Olympic works take Greek archaeologists on Athens’s biggest-ever treasure hunt

A cloud of white dust hovers over Athens’s former international airport as crews using heavy equipment build sports facilities for the upcoming Olympics. A few paces away, another team of workers – with only brushes and garden tools – carefully digs into the past. It’s part of an unexpected gift for archaeologists: Olympic projects clearing the way for the single biggest antiquities treasure hunt in Athens and surrounding areas. Dozens of Olympics-related works – from venues to highways – have touched off a flurry of archaeological excavations trying to beat the bulldozers. 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 394 after Christianity took root, deeming them pagan. «I don’t believe there was ever such a large-scale archaeological excavation in Athens,» said archaeologist Dina Kaza, who heads the excavation at the old seaside airport. Extra archaeologists and specialized researchers have been hired. Crews have worked round-the-clock shifts to keep pace with Olympic construction, which is moving at full speed to compensate for years of delays. Kaza, who oversees excavations at five Olympics-related work sites, says the finds so far have not been headline-making – like the back-to-back discoveries in 1997 of sites believed to be the lyceum, or school, of Aristotle and an ancient cemetery referred to as the burial place of the famous statesmen Pericles. But the quantity of finds adds important details and richness to the understanding of how Athens developed over the centuries, she said. «We never know what the ground is hiding from us,» said Kaza. One excavation – at the site of a new tramline storage shed – uncovered 150 graves dating as far back as the seventh century BC. Another archaeologist, Maria Platonos, uncovered a ceramic vessel depicting a victorious javelin thrower in a cemetery from the Classical period, spanning from 500 BC to 323 BC, 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 that the artifact, dating to 470 BC, had been used in a victory ceremony and was later placed on the grave of the young man awarded the prize. [The piece is a krater, used for mixing wine with water.] «Finding this in the area of the Olympic Village was truly something unexpected and very fortunate,» she said. At times, though, antiquities were so entrenched that relocation was not an option. At the Olympic Village, Platonos’s team discovered an extensive system of underground pipelines from the Roman period used to supply Athens with water from nearby Mount Parnitha. 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 in the Olympic Village,» Platonos said. At the rowing center in Schinias, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) northeast of Athens, researchers found three early Bronze Age dwellings dating back around 4,000 years. Some of the ruins were relocated to allow construction of the Olympic venue. Potential conflicts between preservation and modernization have required some creative solutions. Construction of a road to Athens’s new airport uncovered another roadway and building foundations at least 2,500 years old. «They indicate an economically vibrant community,» said Kasimi Soutou, who oversees the excavation. She said the archaeological council ruled to preserve the ancient precinct around the old roadway, but the roadway itself will be paved over after any antiquities are removed. The sports complex on the site of Athens’s former international airport – which will host baseball, fencing and other sports – is among the most delayed of modern Olympic sites. Archaeologists argue that the delays are not their fault. «We always have this problem. The archaeological work starts at the last minute when it could have started a long time ago, but, unfortunately, the construction plans were not ready on time,» said Kaza. «So we are racing until the last minute and they tell us to finish because they have to finish, too.»

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