CULTURE

Ancient graves discovered near Kifissia train station

A couple of streets down from the electric railway terminus in one of the less leafy parts of Kifissia, the most extensive traces yet known of the northern Athenian suburb’s ancient past have emerged in the form of a cemetery spanning 800 years of use. A rescue excavation that started in March and still continues on a building site on the corner of Acharnon and Socratous streets has revealed 45 graves dating from Geometric to Roman times, many of which yielded rich pottery artifacts. The 2,000-square-meter site, only half of which has been fully excavated, also contains remains of a round Roman building of dressed marble blocks that stand almost six feet tall. Possibly a Nymphaeum – sections of a waterproofed floor that would have contained a small pond have been found in the structure – it will be incorporated in a luxury apartment complex. The summer finds, in combination with two smaller cemeteries and several fourth century BC houses unearthed on Kato Kifissia construction sites over the past four years, have helped archaeologists form a clearer picture of the ancient deme of Cephisia, celebrated in antiquity for its abundant waters and cool groves of deciduous trees. A well-to-do Arcadia The cemeteries at Kifissia indicate that a settlement of considerable affluence existed there in antiquity, archaeologist Demetrius Schilardi, who directed the Kifissia excavations, told Kathimerini English Edition. What is now Kato Kifissia was then a fertile area of rich, well-irrigated fields punctuated with farmhouses. The people of ancient Cephisia were also probably connected with the marble quarries on nearby Mount Pendeli – named Vrilissos in antiquity – and stonemasons and sculptors would have had workshops in the area. The denizens of this prosperous Attic Arcadia appear to have had a healthy approach to death. They were on remarkably familiar terms with the dead, Schilardi said. Where the ancient inhabitants of Kifissia engaged in their daily activities, among houses and cultivated fields with streams of water running through them, there were scattered graves and large, organized cemeteries that reminded the people of their ancestral roots. The cemetery excavated this year contained a large variety of grave types, from plain holes in the ground covered by rooftiles to cist graves, open cremations, children’s burials in jars and the opulence of stone sarcophagi. The oldest burials date to 750-700 BC, and the latest to the first century AD. Burial goods included high-quality pottery, bronze mirrors with intaglio decoration, bronze and iron strigils (curved implements used by athletes to scrape off sweat) and a set of knucklebones. A series of red-figure vases from the second half of the fifth century BC was discovered in a trench among the graves. After a brief interval, work started again last month on the second half of the plot, and a significant number of burials has already emerged. If the excavation produces important finds, we must seek some way of preserving them in situ, Schilardi stressed. Unfortunately, one way or another we have destroyed all the ancient cemeteries of Athens, with the exception of the Kerameikos. This deserves to be saved. Villa Cephisia So far, the earliest finds from Kifissia have been the Geometric graves. Although a Mycenaean settlement probably existed in the area, no traces of it have emerged. The center of Classical Cephisia is believed to be buried under modern Palaia Kifissia. In Roman times, the area was a highly desirable summer resort where rich and fashionable Athenians had their villas. The most famous of these belonged to Herodes Atticus (AD 101-177) an orator, sophist and public benefactor on a massive scale who was a friend of the Emperor Hadrian. A description of the luxurious Villa Cephisia has survived in the mid-second century AD Noctes Atticae by Aulus Gellius, who was a guest of Herodes – a native of Marathon who also owned a sprawling villa in the eastern Peloponnese, near the modern village of Kato Doliana. At the villa named Cephisia, in the heat of the summer and against the burning sun of the autumn we were protected by the shade of spacious groves, long and soft promenades, the cool location of the house, the elegant baths with their abundance of sparkling water and the charm of the villa as a whole echoing with splashing waters and singing birds. Remains of a Roman building excavated in the late 1970s a few hundred meters to the north of the cemetery discovered this year have been tentatively linked with the Villa Cephisia. In 1961, marble busts of Herodes and his disciple – and adopted son – Polydeukion were discovered near that site, in the vicinity of Panaghia Xydou. And a second century AD marble grave monument containing four sarcophagi that is currently displayed in Palaia Kifissia’s Platanos Square has also been associated with Herodes and his family.