BMCR 2001.10.24

Athens: The City beneath the City: Antiquities from the Metropolitan Railway Excavations

, , , , , , Athens, the city beneath the city : antiquities from the Metropolitan Railway excavations. Athens: N.P. Goulandris Foundation, Museum of Cycladic Art, 2001. 413 pages : color illustrations, maps (some color) ; 31 cm. ISBN 0810967251. $65.00.

With the construction of the Athens-Piraeus Electric Railway in 1871 Athens became one of the first European cities to possess urban rail transport. Twenty years later the line was extended into the heart of the city, its route running, as luck would have it, across the northern side of the ancient agora. Archaeologists observed its construction, recovering such significant monuments as the Bryaxis base and the Altar of Demos and the Graces, as well as recording traces of foundations as they emerged from the soil. But, as Homer Thompson remarked, “Conditions were far from ideal for the archaeologist, and no systematic record has been preserved” (Thompson and Wycherley 1972: 222). The limited amount of excavation that had previously taken place in the city also made it difficult to interpret what came to light.

In the 1990’s, spurred by the need for improved public transportation in a growing and increasingly polluted city as well as the prospect of a huge influx of visitors for the Olympic Games, scheduled for 2004, Athens embarked on a new and much more ambitious round of subway building. In consideration of the archaeological riches of Athenian topsoil, the tunnels would run deep underground, through bedrock. Nonetheless, the construction of stations and ventilation shafts would require an archaeological rescue project unlike anything that Athens had ever seen. Large areas located within the perimeter of the ancient settlement and its nearby territory had to be investigated archaeologically to make way for the engineers. As the project developed, archaeologists uncovered roadways, cemeteries, sewers, baths, casting pits, kilns, and other immovable structures, and recovered as well a vast trove of the debris of everyday Athenian life, spanning a period of nearly four millennia. To commemorate this achievement and to share its results with Athenians of the present and their visitors, Liana Parlama (Director of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities) and Nicholas Stampolides (Director of the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art) have collaborated in curating an exhibition of some 450 representative objects from the excavation. The exhibit went on display in the Goulandris Museum in February of 2000, accompanied by a handsome catalogue, the English translation of which is the subject of this review.

Brief introductions by the curators give an overview of the extent of excavation (Parlama) and the organizing principles of the exhibit (Stampolides). We learn that archaeologists were charged with the examination of the sites of eleven stations and seven shafts and investigated an area amounting to over 60,000 square meters. Some of the architectural remains that they uncovered have been preserved in situ, while plans are afoot to move others to new locations. The exhibition, however, is chiefly devoted to movable objects (although one archaeological feature, the grave of a dog, has been included), of which over 30,000 were recovered. Rather than concentrating on spectacular objects, the curators have aimed at providing a representative sample of these finds, a decision that has turned the exhibit into a fascinating window into the lives of Athenians of the past.

The curators chose to organize the exhibit topographically, stressing the contexts of the objects and the relationship of the places excavated to the ancient city as a whole—a decision that makes their display, and this book, all the more valuable as documentation of ancient Athens. The volume is divided into chapters, each devoted to the excavation and objects from one of thirteen sites (the other sites either produced no archaeological material or are still under investigation). An essay by one of the archaeologists in charge summarizing the discoveries made on the site introduces each chapter. A plan of each site and generous color photographs of the stationary remains are provided, but the archaeological commentary is brief, as befits a volume of this sort. The focus is rather on the objects, which are presented in catalogue form, each fully illustrated in color; photographs of the objects in situ, which further stress their contexts, are also included in many cases. Grave- and well-groups are presented together, so that the reader can not only admire some attractive and interesting objects but can also appreciate how those objects functioned together. For many of the grave-groups, catalogue entries are preceded by detailed account of the interment. Each entry includes a full description as well as commentary, which (depending on the nature of the individual object) is sometimes lengthy; the scholarship is thorough, up to date, and fully documented. Anyone curious about any one of these objects will have no trouble pursuing further study.

Each site has its own particular character. Only one (“Akropolis”—actually some distance from the citadel, at the junction of Makriyannis and Dionysios the Areopagite Streets) lies within the walls of the ancient city, and it provides a rich picture of long-term urban development, analogous to that presented by excavations in the residential areas around the ancient agora. It also produced the earliest objects displayed, pottery from two Middle Helladic graves. Other sites are remarkable for the insights they provide into the infrastructure of the ancient city. For example, long stretches of the aqueduct that supplied water to the late archaic and classical city were discovered at three sites (Syntagma, Herodes Attikos, and Evangelismos), and several excavations explored the long history of Athenian roads. Evidence of industrial activity was widespread: for example, a cluster of Hellenistic kilns at the Evangelismos site; remains of a large bronze foundry at Syntagma Square; and, more unusually, a kiln for the production of the red pigment miltos at the Akropolis site. Bath buildings at the Zappeion and Syntagma sites served the needs of late antique Athenians, while another bath and fragments of Early Christian mosaic floors came to light at the Akropolis site.

