Shocking evidence purporting to relate to a failed coup attempt has been uncovered in Athens in recent weeks. Less than 7km from the Acropolis, near the ancient port of Faliron (sometimes spelled Phaleron) and in the shadow of the modern Olympic Tae Kwon Do arena, redevelopment work on the site of an old race track unearthed over 1,500 sets of human remains. The finds include two mass graves containing “deviant” burials with evidence of violence. The remains are almost three thousand years old, dating to the period immediately preceding the “Golden Age” of Classical Athens, but their significance resonates strongly in the present day.
We excavate the evidence to uncover the hidden political agendas – past and present, large and small – behind the reporting of this discovery, and restore its true significance. For extra points, we will attempt to do this without resorting to the familiar mythological clichés of Greek crisis reporting (“Acropolis now!” “Lost their marbles!” “Greek tragedy!”).
One particular find from this excavation has captured the popular imagination in Greece and abroad. The final phase of the excavations uncovered a mass grave containing 80 skeletons, many of which have their wrists bound in iron shackles. The skeletons studied so far belong to healthy young men who appear to have died an undignified death, evidently a mass execution. The excavator, presenting them for the first time recently, dated this group to the latter part of the 7th century BC, and went to suggest that they may be linked to a specific historical event, the so-called Kylonian Conspiracy.
An earlier excavation conducted in the early twentieth century during the first wave of modern development in the area had found a group of 17 skeletons that appeared to have been executed using a practice known as “apotympanismos” – an early form of crucifixion. The condition of some of the remains suggested to their excavator that they had also been subjected to violent lynching. The finds shocked early twentieth century Athenian society, and their excavator published a lengthy and detailed study of the practice that until then had only been hinted at in ancient texts. It is now suggested that the two groups may be connected.
The Kylonian Conspiracy is known as the earliest attested “historical” event in Athenian history, and several Classical historians recount versions of the story. In the early days of the Athenian city-state, Kylon was a successful athlete who, having won Olympic glory and consulted the Delphic Oracle, sought to use his father-in-law’s out-of-town muscle to install a tyranny in Athens (his father-in-law being himself the tyrant of the nearby city of Megara). Kylon and his followers were pursued by the Athenians and sought sanctuary in the temple of Athena on the Acropolis, where sacred law protected them from harm (the origin of the modern institution of “asylum”). They were besieged and starved, and were eventually cajoled into leaving the protection of the shrine, at which point they were attacked and most of them were slaughtered.
According to the ancient accounts, this act of sacrilege brought shame on the ruling family of Athens at the time, the Alkmeonidai, and also saddled them with a divine curse which followed them through the generations bringing epidemics and other disasters upon the city. The event brought a period of unrest, which eventually served as a catalyst for the first codification of Athenian law under Solon, which is considered the cornerstone of the political innovation that was ancient Athenian democracy.
The political symbolism of the Kylonian Conspiracy is not lost on the Greece of 2016, where the modern institution of democracy seems to be challenged and tested from many directions: from the perpetual election cycle as successive governments have failed to live up to the challenges of the financial crisis, to the traumatic experience of direct democracy in a controversial referendum and the hue and cry of #thisisacoup when the result was overturned, to the questioning of the democratic accountability of the supra-national lending institutions which supervise the Greek bailout, and the perceived threat from heavy-handed government interventions in the modern democratic institutions of the media and the judiciary. One humorist reacted by publishing a spoof story identifying the shackled skeletons with a group of journalists sanctioned by their union in connection with allegations of bias in their coverage of the July referendum.
You don’t need the Delphic oracle to tell you that there are more difficult times ahead for Greece, as a further round of difficult bailout negotiations looks set to drag on into another long hot summer, and more austerity is looming on the horizon. The political violence seemingly evidenced in the ground mingles all too readily with the whiff of political turmoil in the air in Athens, as the government seeks to quell rumours of early elections, new political parties are launched almost daily, and there is a general jockeying for position in expectation of political developments.
