Jul 14, 2023

The Hidden Archeologists of Athens

By Nick Romeo

In Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel “The Names,” an American businessman living in Athens can’t quite bring himself to visit its most iconic monument. “For a long time I stayed away from the Acropolis,” he says. “It daunted me, that somber rock.” He prefers “to wander in the modern city, imperfect, blaring”; when he catches sight of the Acropolis from odd angles, he finds its exalted reputation forbidding. “The ruins stood above the hissing traffic like some monument to doomed expectations,” he observes.

Today, most tourists have no such hesitancy: in the summer, as many as twenty thousand visit the Acropolis each day. And yet, after millennia of human habitation, Athenian history isn’t confined to a few famous spots. Over the last two centuries, as the city has grown from a sleepy village to a sprawling capital, new ruins have been continually discovered. Greek national law requires so-called rescue excavations before the construction of new houses, buildings, subway lines, sewer systems, or almost anything else; although these are faster and less comprehensive than the research excavations conducted for purely archeological reasons, they can still reveal the locations of shrines, wells, walls, roads, and cemeteries, as well as smaller artifacts, such as oil lamps, toys, and loom weights. Collectively, all of this material constitutes a kind of secret history of the city.

Until recently, information from rescue excavations was sequestered in a vast gray literature of reports published in Greek by the state archeological service. But, in 2014, a group of Greek archeologists and a cartographer launched an organization called the Dipylon Society, which aims to share these discoveries more widely. Dipylon has undertaken a series of fascinating, high-tech projects, including digital maps, searchable databases, and free mobile apps with guided walking tours. Its first app, Walk the Wall Athens, appeared in 2018. It leads users through a twisting six-kilometre course, past thirty-five locations where parts of the ancient city’s walls survive. The route snakes through the basements of hotels and apartment buildings, beneath shops and through parking garages, connecting points where the twenty-five-hundred-year-old monumental walls are still accessible. At these hidden spots, the app allows you to see historical photos, read key findings from the rescue excavations, and hear an audio narration in Greek or English.

Dipylon’s projects reflect years spent gathering, digitizing, and synthesizing data from almost fifteen hundred rescue excavations conducted in Athens over the past hundred and sixty years; it has changed our understanding of the archeology of the city. But, by recovering one sort of lost history, Dipylon has revealed another. During Athens’s most explosive decades of growth, the archeologists who ran excavations for the state archeological service were predominantly female; their work was often unheralded and unacknowledged. Now, in digital form, it’s coming to light.

On a sunny morning last fall, I joined a wall walk led by Annita Theocharaki, a founding member of Dipylon. A tall, curly-haired woman in her early sixties, Theocharaki runs a family business by day; Dipylon, which now has a full-time staff of six, is a lasting passion project that she helps run on nights and weekends. We met at Kotzia Square, a pedestrian plaza fringed with leafy trees and charming neoclassical buildings. A dozen students had gathered outside a gated enclosure, inside which stone embankments lined a stretch of old road that was barely the width of a bike path. “Imagine a road continuing directly beneath us toward the walls,” she said, sweeping her arms in a diagonal from where we stood to the edge of Kotzia Square. The students shifted their gaze to follow her hands.

“You can see the burials on either side of the road,” she continued, gesturing to bits of pale stone beside the path—actually parts of weathered burial shafts and stone sarcophagi from a cemetery dating back to the eighth century B.C. “It’s common to find cemeteries just outside the city walls, but placing graves right beside the road was also about display,” she said. “Anyone walking in or out of the city would see all of the funerary monuments.” As she spoke, the sun moved across the site, bathing the pale stone and red dirt in early morning light.

We followed Theocharaki across the square, tracing the path of the old road that ran invisibly beneath us. At the corner, tucked underneath the looming façade of the National Bank of Greece, an open-air site plunged some twenty feet below the modern city; inside this pit was a huge section of the ancient wall from the fourth century B.C. More of the wall was visible under glass panels in the sidewalk. Although it is now far below the level of the modern city, it was likely around ten metres high in the fourth century B.C. and still stands to half that height. “Fortification was just as important as the acropolis or the agora,” Theocharaki said as we looked down. “It was not only a matter of protection—the walls were also beautiful, monumental structures. Something citizens could admire.”

