By Iota Sykka
Just a few hundred meters away from the busy and buzzing neighborhood of Thiseio in central Athens, the shade and serenity of the Kerameikos Ancient Cemetery offers much-welcome respite in the summer months.
The pedestrian road of Ermou leads straight from the Thiseio ISAP electric railway station to the gates of the ancient site, which though well known, is one of the least visited in the historical center by locals and tourists.
Located on the crossroads of Ermou, Pireos and Asomaton, it is named after the bygone Municipality of Kerameon, a center of pottery in antiquity. The potters of ancient Athens would set up their workshops on the banks of the Iridanos River, where they were able to get their clay directly from the source and have plenty of water to work with as well. But only potters could be happy with the marshy conditions on the banks of the Iridanos, so authorities decided to locate the cemetery here, where residential development was out of the question.
The beauties of Kerameikos may be lost on most, but it has its fans, as a visit will show, and they can be seen snapping away with their cameras at the beautiful landscape of olive and cypress trees, weeds and wildflowers.
The admission fee to the Ancient Cemetery of Kerameikos is just 2 euros and can be purchased as part of a 6-euro ticket for all of the main sites in central Athens. The site, meanwhile, was renovated in light of the 2004 Olympic Games.
If for no other, giving credit where credit’s due is a good reason to visit the site. The museum begins with the stoa at the entrance, containing a display of funerary inscriptions, a beautiful bas relief and a piece showing a dead bearded boxer from 560 BC, among other relics.
The Ancient Cemetery of Kerameikos comes second to the Acropolis in terms of the finds that it has yielded from antiquity, including stunning statuary, fragments of pottery and parts of the Themistoclean Wall, which contained funerary sculptures hidden from the hands of conquerors. Athenians at the time, under threat from the Spartans, would use whatever construction materials they could lay their hands on, even funerary sculptures, to build the fortifications of the city. The walls have yielded fascinating evidence of the people buried at Kerameikos as well as of the manner in which their families grieved for them.
In the same area, visitors can also see the famous funerary relief of Dexileo, son of Lysanias of Thorikos (390 BC), the Lion of the Sacred Gate (590-580 BC), the sphinx grave marker, as well as the kouros of the Sacred Gate, which was found in 2002 during an excavation conducted by the German Archaeological Institute.
The adjacent atrium is the jewel in the museum’s crown as it displays one of its most famous exhibits. The marble bull from the tomb of Dionysus of Kolitos, from the Street of the Tombs of the archaeological site, is one of the highlights at the ancient cemetery.
The glass cases in the next display area contain items like children’s toys, cups and vases decorated with depictions of warriors in battle, as well as other objects buried with the dead in ancient Athens to show their achievements in life. Further down, a decorated bronze vessel, though broken in half, stirs discussion as it is believed to have contained the remains of Alcibiades, the prominent Athenian statesman, orator and general. Another item that generates a lot of interest is a marble reliquary from a mass grave that is believed to contain the remains of victims of the plague that desiccated Athens during the Peloponnesian War in 430 BC.
It is unusual to see museum guards offering visitors explanations of the displays, but Kerameikos’s staff tend to be friendlier than at other sites and the guard in the last display hall urged us not to leave before visiting a tiny lead tablet from 420-410 BC inscribed with a curse. Nearby you will also see vessels depicting weddings rites, the Panathenaic amphora and bones inscribed with the names of famous Athenians who were ostracized.
On the Street of Tombs, which leads off from Iera Odos (or the Sacred Way, which led to ancient Eleusis, the site of the Eleusian Mysteries), you will see more impressive artifacts from the 5th and 4th centuries BC. At left of the Street of Tombs, the Iridanos River continues to trickle by, lending an idea of what this area may have once looked like. Archaeologists from the German Institute can still be seen carrying on the work that their predecessors began in 1931.
Just 65,000 visitors pass through the gates of the Ancient Cemetery of Kerameikos on average each year, a small number that certainly contributes to the serenity of the archaeological site. Yet, the final resting place of the city dwellers of antiquity is one of Athens’s loveliest and most rewarding sites.