The most common type of monument explored, however, was the grave: close to 2000 were uncovered, ranging from the Middle Helladic to the Byzantine era, revealing new burial grounds and expanding our knowledge of others that were already known. The striking absence of Hellenistic burials lends credence to the hypothesis that the population of Athens declined significantly during that period. Of particular interest are two mass burials unearthed at the Kerameikos site. One has been interpreted as a pit for victims of the plague that devastated Athens in 430/29 and 427/6. This conclusion, supported by the large number of skeletons and their irregular placement, has consequences for the chronology of this important period that will take time to explore fully. As the commentary is at pains to point out, the pit contained a lekythos by the Reed Painter (no. 385), an artisan whose work has hitherto been placed closer to the end of the 5th century. This deposit, then, poses a classic archaeological problem: the coordination of the relative chronology of material culture with the absolute chronology of the historical accounts. The connection, if it can indeed be established here, will add a valuable fixed point to the chronology of 5th-century Athens. A second burial, with bodies more regularly arranged, is thought to relate to some event during the course of the Peloponnesian War. Whether or not an association with the great and traumatic events of Athens’ Classical past can be maintained, the skeletal material from these and the other burials will provide a wealth of information about the health of ancient Athenians.

Although major works of art are not the focus of the exhibit, some remarkable objects are included. Notable among them is the head of a late Archaic bronze statue found embedded in a block of later date (no. 181), a haunting discovery that sheds new light on the ways in which Athenians recycled their own past. Another item that will command widespread interest is a stele commemorating cavalrymen killed in the Peloponnesian War (no. 452), found in excavations for the Palaiologou Shaft, near the Larissa Railway Station, and probably originating in the Demosion Sema.

Mostly, however, these objects tell more mundane stories. The collection is dominated by pottery—as ever, the commonest find—lamps, and terra cotta figurines. A few graves produced jewelry, glass, and bronze objects of considerable interest. There is a scattering of sculpture—grave monuments, statues and statuettes of gods and mortals, including a fine early Roman portrait (no. 173)—and a series of coins (among which is the latest object displayed, a gold solidus of Justinian II dated to 705 C.E. [no. 178]). In fact, the selection is pretty much typical of what normally comes to light in excavations of an ancient Greek site. As such, the exhibit gives a better picture than almost any other museum display of the typical results of excavation: not, on the whole, glamorous, but profoundly evocative of the existence of those who came before us. There are instances where previous archaeological hypothesis has been overturned by these humble finds. For example, two ritual pyres found in the Akropolis station excavation (pp. 92-103) date a century and more later than any other deposits of this type, and extend the life of this puzzling Athenian ritual into the late Hellenistic period. A Hellenistic tomb at the Kerameikos provides the earliest context known to me for a white-ground lagynos (no. 438), an artifact widespread in the eastern Mediterranean in the later Hellenistic period. These and many other small gains in our understanding of ancient Athenian material culture emerge from these objects.

But this is the catalogue of an exhibition, not a final publication and analysis of the excavations. Its job is far more limited, and it does it extremely well. The illustrations are lavish, almost all of them in color. The only serious omission is a plan of Athens with the excavation sites marked; unless one is very familiar with the city, the locations of such places as the church of St. John the Hunter or the neighborhood of Koukaki will not spring to mind. The translation from the original Greek catalogue is readable and accurate, although the use of “Heridanos” in place of Eridanos for one of Athens’ rivers is decidedly peculiar. I noticed only one seriously misleading sentence (on p. 53, where mistranslation of the ambiguous Greek pronoun κανείς reverses the meaning, asserting that “no-one can now see the arched buttress” of the back wall of the Stoa of Eumenes, which in fact constitute a prominent feature of the south slope of the Akropolis).

The exhibition makes a tacit and perhaps unintended comment on the nature of rescue excavation and hence on the nature of archaeology in the late 20th century. In his introductory essay, Stampolides estimates the extent of the excavations at over 60,000 square meters. The total area reported on in this volume, vast as it seems, is only about a third of that, a puzzling discrepancy that, if it is not a misprint, points to a much greater scale of excavation than is presented here. (As a measure of comparison, excavation at the Athenian agora since 1931 has explored about 120,000 square meters.) And the objects on display, about 1.5% of the total recovered, clearly represent only the tiniest of iceberg tips. The staffs of the 1st and 3rd Ephoreias, then, have a weighty task ahead of them, if this material is to be mined to its full extent for information about ancient Athens. It is to be hoped that the Greek government will support that phase of the work as lavishly as it supported this exhibition, enabling the archaeologists to carry their project to its termination in full scholarly publication.

The building of the Athens Metro required collaboration, concessions, and negotiation among many groups, most pointedly, in this connection, between the engineers charged with the timely construction of the network and the archaeologists dedicated to the preservation of the material remains of Athens’ past. Even in this carefully worded volume, the predictable tensions emerge. It is well known, from accounts in the daily papers as the drama unfolded, that there were some archaeological victories, most signally the abandonment of the Kerameikos Station as archaeologists argued that it posed too grave a threat to important monuments. There must also have been defeats. Archaeology, as every student is repeatedly told, is destruction, and one cannot help but wonder how much must, inevitably, have been lost to bring Athens her much needed subsurface transportation. Be that as it may, Athens now possesses a subway that not only allows one to ride through an excavation (the train has long provided views of the northern side of the agora excavations on its run between the Omonia and Theseion stations), but also one where many of the new stations incorporate small museums, with objects and interpretive displays that allow commuters to visit the past as they hurry towards their futures. There are plans to provide a permanent home for the objects currently on display once the current exhibition (scheduled to run to December 2001) is finished, so that what has been rescued may remain a permanent reminder of the wealth of Athens’ past.


H. A. Thompson and R. E. Wycherley, 1972. The Agora of Athens: The History, Shape and Uses of an Ancient City Center (The Athenian Agora XIV), Princeton.