Renovation work on the aged Piraeus-Kifissia electric railway (ISAP) on the stretch between the central Athenian neighborhoods of Monastiraki and Thisseio have brought to light one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries of recent years.
Archaeologists believe that remnants found during construction in the area of the Ancient Agora, on the northwestern slope of the Acropolis, belong to the famed Altar of the Twelve Gods, one of Athens’s most ancient monuments and a landmark that marked the very center of ancient city, from which all distances were measured -- like an ancient Syntagma Square, which marks the starting point in terms of street numbers.
The find has created a lot of excitement among Greek archaeologists, who believe that it will change the map of Ancient Athens as we know it. “Thucydides mentions only a handful of monuments in his historical works,” explained archaeologist Androniki Makri. “Of these, even fewer have actually been found and they are located in the archaeological sites surrounded by the mass of this densely built city. If I had to say what kind of attitude we, all Greeks, should have toward these monuments, I would obviously answer that we should be guarding and protecting them, promoting them and showing them off in any way possible.”
The Altar of the Twelve Gods (a small section of which is visible in the Ancient Agora) is almost completely buried under the lines of the ISAP train. ISAP is not willing to give archaeologists the time they need to collect evidence from the new find or to draw up a plan about how to handle it. According to the archaeologists they are 100 percent sure about the identity of the find, because the altar is one of the Athenian monuments that have been described the best in the relevant literature.
“The significance of the altar from an archaeological perspective regarding the history of the Agora and coupled with new evidence from excavation is obvious to the scientists,” said Angelos Matthaiou, secretary of the Hellenic Epigraphical Society.
“All of the new evidence that has arisen has not yet been completely understood and cannot be in such a short period time; this is also obvious to the experts. It takes a lot more thought and study, not just into the history of the altar itself, but also into its significance as far as the Agora’s early history is concerned,” added Matthaiou.
According to Thucydides, the Altar of the Twelve Gods was founded during the tyranny of Peisistratus by his grandson of the same and son of the tyrant Hippias in 522-521 BC, It marked the very center of the ancient city.
Archaeologist Sophia Aliferi also said that “Pindar, obviously in reference to the altar in his dithyramb for the Athenians, called on the gods of Olympus to dance near the fragrant, much-frequented navel of the holy city of Athens, the renowned and exquisitely adorned Agora.”
The Altar of the Twelve Gods was partially destroyed during a Persian raid in the 480-479 BC period and was not rebuilt until several decades later, as evidence found during the excavation of the Ancient Agora, including worn stones and seashells believed to date to the fourth quarter of the 5th century BC, suggest.
Closer to modern times, in 1891, when the Athens-Piraeus electric railway was being constructed, only a very small part of the Agora has been excavated and very few of its monuments were brought to light. At the time, neither archaeologists nor the contractors had any idea which relics were are risk of being destroyed in the process of construction and so they failed to take any measures to prevent any damage.
Nevertheless, archaeologists today say that despite the extent of the work that was carried out at the time, very little damage was caused as contractors built the rails on this particular stretch just a little bit higher up than where the altar is located.
The evidence the archaeologists give is enlightening: the excavation of trenches to support the walls flanking this section of the railway tracks in 1891 destroyed the area around the altar and brought small sections of the actual altar to light.
Later, excavations by archaeologists in 1934 at the Ancient Agora began revealing more parts of the altar as well as the peribolos, or courtyard, which helped archaeologists identify it for what it was. Their findings were confirmed even more recently by the discovery of a statue base with an ancient epigraph suggesting that the statue was commissioned by the Ancient Athenian aristocrat Leagros to the sculptor Glaukos to honor the 12 gods of Olympus.
Many questions continue to eat away at experts, who are hoping that new excavations at the site will reveal all. Their hopes, however, may be short-lived if ISAP goes ahead with its renovation work as planned.
This discovery has reignited the issue of jurisdiction, which has been the bane of many a construction project in Greece and has also sealed the fate of many areas of historical interest.
On the one hand, ISAP is eager to complete construction work and to open this section of the railway to beleaguered commuters without further delay.
On the other, archaeologists insist that further excavations in the area may contribute significantly to more discoveries about the topography of and life in Ancient Athens. They are suggesting that the tracks be elevated or diverted over a bridge, or even that the altar be dug up and moved.
They believe that if the Altar of the Twelve Gods is allowed to be buried again it will not only set a precedent but also form a black mark against Greek society and the attitude it takes toward its ancient heritage.
“We have a duty to ourselves, to our children and to the rest of the world, and especially to western civilizations, whose roots we like to brag lay here,” said Androniki Makri, an archaeologist.
If the Altar of the Twelve Gods is buried under the tracks again, added Angelos Matthaiou, “it is tantamount to admitting, as a society, that we have failed to do our duty, that we have allowed others to dictate how we manage our ancient legacy and have given in to those who have sold their concsiences in exchange for material goods.”