CULTURE

Ever-expanding environs make archaeological parks part of city

As present-day Athens expands ever outward, the modern city and its adjoining communities have encroached upon the ancient countryside, surrounded protected archaeological sites and monuments, and ultimately left unique pockets of fascinating Attic history to be rediscovered and marveled at right in the midst of today?s often numbingly uniform urban landscape.

One area particularly well populated in ancient times ? and which can still boast numerous visible traces of past daily life, in some cases preserved within park-like archaeological sites ? lies just beyond the former Athens airport. This region of Attica, south of the city, constituting part of the ancient demes (administrative districts) of Halai Aixonides and Anagyrous, today hosts the communities of Voula, Vari and Varkiza. A wide range of antiquities exist on the rocky, herb-clad slopes that protrude from these towns near the intersection of the Koropi-Vari road and coastal Vouliagmenis Avenue, including a Geometric-through-Archaic settlement, a fortified Classical settlement with a double temple, Classical houses and farms, Geometric open-air shrines, a Classical-through-Roman cave shrine, Archaic and Classical cemeteries, and many Archaic or later boundary inscriptions (?OROS?), personal names (?Sotimides?) and snatches of verse carved in rockfaces that indicate Attica?s rural population was well educated and capable of contributing to the Athenian democracy.

Turning left from Vouliagmenis Avenue into Voula?s Kalymnou Street, one finds on the right side near the street?s end the Classical (5th-4th century BC) site of Kalambokas. The settlement lies in a broad, open space carpeted during the winter and spring months with green vegetation.

The low walls of the circa 2,400-year-old village form a remarkable maze of wide streets and narrow alleys. Many individual house plans can be made out, as well as a circular foundation representing the base of a former tower. To the east, a tiny rectangular temple with projecting side walls (?in antis?), which once held a pebble mosaic, rests inside a temenos wall with a miniature propylon (gateway) that separated this neighborhood shrine from its surrounding quarter. Kalambokas may have been the municipal center of Halai Aixonides. Further to the south, in Voula?s Pigadakia area, rises the fortified hill of Kastraki, on whose sides Classical house foundations exist. The Athenian army may have camped at Kastraki during their struggle against the Macedonian capture of Piraeus in the early 3rd century BC.

Visible to the east ? on the left and right sides of the busy Vari-Koropi thoroughfare ? are impressive sections of polygonal masonry of Classical date that once defined grave enclosures containing both Archaic and Classical (6th-4th century BC) tombs. Further east, a large collection of stone sarcophagi lie exposed in an open field.

Of particular interest, however, is Lathouriza hill, which rises out of dense pines just south of the Vari-Koropi highway. On the summit of this still-wild outcrop stands a small, semicircular Classical settlement, enclosed by a stout wall, which contains a double temple with an altar and several houses built against the wall?s inner face. Views from here of the western Attic coast and the surrounding territory are spectacular.

On the hill?s northern ridge a small square shrine of rubble and polygonal masonry can be found, built in the Geometric period but repaired in Archaic or Classical times, while on an eastern spur lies one of the most intriguing rural sites in Attica: a Late Geometric settlement that continued to be occupied into Archaic and perhaps even Classical times.

Excavation of the Geometric-Archaic site at Lathouriza took place in June-July 1939. Shortly afterward, the outbreak of World War II prevented any further work from being done and no excavation report was ever published. Archaeologist Foivos Stavropoulos removed tons of stones from a total of 25 collapsed houses. In the central, highest point of the site, he uncovered a strange circular building that seems to have been an Archaic addition over an earlier open-air shrine.

Thanks to the lack of a published report, numerous misconceptions have swirled around the site, even leading scholars to conclude it was originally fortified (see below) and contained the earliest tholos (round building) in the ancient Greek world ? neither of which turned out to be true.

Finds from the tholos included hundreds of offerings: clay figurines (especially large and small seated females, some intact); bronze, silver and iron objects (pins, fibulae, boat-shaped earrings, rings); and pottery (miniature one-handled vases, amphoriskoi, plates, lamps).

Archaeologist Alexander Mazarakis Ainian has concluded the site?s circular central feature may have been an altar or bothros (sacred refuse pit), covered partly by a wooden, baldacchino-like structure. Archaic or Classical parallels exist at Corinth, Didyma and on the island of Thasos. Sacred meals may have taken place inside the tholos as well as in a nearby apsidal room (Unit II) equipped with a small hearth outside its door. At its height, the settlement accommodated about 30-40 people belonging to a closely linked extended family (genos). They appear to have been conservative in nature, following dying architectural traditions (simple apsidal, oval or rectilinear houses), and may have worshipped several deities ? primarily a female figure whose identity remains a mystery.

Fortified or not?

German archaeologists suggested in 1975 that the Geometric-Archaic settlement on Lathouriza hill in Vari was fortified, based on their observation of a massive rubble wall that enclosed the ridge-top site. Other specialists disagreed, especially Alexander Mazarakis Ainian, who tracked down Foivos Stavropoulos?s original, unpublished excavation diary. In an entry dated July 10-15, 1939, Stavropoulos wrote, ?The wall which is currently under construction?? He later noted, ?Lastly, with the stones collected from the tumbled walls of the [collapsed] buildings, we built a circuit wall, 172 meters long, with which we encircled all? of the Geometric settlement…?

The old adage seems still to apply: It always pays to check the notebooks.