Athenians Remembered: Kerameikos Archaeology

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Kerameikos, Κεραμεικός, Athens, Greece

One of the most atmospheric spots in Athens, with the natural landscape and the smattering of stones, is the ancient site of Kerameikos.  The fact that it is nestled in a largely residential area, with its big apartment blocks, actually helps to make it even more of an oasis for those of us in search of fragments of the ancient city.

The area of Kerameikos once housed Athens’ potters – hence its name, Kerameis being the word for potters.  It became the site of a cemetery from about 1200 BC, although the main period for burials was from the archaic period onwards.  Monuments were mainly built along the south bank of the Eridanos River, lining the sides of the Sacred Way – that is, the road to Eleusis and the route of the Eleusinian procession.

Following the Persian sack of Athens in 480 BC, new city walls were constructed two years later, using old funerary monuments as building blocks.  Rich Athenians began building grand funerary monuments – a practice which was banned in 317 BC.  Only small columns or simple inscribed blocks were allowed until the Roman period, when lavish building began again.  The area fell into ruin in the 6th century, and it was only rediscovered in 1863, when a stele was found.  Excavations began in 1870 and they still continue today.

As you walk around, you’ll see monuments – replicas of originals now to be found in the site’s museum.  The replicas are pretty good at giving you an idea of how grand this whole area would have looked, with its tall, imposing and dignified monuments to Athens’ great and good.  Personally, I found this side of the site more interesting and atmospheric than the side which is more archaeological.  The buildings that have been excavated aren’t that clear, and unless you have a specific interest and knowledge of the local history, it will perhaps make less of an impression on you too.

One exception is the Pompeion, the grand public building whose groundwork is still visible.  A sacrifice of 100 cows was carried out as part of the Panathenaic Festival and the nobles of Athens would assemble in the Pompeion to eat the sacrificial meat.  The building was destroyed by Sulla’s army in 86 BC and a storehouse was subsequently built on the site.  Interestingly, the ruins became home to potters once again in the late 3rd century AD, until c500, when it fell into the same sorry state as the rest of the area.

So In Summary

If you visit the site quite early, on a day when there aren’t many other visitors, the experience is really quite special.  There aren’t many replica-monuments around, but just enough to give you a sense of the scale in situ, which does give a different impression of how this whole area would have felt in ancient times.  I found the experience very rewarding, as it did enhance the impressions we were already forming about ancient Athens, and if you’re as entranced with the world of these people as we were, I’m sure you’ll be rewarded too by this insight into how they honoured their past.

Further Information

There is a fee to enter the site, which also lets you look round the museum.  There is a ticket you can get which allows you into all of the archaeological sites – it’s a bargain if you intend to visit them all.

The archaeological site has a website linked to the Ministry of Culture and Sport, from which you can get basic information: www.odysseus.culture.gr

How To Get There

While the site is not in the centre of the town – well, it is a graveyard – it is actually a pretty easy walk from the Acropolis, if you’re so inclined.  Otherwise, Athens’ transport is good, and their information is available in English.  This website gives the various travel options, depending on which form you’re wanting to use: www.thisisathens.org

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