A kouros, still beautiful, even after 2,500 years underground

The discovery of the kouros at the Sacred Gate in the ancient Kerameikos cemetery April 5 was the archaeological event of the year that made news around the world. A statue of the archaic period, still beautiful even after 2,500 years, it stands 2.10 meters tall and was found along with a sphinx dating from 560 BC, two marble lions (of which the better preserved of the two dates from the first half of the sixth century BC), and fragments of two marble pillars, one with an Ionian capital and the other with a larger Doric capital. These treasures appeared to be holding up a road surface that bisected Kerameikos. It is the kouros, however, that really steals the show. It is the kind of find (dating from about 600 BC) that archaeologists do not often come across. No one from the German Archaeological Institute expected to find anything like it at the end of systematic excavations. It has been attributed to the Dipylon Sculptor (or Double Gate), whose name is not known but who also created the outsized kouros found in 1916 near that gate and which is in the National Archaeological Museum, and which had been found about 40 meters from this recent find. However, both the kouros and the head found earlier are similar to another in New York’s Metropolitan Museum. It is certain that the first two are the work of the Dipylon Sculptor. The similarities in the shape and dimensions of the face (0.30 m), according to the leader of excavations, Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier, indicate that they were the same height. They also have the same expression and almond-shaped eyes. There are similarities, but also differences, between these two and the kouros in New York, which is 1.84 meters tall but does not have the same qualititative characteristics. Its face is weak and triangular. The hair on the newly discovered statue is also similar to those of the other two. The find was made while archaeologists were cleaning two channels carrying water from the Eridanos River under the surface of the Sacred Way (Iera Odos). According to Niemeier, the purpose of the excavation was to date the channels, based on ceramic findings, in relation to the construction phases of the Sacred Way. It was the excavation worker Tassos Boudroukas who first saw the kouros. «An experienced worker, he felt the left shoulder of a marble kouros lying face down under the western channel. Right next to it was the fragment of a marble sphinx, whose head was facing upward. As the kouros was lifted up, the workers were pleased to see that its face was in a much better state of preservation than that of the earlier Dipylon head. The Greek government assigned the excavations at Kerameikos to the German Archaeological Institute in 1913. The excavation area is part of the ancient potters’ area used for its proximity to the Eridanos River, and was outside the city walls until the Persians overran Athens in 480 BC. When the Athenians regained their city after the Battle of Salamis, Themistocles ordered a new wall built further out, including the southern part of Kerameikos, in which the two (double) gates were placed, 40 meters apart. In his presentation last week at the Culture Ministry, Niemeier said the findings were lying in a row under a road surface built during the reconstruction of the Themistoclean Walls. The sculptures bear the traces of cartwheels, so it appeared they were holding up the road, in an area where the Eridanos often flooded.