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Athens Antiquities Hunt Goes for Gold

Items ranging from old settlements to Roman-era ruins are unearthed as the building deadline approaches for the Olympic Games.

February 15, 2004|Miron Varouhakis | Associated Press Writer

ATHENS — A cloud of white dust drifts over Athens' former international airport as a crew using heavy equipment builds athletic facilities for this summer's Olympics.

A few paces away, another team -- with only brushes and garden tools -- carefully digs into the past.

The Summer Games have been a boon for archeologists, bringing the biggest single antiquities treasure hunt ever in Athens and surrounding areas. Experts rushed in trying to beat the bulldozers at dozens of Olympic-related sites -- from sports venues to highways.

The finds so far range from prehistoric settlements to 2,500-year-old cemeteries to ruins from the Roman period, when Emperor Theodosius abolished the Olympics in A.D. 394. Christianity had taken root, and he deemed the games to be pagan.

"I don't believe there was ever such a large-scale archeological excavation in Athens," said Dina Kaza, who heads the dig at the old seaside airport.

Extra archeologists and specialized researchers have been hired so that crews can work round-the-clock to keep pace with Olympic construction, which is moving at a breakneck pace to compensate for years of delays. The Olympics begin Aug. 13.

Kaza, who oversees excavations at five Olympic-related sites, says the finds so far have not been headline-making -- unlike the back-to-back discoveries in 1997 of sites believed to be the school of Aristotle and an ancient cemetery mentioned as the burial place of the statesman Pericles.

But the quantity of finds adds important details and richness to the understanding of how Athens developed over the centuries, Kaza said.

"We never know what the ground is hiding from us," she said.

One excavation -- at the site of a storage shed for a new tram line -- found 150 graves as old as the 7th century B.C.

Another archeologist, Maria Platonos, uncovered a ceramic vessel depicting a victorious javelin thrower at a cemetery from the Classical period, 500-323 B.C., on a road to the Olympic Village north of central Athens. The athlete is being crowned with ribbons by two messengers from Nike, the goddess of victory in Greek mythology, said Platonos, who heads excavations at the Olympic Village and two other Olympic sites.

She said the artifact, which has been dated to 470 B.C., had been used at a victory ceremony and was later placed on the grave of the man awarded the prize.

"Finding this in the area of the Olympic Village was truly something unexpected and very fortunate," she said.

Some antiquities are too big to be moved.

At the Olympic Village, Platonos' team discovered an extensive system of underground pipes put in during the Roman period to supply Athens with water from nearby Parnitha Mountain. The system was in use until the 19th century.

"This pipe was excavated and cleaned, and now there are plans to make this monument more visible along the zone of greenery at the Olympic Village," Platonos said.

At the rowing center in Schinias, about 18 miles northeast of Athens, researchers found three early dwellings from about 4,000 years ago. Some of the ruins were relocated to allow completion of the Olympic venue.

Potential conflicts between preservation and modernization have required some creative solutions.

Construction of a highway to Athens' new airport uncovered an ancient road and building foundations at least 2,500 years old.

"They indicate an economically vibrant community," said Kasimi Soutou, who is overseeing that excavation.

She said the archeological council ruled that the ancient foundations be preserved around the old road, but that the roadway itself will be paved over after any antiquities are removed.

The sports complex at the former international airport, which will host baseball, fencing and other sports, is among the most delayed of Olympic sites.

Archeologists argue that the delays are not their fault.

"We always have this problem. The archeological work always starts at the last minute when it could have started a long time ago, but unfortunately, the construction plans were not ready on time," Kaza said. "So we are racing until the last minute, and they tell us to finish because they have to finish too."

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