Unearthing Athens' Underworld

Throughout the decade-long construction of the city's new metro, archaeologists have found a trove of treasures

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The two most prized discoveries came to light not during the large-scale excavations for stations, but when two ventilation shafts were being dug near the National Gardens.A first-century B.C. bronze statuette, 11 inches high, of a standing youth is a perfect example of pure late-Hellenistic classicism. Found at the bottom of a well in the Zappeion shaft, it was close to intact. Only the index and pinkie fingers of the right hand had been broken and the nose slightly squashed. The graceful posture, the large, almond-shaped eyes and the dreamy gaze suggest either a deity or an athlete at rest.

An equally extraordinary find was a fifth-century B.C.bronze head, uncovered in a shaft at the northeastern edge of the National Gardens. Although badly corroded and covered with a verdigris patina, the masculine visage is haunting. Rugged features and the impassive gaze of still intact bone-and-polished-stone eyes project an aura of strength that only hints at how dramatic the full statue must have been.

“A masterpiece,” said Plantzos simply. “We date it from about 480 B.C., after the Battle of Salamis. The figure represented an athlete or a soldier. What is even more interesting is that while the statue itself was destroyed—bronze was generally recycled—the head was rediscovered in the second century a.d. and set into a block of stone, perhaps as a guardian deity at the entrance to an important building.”With the potential for turning up such treasures, the archaeologists were not likely to concede so much as an inch to the engineers, particularly at the proposed Kerameikos station. Lying just outside the ancient city walls northwest of the Acropolis, Kerameikos, meaning Potter’s Quarter,was named for the many ceramic workshops clustered there. Thucydides called it the most beautiful suburb of ancient Athens. But Kerameikos was also the location of the ancient city’s most important cemeteries. And when it became apparent that topography, as well as the routing of lines between stations, dictated that any tunnel at Kerameikos would have to be dug at a depth of only 30 feet,archaeologists appealed to the European Commission in Brussels to stop it. In the end, the station was abandoned,requiring a 2,600-foot detour.

Today the Athens subway is essentially finished, with 19stations and 11 miles of lines reaching out toward the suburb sand converging in the center of town. One last link and station will be completed next year. When the hundreds of thousands of visitors expected for the Olympics flood into the city 21 months from now, they will discover stations shimmering with the pure marble that is almost as common to Athens as concrete is to New York City. Some of the stations could pass for mini-museums, with their displays of ancient statuary, gravestones, amphorae, oil lamps, vases and other vestiges of everyday life thousands of years ago.

“These exhibits are a reward to the Athenians who have lived through the mess of this project for almost ten years,”says Plantzos. “Many have probably never taken the trouble to visit the Acropolis, but now you’ll see them contemplating the exhibits. They are as proud of their antiquities as they are of their football clubs.”

And just in case—in another 2,500 years—archaeologists dig again under this preeminently history-rich city, Attiko Metro has left behind a nice surprise. Somewhere between Syntagma and Monastiraki stations, engineers abandoned a gargantuan TBM that was too costly to dismantle and cart away. I like to imagine these future investigators smiling with patronizing admiration for people who could do such good work with such primitive equipment.


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