Thu, Jan 08, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Construction for Olympics unearths treasures

Preparations for the upcoming Olympic Games have yielded a treasure trove of archeological and cultural finds

AP , Athens

An archeological worker digs at the excavation area next to the road linking southeastern Athens with the city's new international airport. Construction projects for the Games have yielded the single biggest antiquities treasure hunt in Athens and surrounding areas.

PHOTO: AP

A cloud of white dust hovers over Athens' 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 archeologists: Olympic projects clearing the way for the single biggest antiquities treasure hunt in Athens and surrounding areas.

Dozens of Olympic-related works -- from venues to highways -- has touched off a flurry of archeological 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 archeological excavation in Athens,'' said archeologist Dina Kaza, who heads the excavation at the old seaside airport.

Extra archeologists 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. The Olympics are scheduled to begin Aug. 13.

Kaza, who oversees excavations in five Olympic-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 mentioned 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. -- at the site of a new tram line storage shed -- found 150 graves as old as 7BC.

Another archeologist, Maria Platonos, uncovered a ceramic vessel depicting a victorious javelin thrower at a cemetery from the Classical period, spanning from 500BC to 323BC, 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 470BC, had been used at a victory ceremony and was later placed on the grave of the young man awarded the prize.

``Finding this in the area of the Olympic Village was truly something unexpected and very fortunate,'' she said.

At times, though, antiquities were so massive that relocation was not an option.

At the Olympic Village, Platonos' team discovered an extensive system of underground pipelines from the Roman period used to supply Athens with water from nearby Parnitha Mountain. 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 at the Olympic Village,'' Platonos added.

At the rowing center in Schinias, about 30km northeast of Athens, researchers found three early Bronze Age dwellings from about 4,000 years ago. Some of the ruins were relocated to allow construction of the Olympic venue.

Potential conflicts between preservation and modernization have required some creative solutions.

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