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Olympics Construction Projects Push Athens Archaeologists to Balance Very, Very Old with New - 2004-08-18

Bringing Athens' transportation up to speed ahead of the summer games proved more difficult than what most modern cities usually endure, as massive construction projects turned into excavation sites. The city's archaeologists came up with a compromise keeping the very, very old along with the new.

For many Olympic visitors in the city of Athens, the metro is not just a way of getting somewhere, it's the destination.

Here in the Syntagma station in downtown Athens, Greek Archaeologist Olga Zachariadou stands amid glass display cases of clay pottery, caskets and a two-meter-long segment of an ancient water pipeline. She says construction at this metro stop and other recent projects in the city have unearthed a number of significant artifacts that date back to the 4th century B.C. to the 7th Century A.D.

"In this station, we had the largest excavation and we found many things as a riverbed, a very long part of this aqueduct, a very large graveyard of about 300 graves, a very extensive bath complex of the Roman period and some bronze foundries, also," says Ms. Zachariadou.

Pointing to a display of painted clay vessels, Ms. Zachariadou says many of the items found during excavation of the site were well preserved because they were offerings placed inside burial graves.

"You see little perfume bottles, small plates," she notes. "In other cases you can see other things also, marble vases, oil lamps, weight [for] looms, and some memorials with the names of the dead people. Sometimes we have also children, then the offerings are small."

Ms. Zachariadou says any time construction plans are laid out in specific districts of Athens, an archaeologist must be consulted and special care must be taken to preserve any artifacts found at the site. While this is a normal building procedure in Athens, Ms. Zachariadou says the time constraints of the Olympics made the job a little harder.

Zachariadou: At the same time, we had more means. I mean we had more money, more personnel to do our work and that was good. Of course, the pressure of the time was very laborious for us.

Ward: So, the government gave you more money than they normally do?

Zachariadou: Yes, that is true, but I don't know after the Olympics what they will do.

Just one stop away in either direction are two other metro stations with exhibits of antiquities. Nearby, at the Monastiraki stop is a Roman bathhouse, which Ms. Zachariadou says was discovered during construction of a ventilation shaft.

"We had there a very well preserved bathhouse complex of the Roman period, the 3rd-4th Century A.D. and because of that we decided to preserve these baths in their position and the ventilation shaft removed," she adds.

Although the excavation work delayed some metro projects by as much as two years, Ms. Zachariadou says Greeks are very proud of their heritage and happy to see such artifacts displayed at the sites where they were found.