A discovery beneath Athens delights archaeologists

by Rick Roberts
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Recently, workers in Athens unearthed a potentially important antiquities discovery. They found a piece of ancient Athenian artwork lying just inside the wall of a drainage duct, about 3 feet beneath a busy city street. It features a man’s bearded face, in a style reminiscent of works produced by a renowned sculptor, Alcamenes.

A remarkable find

The Greek Ministry of Culture reported the carved head discovered last year likely dates from the late Fourth Century BC or the early Third Century BC. Many experts believe it depicts a mature version of the Greek god, Hermes. Ancient Athenian artists usually depicted him at a much younger age, wearing winged boots and a helmet.

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In ancient Greek mythology, Hermes served as a messenger for the other gods living on Mount Olympus. He communicated information very rapidly across long distances. Perhaps for this reason, the ancient Greeks sometimes viewed him as a patron of travelers and merchants. His likeness carried strong associations with commerce. Some archaeologists surmise the statue discovered last year possibly formed part of signage posted outside a mercantile site.

A treasure trove for modern archaeologists

Finding important objects of art beneath the streets of the City of Athens does not surprise archaeologists. During its long history, this urban metropolis has proven an important location for recovering artifacts produced long ago. Archaeologists have discovered statuary, urns, vases, graves, and tools from excavations in the densely populated capital of Greece.

Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis happily revealed the discovery of the Hermes statue in a social media posting last year. By law, the Greek Ministry of Culture assumes possession of ancient artifacts found in Greece. The agency usually displays the most important finds in national museums. These discoveries help shed light on life in Greek cities centuries ago.

Archaeology in contemporary Athens

Officials from the Greek Ministry of Culture have not revealed extensive information about the most recent discovery; they apparently anticipate studying the piece to ascertain more information about it. However, archaeologist Elsi Spathari did indicate to Deutsche Welle, a German news agency, the chance discovery of the carved head of Hermes likely represents one of the most important items of art discovered in Athens during recent years.

One issue of concern to archaeologists hoping to conduct excavations in Athens relates to the densely packed nature of the city’s modern urban infrastructure. Today, paved streets and towering buildings sometimes stand atop potential archaeological sites. For example, researchers reportedly recovered some significant artifacts at the turn of the current century, when Athens constructed a municipal subway system. The project required extensive digging, and resulted in the discovery of numerous artifacts.

The challenge of preserving antiquities in Greece

The recent discovery of a stone head of the Ancient Greek god Hermes also highlights a potential problem encountered by experts seeking to retrieve lost antiquities in the modern era. The need to fully investigate sites containing artifacts sometimes inconveniences impacted businesses. Property owners and project managers may encounter extensive delays (and thus, unforeseen expenses) as a result of the discovery of antiquities beneath their real estate.

Fortunately, the sculpture of the head found last year apparently lay within infrastructure belonging to Athens. Yet anecdotal reports circulate of work crews sometimes seeking to conceal the accidental discovery of historical artifacts in Athens when an archaeological dig might delay a pressing building project. These tensions highlight potential conflicts between the interest of the public in learning more about the rich cultural heritage of ancient Athens and the desire of contractors to complete important modern projects on time.

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