Unearthing Athens’ Underworld

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

On an October afternoon in 1997, a TV reporter was interviewing the owner of a streetside kiosk in downtown Athens about traffic snarls caused by excavations for the city’s new subway. As the owner spoke, his kiosk began to sink behind him: like some dry-docked Titanic of cigarettes,newspapers and packaged snacks, the little booth disappeared into the netherworld. The Tunnel Boring Machine—or TBM—had struck again.

No one ever assumed that drilling a subway beneath the Greek capital would be easy, but this was carrying things a bit far. At the time of the disappearing kiosk, the TBM—a huge, mole-like mechanical disk armed with steel teeth—was advancing under Panepistimiou Avenue in the heart of downtown Athens, chewing its way through a subsoilprimly qualified by engineers as “inhomogeneous,” which means changing unpredictably from rock to earth to sand to sponge cake.

As striking as it was to watch a kiosk disappear, far more troubling to city fathers was the loss of a 45-foot section of the third-century a.d. Valerian Wall in the National Gardens.That ancient landmark, bearing the name of the Roman emperor who reigned during its construction, began to slump away when the TBM passed underneath. Both incidents illustrate the unique problems facing planners who, in the early 1990s, promised to have an ultramodern underground transportation network installed in time for the 2004 Olympic Games.

Zeus knows Athens needed it. Over the past three decades, the number of cars in the city has exploded by an estimated 2,000 percent, making it one of the most traffic jammedand horribly polluted on the continent. You can still hear the creaky song of cicadas in the plane trees, and the perfumes of honeysuckle and jasmine are not absent from the Athenian air, but the prevailing municipal aromais automobile exhaust.

So while a metro was decidedly in order, digging into the place where classical civilization flourished represented a daunting challenge. Beneath every famous site where tourists wander today are traces of continuous habitation from the Neolithic period to the present. The subway would be not only Greece’s greatest urban public-works project but also the country’s most important archaeological dig ever. No less than 50 archaeologists and several hundred laborers were assigned to the endeavor.

By ordaining that excavation would be conducted at a depth of 65 feet, the planners were confident that the TBM would pass safely below the level of the ancient city and its precious artifacts. But even the most archaeologically correct metro requires stations and ventilation shafts. Certain stations in the heart of old Athens would have to be dug, essentially, by hand.

“The power of the archaeologists was very heavy,” says Eftimios Bakas, the dynamic, crew-cutted young spokesman for Attiko Metro, as the subway system authority is known. “We had to respect history, so the Ministry of Culture had an eye on everything. The archaeological digs doubled and sometimes even tripled our delays.”

But, says Dimitris Plantzos, curator of the Museum of Cycladic Art (which last year exhibited 514 of the most significant finds from the 30,000 or so unearthed in the first years of the dig, which began in 1992), there were no Pompeiis, no entire settlements uncovered virtually intact. Whatwas found were vases, amphorae and oil lamps, coins a plenty, including bronze pieces and a hefty gold solid us issued by Emperor Justinian II (a.d. 705) and, more movingly, a couple of gold danakes, pseudo coins from Hellenistic-period grave sites, buried with the deceased to pay their fare to the underworld. Much of what survived in perfect condition had been buried in the first place. Within this category, even the most commonplace and utilitarian finds could be intriguing, including many drainage and water-supply pipes of clay and terra-cotta from the fifth and sixth centuries b.c. The conduits, beautifully designed with lipped joints, either coupled dry or sealed with lead, feature consecutive sections coded in alphabetical sequence and fitted with sophisticated removable lids over access holes for cleaning and maintenance. Piping of this sort was used to link reservoirs in both Hellenistic and Roman times.

One of the most touching discoveries was the carefullyconstructed grave—terra-cotta walls, tile floor—of a dog, obviouslysomeone’s cherished pet. The little woofer was sentoff on his last journey reposing on his left side, a collarstudded with embellished copper disks fastened around hisneck and two perfume flasks placed lovingly on the floor next to him.

Grave sites, of course, are prime sources of discoveries for archaeologists everywhere. If most of the hundreds uncovered in the metro digs were neat and orderly (and it takes a strong heart not to be moved by the large pots, amphorae or storage jars in which little children were buried), one site from the dig for the Kerameikos subway station presented a ghastly contrast. Excavators there discovered the skeletons of at least 150 men, women and children thrown pell-mell into a pit, without the least ceremony or mark of respect.The remains dated from 430-420 b.c., when plague was upon the land. If anyone ever doubted the accuracy of the description that Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, left of those grim days in Athens, this common grave offered eloquent proof: “The calamity which weighed upon them was so overpowering that men, not knowing what was to become of them, became careless of all law, sacred as well as profane. . . . The customs which they had hitherto observed regarding burial were thrown into confusion,and they buried their dead each one as he could.”

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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