Antiquities Underground

Article excerpt

The new `Athens Metro', inaugurated a year or so ago, has been seen as a major social and political development for Athens and more broadly for Greece. It is hoped that the two new underground lines, added to the existing single one, will help alleviate the enormous congestion and pollution problems. This project, co-funded by the European Union and the Greek government, despite its modest scale and its long overdue date, was hailed as a landmark venture, embodying a new spirit of `modernization'. This spirit was materially expressed in the use of new, fast and clean trains, and in the construction of architecturally innovative stations (some decorated with modern art), patrolled by armed private security, where rules concerning smoking and pollution are strictly reinforced. A dichotomy has developed in popular perception between the old line (`Electric'), with its seedy image and chronic problems of congestion and delays, and the new ones (`Metro'), with their sparkling facades and high-tech trains.

A significant innovation is the public exhibition of antiquities in the central stations of the new lines. Antiquities were intricately linked with the long process of construction of the new Underground. Archaeologists were often successful in raising the issues of the protection of the antiquities found during the work, and in forcing the construction company to modify its timetable or even its planned routes. The construction of the new lines thus resulted in large-scale rescue excavations (which would have been otherwise impossible) which elucidated many aspects of the Athenian past (cf. www.culture.gr for summary information). The most spectacular finds from these excavations were recently shown in a highly publicized exhibition entitled `The City Beneath the City', at the Goulandris Museum, on show until December 2001.

The exhibition of antiquities in a public-transport venue is a first for Greece and unusual elsewhere in the world. Finds from different periods are exhibited (in a rather conventional museological manner) in glass cases with minimal information (FIGURE 1). In addition, whole structural features have been preserved and exhibited in some stations (FIGURE 2). But the most impressive of all is the large-scale reconstruction of an archaeological stratigraphic section in the central station at Syntagma Square, the political centre of Athens and the location of the national Parliament (FIGURES 3-4). The reconstruction of the section is the dominant feature in the main hall of the station. It incorporates finds from the excavations themselves (including the reconstruction of a 4th-century BC tomb with remains of the skeleton still in it) and provides some brief information on the dating of the different stratigraphic levels. No other visual or audio information on its meaning and its archaeological significance is provided, however. …