (Liberator) held Keramopoulos responsible for its loss (Ministry of Culture, Greece, file 568Δ).

Fig. 10: Title page of newspaper ΑΠΕΛΕΥΘΕΡΩΤΗΣ, 09.11.1944.

It is not known how these rumors and accusations were debunked. In any case, the National Archaeological Museum was able to begin the restoration of its bronze statues in 1945 (Moraitou 2016, 242 fig. 4, 244 fig. 7, 245 fig. 8). As early as 1946, the Charioteer was presented in a provisional exhibition of the National Archaeological Museum. Unfortunately, there are no photos or more detailed reports from that time. All the more important is the eyewitness account of the then 14-year-old Vasilis Petrakos, who visited the museum after the war:

The Charioteer was transported to Athens for his own protection during the Occupation. After the war I saw him, I think in 1946, in a temporary exhibition of the National Museum, [then] with entrance from Tositsa Street. He was brought back to Delphi late because the region was not safe because of the civil war. It was provisionally exhibited until the completion of the [new] museum, 1959-1960. […]

Emails from Petrakos dated 30.10.2018 and 04.09.2019; and Petrakos 2011, XIII: there 1948; Petrakos 2021, vol. II 329.

Despite the civil war and unrest throughout the country, the reopening of the National Archaeological Museum was perceived by the people of Athens as a triumph and sign of a gradual return to normality. As a symbol of Greece’s ancient heritage and political independence, the Charioteer was even depicted on the Bank of Greece’s 10,000 Drachma notes in 1947 (Fig. 11).

Fig. 11: 10,000 drachma notes with the Delphi Charioteer printed, 1947. Source: Bank of Greece, Center for Culture, Research & Documentation.

After the end of the civil war and the completion of its restoration, the famous statue returned to Delphi in 1951. Since then, it has been a prime attraction for researchers and tourists from all over the world.

Author’s Note

This text is an abridged and slightly revised version of an essay published in German and Greek in 2021. A detailed list of literary and other sources can be found here. Numerous individuals and institutions assisted me in my research. In particular, I would like to mention Vasilis Petrakos (Secretary General of the Athens Archaeological Society), Anastasia Pesmatzoglou (Bank of Greece, Athens), colleagues at the Historical Archives of the Greek Ministry of Culture, the National Museum of Athens, and the German Archaeological Institute of Athens. To all of them, I owe my gratitude for important advice and stimulating conversations! I am solely responsible for the translations as well as possible errors.


  • BArch: Bundesarchiv (Federal Archives) in Berlin
  • DAI Athen: Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Department in Athens
  • Metternich Estate: Landschaftsverband Rheinland – Archivberatungs- und Fortbildungszentrum (LVR-AFZ), Archiv des Landschaftsverbandes Rheinland (ALVR), Pulheim LVR-Kulturzentrum Abtei Brauweiler, Nachlass Franziskus Wolff Metternich
  • Ministry of Culture Greece: Ministry of Culture and Sport (Υπουργείο Πολιτισμού και Αθλητισμού), Historical Archive of Antiquities and Restorations (Ιστορικό Αρχείο Αρχαιοτήτων και Αναστηλώσεων), ΥΠΠΟΑ/ΔΔΕΑΜ/ΤΔΙΑΑΑ: Υπουργείο Πολιτισμού και Αθλητισμού / Διεύθυνση Διαχείρισης Εθνικού Αρχείου Μνημείων / Τμήμα Διαχείρισης Ιστορικού Αρχείου Αρχαιοτήτων και Αναστηλώσεων
  • National Archaeological Museum: National Archaeological Museum in Athens (Εθνικό Αρχαιολογικό Μουσείο της Αθήνας)
  • UAK: Universitätsarchiv Köln (University Archive Cologne)


Andrews, K. 1959. The Flight of Ikaros. A Journey into Greece, London.
——. 2018. Η πτήση του Ικάρου. Ταξιδεύοντας στην Ελλάδα του Εμφυλίου (trans. by D. Risaki), Athens.
Demangel, R. 1944. “Aspect de guerre du musée de Delphes,” BCH 68-69, 1944-1945, 1-4.
Hampe, R. 1941. Der Wagenlenker von Delphi, Munich.
Moraitou, G. 2016. “Η «Οδύσσεια» της συντήρησης και της φυσικοχημικής έρευνας των αρχαιοτήτων στο Εθνικό Αρχαιολογικό Μουσείο,” in Οδύσσειες. Κατάλογος έκθεσης Υπουργείο Πολιτισμού και Αθλητισμού Εθνικό Αρχαιολογικό Μουσείο, ed. M. Lagogianni-Georgakarakou, Athens, 237-260.
Paschalidis, K. 2013. Τα θαμμένα αγάλματα του πολέμου, LIFO, 28/3/2013.
Petrakos, V. 1977. Δελφοί, Athens.
——1994. “Tα αρχαία της Eλλάδος κατά τον πόλεμο 1940-1944,” Mentor 7:31, 69-185.
——1995. H περιπέτεια της ελληνικής αρχαιολογίας στο βίο του Xρήστου Kαρούζου, Athens.
——2011. Σέμνης Καρούζου, Ἀρχαιολογικὰ Θέματα ΙΙ, Athens.
——2013. Πρόχειρον Αρχαιολογικόν 1828-2012 (Athens 2013).
——2021. Το παρελθόν σε δεσμά. Vols. I-IV (Athens 2021).
Schoenebeck, H. and W. Kraiker (eds), 1943. Hellas: Bilder zur Kultur des Griechentums, Burg near Magdeburg.
Sykka, G. 2016. “Στιγμές από ένα τιτάνιο έργο σε καιρό πολέμου,” Kathimerini, 26/10/2016.

5 Comments on “The Charioteer of Delphi in the Clutches of WW II”

  1. Another fascinating article. Thank you, Natalia!

  2. Anna P. Judson says:

    Interesting post! Evi Touloupa mentions unpacking the Charioteer after the war in this video

  3. […] The Charioteer of Delphi in the Clutches of WWII […]

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