From there, our path grew stranger. In the underground parking lot of a bank, a massive section of wall rose beside us in the shadows as we walked down a sloping concrete ramp. (According to one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates once walked past this spot on an ancient ring road.) A few blocks away, we descended into a subterranean warren of busy printers’ shops. Theocharaki told some workmen that we wanted to see the wall, and one began to clear aside piles of posters and paint-splattered buckets cluttering the corridor. Once he finished, we peered through a steel grate and saw the pale chiselled blocks winding away into the darkness. “I can’t believe it’s here,” a student said.

Dipylon originated in the early two-thousands, when Theocharaki met another archeologist, Leda Costaki, in the stacks of a research library in Athens. Both women had recently finished their dissertations: Theocharaki’s on Athens’s ancient walls, Costaki’s on the city’s ancient roads. “Dipylon” was the name of the main gate in classical Athens—a place where walls and roads meet. They thought that they’d combine their interests by creating a map of the roads and walls of the city. But they gradually began to imagine something more ambitious: gathering information from rescue excavations in one place. As they set to work, the true scope of the project soon became clear. Not only did they have to analyze and digitize a huge amount of material; they also wanted attractive digital interfaces, a complex database structure, and free mobile apps. They organized the Dipylon Society as a nonprofit to help secure grant funding and support a small full-time staff of designers, coders, archeologists, and a philologist.

By pulling together the rescue-excavation data, Dipylon was also exploring the social history of archeology in Greece. In the first half of the twentieth century, archeologists often prized artifacts more for their aesthetic qualities than for the social and historical information they might supply; even human skeletal remains were sometimes disregarded. Certain periods were valued more than others: in some early excavation reports, state archeologists called the classical period “the beautiful years” while the Roman era was considered of lesser worth. The Byzantine and Ottoman periods—during which Greece was part of the Eastern Roman and Ottoman Empires—lacked the cultural cachet of classical Athens and were often ignored. The emphasis was on monumental architecture, or on painted pottery, jewelry, or sculpture that might be displayed in a museum—not on roads, walls, and simple objects of daily use.

Such objects were still unearthed, however, often by female archeologists, who were less likely to have the option of an academic career. In the nineties, jobs in Greece’s state archeological service were often offered on a contract basis, and women tended to fill these nonpermanent positions, which came without benefits. Understaffed, poorly compensated, and facing ferocious pressure from landowners eager to start building, state archeologists usually went unrecognized, their reports often signed only by their supervisors.

In the courtyard café of the Numismatic Museum of Athens—a beautiful three-story neoclassical mansion that was once the residence of Heinrich Schliemann, a German businessman and amateur archeologist—I had coffee with Olga Voyatzoglou, who worked on rescue excavations for the state service in Athens in the nineteen-seventies and again in the nineties. Now in her seventies, Voyatzoglou is a petite woman with a soft voice and quick smile. As she told me about her years in the archeological service, it became clear that she and Schliemann were opposites in many ways. Schliemann, who excavated at Troy and Mycenae, was internationally famous and bankrolled by a vast private fortune; he was more treasure hunter than archeologist. Voyatzoglou was relatively obscure, interested in systematic research, and supported by meagre public funds.

In the seventies, Voyatzoglou said, she supervised rescue excavations near the site of Plato’s Academy. Athens was in the midst of a construction boom, and landowners had to pay the costs of labor for the teams of excavators that she supervised. “This was a very big problem,” she recalled with a sigh. “Because the owner is paying, they don’t want to lose money, so they are always saying, Go faster.” Some landowners would begin construction illegally, digging the foundations of buildings themselves and destroying the archeology; others pressured her team to excavate only to a certain depth, fearing that they might find something. On a typical day, she was directing workers at three to four sites simultaneously while trying to protect and document the material being unearthed. She worked six days a week, with only Sundays off. When artifacts were discovered that might attract looters—such as a burial with expensive grave goods—police were posted to guard the sites overnight.

“Somebody else could go and have a coffee,” she said. “Not me—I was always there.” Still, despite the difficulties, she loved the work. “Every day you go in expecting to find something new.” She oversaw excavations at well over a hundred sites during her time in the service—and yet only a small fraction of the material recovered is likely to appear in a museum. The rest languishes in long-term storage, its significance buried in excavation reports that, before Dipylon, were accessible only to specialists.

