BMCR 2002.03.24

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.

[Disclaimer: Dimitris Plantzos, Curator, Museum of Cycladic Art, is a long time friend and colleague of the reviewer. He played a significant role as Assistant Editor of the exhibition catalogue and as a member of the project’s Managing Committee. He should be thanked for arranging copies of the book for review, and for providing this reviewer with detailed information about the exhibition. As well, architect Bessie Drounga, who was in charge of design and lighting, kindly provided a plan of the exhibition.]

Regular visitors to Athens over the past few years, not to mention her permanent residents, have eagerly anticipated the completion of the new underground railway. The Archaeological Service excavations (of the 3rd and 1st Ephorates) associated with this city-wide project were no doubt met with a certain degree of pride and excitement, inspired by rumors of what lies beneath, combined with frustration for the disruption of daily life. With the Attiko Metro up and running, though not fully finished, the city’s commuters, tourists, and archaeologists will never again experience Athens in quite the same way. One might even imagine a revision for measuring time in the Athens of the new millennium as aptly before the Metro and after the Metro.

These major events of building, expansion, and discovery are commemorated by the efforts of Liana Parlama (Director of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, Ministry of Culture) and Nicholas Stampolidis (Professor of Classical Archaeology, University of Crete, and Director of the Museum of Cycladic Art), who have jointly curated the exhibition “Athens: The City Beneath the City” and edited the accompanying catalogue. The project was organised by the Greek Ministry of Culture and the N.P. Goulandris Foundation, and the objects were displayed at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, 29 February 2000-31 December 2001. The catalogue, published in conjunction with the exhibition, appeared first in Greek with the same title η πόλι κάτω από την πόλι. The English version came slightly later and is distributed outside Greece by Abrams. The truly collaborative nature of such an undertaking is made clear by the acknowledgment of a good-size work team of archaeological scholars and authors, museum conservators and technicians. The generous illustrations found throughout the text, including materials displayed as part of the exhibition, photographs from the excavations, technical drawings and plans, are of the highest quality, and make this book both a bargain and a necessity.1

The exhibition, now ended, deserves brief mention here. It was held in the attractive neo-classical surroundings of the Stathatos mansion, known as the museum’s New Wing since 1991. The six and a half rooms used for display featured only a handful (514 in total) of the vast quantity of material uncovered (“a total of over 30,000 moveable objects”) during the course of excavation at the sites of future stations and ventilation shafts. It is evident that highlighted finds were chosen for their significance as archaeological data as well as for their artistic quality. Some installations, such as a dog burial found at the site of Syntagma Station (p. 157, fig. 10, no. 162-164), complete with bronze-studded collar and grave goods, were particularly ambitious and informative. In keeping with the latest scholarly trends, objects were not exhibited by medium and kind, but rather “so as to give prominence to their place of discovery” (p. 2). This was made explicit with the aid of wall texts, photographs, drawings, projections, and reconstructions to aid visitors, be they locals or tourists, scholars or students, Greeks or others. The display cases, coded by color and shape, denoted the category and place of origin of their contents, respectively. Thus cases painted with backgrounds of blue, the color of the horizon and of the Aegean, contained remains related to public and private life, while light brown represented the shafts in which “Peisistratean” water pipelines were built (cf. no. 30). At the same time, rectangular cases referred to buildings, and semi-cylindrical ones to water wells. In his introductory essay entitled “The Exhibition ‘The City Beneath the City'” (pp. 23-26), Professor Stampolidis describes the way in which “two planes of presentation evolved”, one “horizontal” and one “vertical”, in order to illuminate the public and private lives of the ancients as well as to emphasize the archaeological field work conducted at each station-site. Although such complexities may have been lost on the average viewer, one will have left remarkably better informed on the subjects of burial customs and water works, and the exhibition’s theme of topography.

The published catalogue follows more or less the form and presentation of the exhibition, though on a somewhat grander scale. Two short introductory essays summarize the excavations (Parlama) and the exhibition (Stampolidis), and set the stage for the mass of textual and visual material to follow. The unnumbered chapter headings designate excavation sites, most of which represent familiar landmarks to any person acquainted with Athens: Metro stations (Acropolis, Agios Ioannis, Syntagma, Evangelismos, Akadimia, Kerameikos) alternate with ventilation shafts (Petmeza, Zappeion, Herodou Attikou, Amerikis, Ermou-Arionos, Iakhou, Palaiologou). Each section in turn opens with the excavator’s detailed introduction, such as an account of Acropolis Station by Peter Kalligas (pp. 29-39). A total of 452 finds from the sites under discussion are offered by provenance in catalogue form, each entry complete with a color photograph, dimensions, detailed description, commentary, and bibliography. The labor is divided by 32 authors, which results in some inconsistency in presentation and content. Sections vary greatly in length and quantity of finds — with Acropolis and Kerameikos Stations being the longest and having the most — and no doubt reflect the actual size and scale of the excavations conducted. In the absence of a map placing the excavation sites in the context of the modern city, not to mention the Metro lines and stops themselves, a visit to the Attiko Metro interactive website http//: is strongly recommended to better comprehend the overall project and its published results. Indeed, this multi-purpose book appeals to a diverse audience: excavation report to the archaeologist, exhibition catalogue to the art historian, and coffee-table adornment to the proud Athenian or enamoured tourist.

