Saturday, January 31, 2009

City Beneath the Surface Above: Public Archaeology and the City Walls of Ancient Athens

On Thursday morning, Leda Costaki took us on a search for the city walls of ancient Athens.

Leda Costaki, whose 2006 dissertation explored the road system of Athens, explains the city walls visible in the Kerameikos. They are made up of two parts, the wall itself, and the proteichisma, the wall ‘in front of the wall.’ So two walls, with ring roads and moats included. Here note the multiple phases of the structure, marked by different types of stone and different construction techniques.

Since Athens has been inhabited continually for several thousand years, multiple versions of the fortification walls are known. There's the pre-Persian War wall, the Themistoklean Wall (5th c. BCE), the Kononian fortifications (4th c. BCE), the Valerian Walls (3rd c. CE), the Justinian repairs, the 13th c. Medieval fortifications, and the Turkish fortifications (utterly demolished as soon as the Greeks gained independence in the 1820s). Numerous cemetaries have been found surrounding the exterior of the walls/gates, such as the famous Kerameikos cemetary.
The infamous CGMs (columnar grave monuments) of Athens, stored behind the Kerameikos Museum).

Because Athens has been continually inhabited since antiquity, with the population skyrocketing in the last two hundred years, archaeological excavation has had to deal with the modern inhabitants of the city. Over the past century, the approaches archaeologists have employed have been varied, from buying plots of land and dismantling houses to forcibly moving refugee camps in preference for the ancient remains. It hasn’t always been pretty. But when it comes to the ancient city walls, modern building has usually been allowed to precede, provided it keeps the walls relatively intact. Leda’s lecture was most interesting, for me at least, because she addressed the difficulties the Archaeological Service has had preserving remains amidst a modern metropolis.

Every time construction begins, builders must get the approval of the Service, and if antiquities appear while foundations are being dug and concrete poured, then the Service swoops in to perform a ‘rescue excavation.’ Leda stressed the enormous pressure weighing on the shoulders of the Service members, who are hounded on all sides by historians, archaeologists, land owners, construction companies, and governmental offices. Usually all they can do is scramble in get the antiquities out as fast as possible – they don’t have the luxury of meticulous record keeping, detailed measurements, and copious notebooks that other archaeological teams enjoy. In and out – save the antiquities from destruction and looting – then move on.

Leda provided some fascinating history of rescue excavations in Athens, which became a problem as soon as Greece gained independence in the 1800s and the population swarmed in from the countryside. More recent waves of population movement into the city and the subsequent construction of buildings led to an enormous amount of rescue excavations in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 80s, however, the Archaeological Service was contending more with the impact of cars, since overpasses, highways, and other infrastructure needed by an automobile nation were changing the landscape of the city. In the 90s, it was all about the new metro system, abundant remains showing up pretty much everywhere a new metro station or line was planned. And then, of course, there were the 2004 Olympics, which transformed the city and cost approximately 7 billion euros.

The Archaeological Service has also had to determine how best to preserve certain remains (like city walls) while also meeting the needs of construction projects. Leda’s lecture on the city walk was structured around the different preservation philosophies employed over the last several decades.

Will Bruce, Rebecca Ammerman, and Ben Sullivan peak through grating to view parts of the city wall.

The walls, for example, have been hidden away in basements.

They have been preserved in, you guessed it, parking garages, with no signs whatsoever indicating to car owners that they are parked next to the fortification walls of ancient Athens, 2,400 years old.

In this case, the 4th c. BCE proteichisma is housed in the parking garage, but the main wall was actually entirely dismantled and move to the plateia outside.

More recently, there has been an interest in making sure the walls are available to the public.
This section of the wall lies in the basement of an apartment building. The owners have built a seperate entrance that is open to the public.

At the Divani Palace Acropolis Hotel, the walls are preserved on the bottom floor of the hotel, next to the gift shop. Notice that the antiquities have been covered in houseplants, to make them more aesthetically pleasing.

The National Bank of Greece has left the entire lower level of their structure open for the public, who can look down at the walls or walk on glass floors to view the ancient drainage system.

1 comment:

doug said...

I like the ancient wall being next to the gift shop, as if it is a souvenir that no one has quite figured out how to purchase.