Through a combination of “sheer luck” and meticulous digging, archaeologists have stumbled upon one of the finds of the century - an ancient cemetery dating back to the golden age of Athens.
The cemetery, thought to be the possible resting place of statesmen such as Pericles, Solon and Lycourgos, is mentioned in several ancient texts but its exact location has long eluded archaeologists.
The team has uncovered parts of the cemetery, known as Demosion Sima, dating to the fifth century B.C., said Yannis Tsedakis, director of antiquities at the Culture Ministry.
“For Athens and its history, it is one of the most important finds so far, at least in the post-World War II period,” he said.
The discovery will help scholars fill in some lingering gaps in their knowledge of ancient Greece. It comes just eight months after archaeologists unearthed the Lyceum, or school, where the Greek philosopher Aristotle taught nearly 2,500 years ago.
“It is as extraordinary as the Lyceum. Two in one year,” Tsedakis said.
Pericles, who lived from 495 to 429 B.C., was responsible for bringing democracy to Athens and building monuments such as the Parthenon atop the Acropolis. Under his leadership, Athens reached the pinnacle of its power in ancient times.
The Demosion Sima is referred to in the works of Thucydides, one of the greatest of the ancient writers, and is mentioned in his funeral oration to Pericles. Thucydides chronicled the Peloponnesian War, which occurred during Pericles’ rule.
“It is a very important find for many people around the world, especially if in their youth they studied ancient Greek history,” Tsedakis said.
The cemetery was discovered by chance when the owner of a planned theater called on archaeologists to survey the site after demolishing an older structure.
In ancient times, notables such as Pericles and war heroes were buried in mass graves called “polyandria,” meaning “many men.” Archaeologists have found at least four polyandria on the site, while a fifth is believed to be located under an adjacent building.
Findings so far include bones, ashes and ceramics depicting scenes of battle. Archaeologists will continue searching for inscriptions or references to names to try to determine whether Pericles is buried there.
Tsedakis said “entire generations” of archaeologists had sought to find the site and had suspected its location at the site now being excavated, but he said it was “amazing” that they chanced upon it between two buildings in a heavily built-up area.
“It wasn’t study so much as sheer luck. This is how it also started with the Lyceum,” Tsedakis said.
In January, archaeologists were conducting a dig in central Athens on the location of a planned museum of modern art when they discovered a large fourth century B.C. gymnasium that is thought to be part of the Lyceum founded by Aristotle in 335 B.C.
Aristotle, who lived from 384 to 322 B.C., studied under Plato and tutored Alexander the Great. His Lyceum, where he taught until his death, was considered one of the three greatest schools of philosophy in ancient Greece and had been sought by archaeologists for more than 150 years.