In 2021, Dipylon launched a project called Mapping Ancient Athens. An interactive tool, it layers data from the Neolithic through the modern period on a searchable map. You can explore houses in the Byzantine period, religious and cult locations in the Roman period, or water systems in the Ottoman period, browsing relevant information from the original rescue excavations. Click on the location of the Greek parliament building downtown, and you learn that, in the Hellenistic period (323-31 B.C.), the site was likely a fullery—a place where sheep’s wool was processed and dyed red and blue. Nearby, under a popular vegan restaurant, a three-aisled Byzantine church is buried, with a gray marble floor dating to the tenth century A.D.

Museums are usually discrete sites within a city. But Mapping Ancient Athens turns the whole city into a kind of exploded museum, with every shop and corner harboring relics from a vanished world. This city-as-museum model highlights the precise, often forgotten work of archeologists like Voyatzoglou.

Dipylon’s newest project is a guided walking tour through some of the neighborhoods where Voyatzoglou once worked. Launched in May, the free Walk to Plato’s Academy app starts on a busy street near the original Dipylon gate and traces the route of an ancient road, which winds through the modern city to the site of the Academy, today a sprawling park. Before the launch, I joined a small team for a test-walk. The first person to arrive was Pavlos Habidis, a well-known Greek artist. In consultation with Dipylon’s archeologists, Habidis had painted a series of watercolors imagining historical landscapes and buildings, and Dipylon had incorporated them into the app. Theocharaki and Costaki soon arrived, along with Maria Karagiannopoulou, an archeologist, and Spyros Mousouris, a Web developer.

When we reached the first of fifteen points along the walk, we stopped beside a noisy intersection. Holding up our phones, we began slowly turning in circles. On our screens, a panoramic watercolor by Habidis rotated three hundred and sixty degrees. The painting let us gaze into the area as it might have looked in the nineteenth century. There was a green meadow, a cluster of orangish clay buildings, and a pale road leading to a grove of trees. Inky hills faded into a distant blue sky. For a moment, the roar of motorcycles and the concrete, graffiti-covered buildings seemed to fade away.

“You know, that’s not bad!” Habidis said, looking up and smiling. It was the first time he’d seen his artwork digitized inside the app.

We walked a few blocks to the next stop. Across the street, a construction crew was working with a bulldozer behind a blue steel fence. The archeologists all began speaking at once: What was being built? Had they gotten the proper authorization? It is believed that the area used to have a sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Artemis, and earlier excavations had uncovered an inscribed stone recording a fourth-century-B.C. mortgage on a house and a tavern. If something new was being built, this required a new rescue excavation.

We crossed the street to take a closer look. A tall man in work boots and a puffy green jacket walked over.

“We’re archeologists,” Karagiannopoulou said. “Not from the service, but we’re making this app based on rescue archeology.”

He nodded, looking slightly confused.

“When were there excavations here?” she asked.

“September of 2022,” he said. “The owner didn’t want a basement; they didn’t go very deep.”

“What will the new building be?” Karagiannopoulou asked.

“A restaurant,” he said.

“There was a tavern here in antiquity!” she said, before explaining more about Dipylon.

He nodded, still seeming unsure why a group of archeologists was so interested in the site.

“We have to check the new excavation reports,” Costaki said as we left.

We passed modern apartment blocks with laundry fluttering from their balconies, butcher shops and trendy cafés, and crumbling neoclassical buildings from the nineteenth century, many abandoned and covered in scrawls of graffiti. Though close to downtown, we didn’t see a single tourist. “People were telling us, Oh, you can’t take tourists to that part of Athens,” Costaki said. “It’s run-down. It’s dirty.” She shrugged. “But that’s life. I mean, that’s Athens. It’s not only the Acropolis and the glorious monuments.”

In the shadow of a looming highway overpass, as the roar of engines and the stench of exhaust drifted down, we gazed at Habidis’s mellow rendering of a nineteenth-century olive mill which had once stood there. For most of the past two and half millennia, modern buildings hadn’t obstructed the view; the Acropolis would have been visible from every point on the walk. Turning my phone, I saw a small Parthenon atop a white-and-mauve rock in Habidis’s painting. By sliding a finger across the screen, it was possible to choose between contemporary and historical views. There was an intermediate zone where the two blurred into palimpsest, the rich specificity of the past hovering, faintly visible, beneath the modern street. By the end of the walk, this visual effect had become a state of consciousness. Beneath the seductive surface of the present, there is always something older—the cool of a vanished stream, the clay of a potter’s workshop, the stones of a country villa, the grave of a young man buried with a flute and a lyre. Even archeology itself has a past, which can flicker back to life. ♦