ATHENS — Archeology has taken massively to the streets of Athens, combing through the splendid Greek past in search of a more livable future for a now-ramshackle capital literally gasping for breath.
The harvest is bountiful--and bittersweet.
Construction of a $2.8-billion underground Metro for Athens is imposing a delicate and painful balance between the demands of modern urban life and the legacies of history.
Metro excavations have opened archeological digs the size of 22 football fields along major streets in the heart of the city.
Artifacts in dazzling array, from toys to sarcophagi to sexy bedroom lamps, are being recovered as part of the largest effort ever undertaken to mine and rescue the underground treasures of a metropolis whose majesty beckons across 25 centuries.
"The scale is indescribable. In pieces, there are hundreds of thousands. In bulk, tons. We are talking large trucks and heavy cranes," said William G. Stead, the American engineer overseeing Metro construction. "Scholars will be writing their theses on this material 25 years from now."
The bad news is that large numbers of newly seen landmarks from Athens' past--walls, foundations, wells, aqueducts--will be bulldozed goodby in another few months to keep Metro construction on schedule. Not everybody is sure that there will be time to fully digest the trove.
One recent morning, a worker digging a few feet beneath street level near Syntagma, or Constitution Square, uncovered a broken pocketbook-sized terra-cotta brick bearing the image of two prancing panthers. Archeologist Costas Saris hustled over.
"A mold from a metal-working shop; about the time of Christ," he told a visitor above the rasp of a No. 136 bus trapped in traffic a few yards away on Amalias Avenue before the national Parliament. To the fury of motorists, the Metro digs have institutionalized gridlock since tunneling began in earnest in November, 1992.
The panthers, duly documented, by now lie in one of the fast-growing artifact warehouses of the Greek Culture Ministry. They will be studied--eventually. There is no time for that sort of scholarly luxury right now.
"Usually we don't excavate all year round, so winter offers a chance to study and to reflect. Here, we don't have that chance," said Saris, one of a dozen archeologists overseeing workers at what will become the Metro's biggest station. "A site this size would normally keep us busy for many years. But we have only six months. I wish we hadn't found so much."
Stead, who ran San Francisco's Municipal Railway for five years and also worked for New York and Boston transit systems, is himself a trained archeologist.
He sympathizes with the yearning to linger over the past. But time is money, in this case European money: about 1 million marks for every day of delay--nearly $600,000.
"Slow archeology is not necessarily good, and fast archeology is not necessarily bad," said Stead, chief of a Bechtel International team providing management and engineering services to the Greek company responsible for the Metro.
Originally planned for completion in 1997, the project is already more than one year behind schedule because of the archeology. Now, Stead said, Athens must avoid the mistakes of Rome, where standoffs between builders and conservers repeatedly delayed subway construction.
"Unfortunately, features like wells, walls and foundations will be destroyed. Once they are measured and recorded, we'll have to bulldoze them out of the way," Stead said. "But the glass is also half full. Except for the Metro, these sites would never have been excavated to begin with."
That there is any excavation at all is because 80% of Metro financing comes from Greece's concerned partners in the European Union.
It is the largest contribution that the EU (formerly the EC) and the European Investment Bank have made to any single project.
To put it bluntly, their European partners--like the Greeks themselves--are alarmed at Athens' decay.
Classical Athens was the most wondrous city on Earth in the 5th Century BC. Modern Athens is the most polluted and choked capital in the EU, 12th of 12 in livability and efficiency, by most reckoning. Greeks believe that it is time the past moved over to make room for regeneration.
Uncounted false Metro starts across 30 years of explosive urbanization have left Athenians disbelieving that anything good could ever emerge from any new hole in the street.
Still, most people tell pollsters that while they do not want archeology sacrificed for the Metro, neither do they want the Metro sidetracked by archeology.
It is not hard to understand why. In 1961, there were 39,000 cars in Athens, where a third of Greeks live.
Today, there are 1.4 million cars in a metropolitan area with almost 3.5 million people. Despite Draconian traffic restrictions, little moves downtown in the historic, commercial, financial and governmental heart of Greece.