The range of finds dating from Mycenaean through Byzantine times is an appropriate combination of the expected, quintessentially Athenian (e.g. white-ground lekythoi) and a few less-familiar surprises (e.g. toy horse [no. 53]; inscribed allotment plate [no. 137]; cinerary urn encased in stone [no. 350-351]). An impressive variety of artistic media (i.e. ivory, bone, glass, faience) and artefact types (i.e. mosaics, lamps, coins, jewellery) occur alongside everyday, domestic items (e.g. mortar and pestle, quern and rubber [nos. 85-90]) or those with seemingly ritual or religious functions (e.g. bronze incense shovel [no. 64]). Figure-decorated and plain pottery reveal the full range of forms and dates, with a welcome amount of Protoattic to be added to the existing corpus (nos. 249ff.). Sculpture of both stone and bronze enjoys a certain pride of place, evident by the choice of the 1st c. AD marble youth (no. 170) for the catalogue’s dust-jacket and, along with the 2nd c. AD marble statuette of Athena (no. 171) and the Severe-style bronze head (no. 181), comprise the cover art for promotional literature and brochures printed for the exhibition. Perhaps for obvious reasons the sculpted and inscribed stele (no. 452), produced as a monument to the Athenian cavalry who fell at the battles of Spartolos, Tanagra, and Megara, receives a lengthy write-up, as it was exhibited front and center in the museum entrance hall.

On the whole, only minimal criticism of such an ambitious and multi-faceted project is needed here. There might have been more coordination between catalogue entries and, in places, updated bibliography in languages other than Greek might have been helpful. A noticeable example is the superb 5th-6th c. AD ivory relief plaque (no. 43) representing one of the Dioskouroi, complete with pilos cap, horse, and cloak. The only bibliography listed is a forthcoming article (now published) by the author of the entry, M.I. Poloyiorghi, when in fact there is a vast amount written on the cult of the heavenly twins, their iconography, and their distribution both in Greece and beyond. As well, the basic survey of the little known topic of ancient Greek spoons (cf. no. 45) has now been made by E. Zimi.2 Many readers might have benefited from understanding certain objects in a wider context. Such is the case with the Roman stone weight found in the vicinity of Acropolis Station (no. 105), examples of which have been discovered recently at Knossos and in Lycia.3 In addition to the detailed descriptive language used throughout, comment on the rarity of certain forms, techniques, and/or iconography might have placed a proper perspective on things. The combination of the psykter, the black-figure technique, and the komos (no. 339) is not unknown, yet not terribly common.4 Although decorated pottery is dealt with responsibly, and by many different authors here, agendas and attributions have not been forced. The use of added azure paint for the wings of erotes and one bird on the red-figure pyxis found in Amerikis Shaft (no. 226) surely merits further discussion and analysis. For certain categories, such as black-figure lekythoi, the amount and variety of illustration and description confirms the future use of this publication as a supplement to existing research and reference tools, such as Haspels, Attic Black-figured Lekythoi and Agora XXIII.

The phenomenon of rescue archaeology in a major urban setting, while not unique to Athens, may long be associated with it. The question of long-term public presentation has been well answered by using the Metro stations themselves as venues for permanent, well-labelled installations and individual displays, further reinforcing provenance. At the same time, it appears that arrangements are being made for parts of the excavations to be transported and reconstructed for educational purposes, such as at the university campus at Zographou. The scholarly community might also hope for further study and dialogue, as in London, where ongoing rescue excavations have inspired a series of academic publications, commemorative volumes dedicated to the topic, and at least one conference.5 A notable comparison would be the Jubilee Line Extension from 1992-1998, which traversed some of London’s archaeologically richest areas.6 One might also mention Beirut, where such excavations, though controversial in some circles, have been made in recent years in conjunction with development and reconstruction of the post-civil war capital.7 But in Athens in particular, where modern visions of the ancient city have long been fixed on the Acropolis still looming and the Agora still yielding, The City Beneath the City diverts our attention forever to new chapters and increased possibilities.


1. Preliminary reports of the excavations have appeared in relevant issues of Archaiologikon Deltion and Archaeological Reports.

2. “Spoons in the Ancient Greek World”, in O. Palagia (ed.) Greek Offerings: Essays on Greek Art in Honour of John Boardman (Oxbow Monograph 89, 1997), pp. 209-220.

3. Archaeological Reports (1993-94), pp. 75-76 and (1994-95), pp. 41-42 for Roman Knossos; and (1998-99), pp. 166-167 for Xanthos and environs. See also Praktika (1998) pl. 4a-b for finds from Rhamnous.

4. The catalogue entry gives no exact parallels for this vase. See ABV 340, 2-3, for this same combination of features attributed to the Painter of the Vogell Pelike.

5. Finds are housed at the Museum of London. Most recently see I. Haynes et al. (eds.) London Underground: the Archaeology of a City (Oxbow Books, 2000) with an overview and previous bibliography; and The Archaeology of Greater London (Museum of London Archaeological Service, 2000). D.G. Lawrence, Underground Architecture (Capital Transport, 1994) address the use and context of art in the London Underground stations; e.g. the murals by David Gentleman on Charing Cross platform depict scenes from the building of medieval Eleanor Cross from which the area takes its name (p. 173).

6. J. Drummond-Murray, et al., The Big Dig: Archaeology and the Jubilee Line Extension (Museum of London Archaeological Service, 1998).

7. The small exhibition associated with the excavations, “Beirut: Uncovering the Past”, was held at the British Museum, 19 March-5 September 1996. Cf. R. Fisk, “Lebanese Recoil as the Demons of their History are Unearthed”, The Independent (Wednesday, March 1, 1995).