The grisly find serves as a reminder that the path to democracy was not a peaceful one, and that ancient Athenian democracy was not the scrubbed and sanitised ideal state we often like to imagine but a dirty, fractious and, yes, violent, regime which eventually exercised its punitive powers against most of the household names we associate with its Golden Age (Socrates – death by poison; Themistocles – exile; Thucydides – exile; Phidias – prison and/or exile, and the list continues). The gruesome punishment of apotympanismos continued to be practiced under no less a democratic luminary than Pericles, who used it on the captives of the Samian revolt in 439 BC. Even at its height, Athenian democracy would rank low in any modern human rights index, as in addition to featuring state-sponsored torture it was based on slave labour and excluded women from most areas of public life, including the vote. In an ideal word, these finds should shock us out of our reverential approach to the past. At the very least my unreconstructed exceptionalist friends should feel able to brag to the rest of the world that “when you were still in the trees, we were inventing new and unusual forms of punishment”.
As is often the case, there is more to this story of ancient gore than meets the eye. Armchair archaeology is a practice fraught with more dangers than a booby-trapped Mayan tomb in an Indiana Jones film, however we can venture some general observations. The identification of an archaeological find with a specific historical event is tricky to say the least – for comparison, consider the burden of proof required to conclusively identify the remains of Richard III, only five centuries old and with several living descendants. The shackled burials have been dated based on the style of a couple of pots found in their vicinity, thought to be the remains of a sacrifice. Some controversy around the date may be based on misreporting. However, dating the finds to a specific year (e.g. 632 BC) will not be possible, given that inferring a chronological date from purely stylistic criteria is by its nature imprecise, and scientific dating techniques (when they come to be applied) will have a margin of error.
It is also worth pointing out that all of the historical accounts of the Kylonian Conspiracy date to at least a couple of centuries after the supposed event, which itself is only dated approximately by modern scholars to 632BC, based on the account that it was an Olympic year. The story has strong mythical overtones (the family curse, a recurring motif of many a Greek tragedy) and it also serves as a plot device, to explain the existence of the curse which was repeatedly used as a political slur against subsequent generations of the Alkmaionidai. Put simply, there is reason to believe that the Kylonian Conspiracy is not 100% historical fact, let alone connected to the finds in question.
But now, as then, it makes for a good story; and now, as then, it fulfils a purpose. The purpose is presumably to bring the finds in the Faliron Delta to the public’s attention, to ensure that the excavation continues to be supported and the finds are given due prominence. The excavation is the focus of a micro-political struggle of its own. The investigation of the 3,000 square metre site is being conducted as a rescue excavation, which started in 2012 to prepare the ground for a major building project, now nearing its completion. The project is the construction of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC), a €584 million landmark Renzo Piano-designed building funded by the estate of the late shipping magnate, which will be given over to the Greek state on its completion to house the Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece. The Cultural Centre is eagerly anticipated, including by the top echelons of the present government; it was always intended to provide Athens with a world class library and performance venue, but in the years of the crisis that followed its commissioning its visible progress has offered a welcome contrast to the overwhelming climate of pessimism.
At the same time, it has attracted criticism from some quarters, particularly the left-wing arts community. Some (mainly on the left of the political spectrum) are sceptical of the motives behind the donation, concerned about the perceived appropriation of public culture by an expatriate shipping family (the rival Onassis Foundation has come in for similar barbs), particularly at a time when the Greek shipping industry is under scrutiny for its preferential tax status. Others (mainly on the right) fear for the future of the Centre once it is passed to the public sector, given recent examples of mismanagement and the inevitable squeeze on public funding for culture.
How does this affect the archaeology? Τhe Niarchos Foundation have been funding the archaeological investigations on the site, and are obliged by law to cover the cost of the storage and conservation of any finds, which in this case will be significant. Provision must also be made for exhibiting a selection of the finds, in the tradition of recent public projects in Greece which inevitably stumble upon ancient remains during their construction (passengers on the Athens Metro can see preserved or reconstructed archaeological sections as well as exhibition cases with objects found on the site in many of the underground stations).
As the SNFCC nears its completion (it is due to be delivered later this year), timelines are getting tighter, the magnitude of the find is becoming more apparent, and the relationship between the Foundation and the Greek Archaeological Service is evidently coming under strain. In a recent meeting of the Special Advisory Committee for the project (webcast live in its entirety – transparency advocates take note!) it was agreed that the last remaining section of the excavations containing the shackled skeletons, and fortunately located in the surrounding park rather than an area intended for building, would be allowed to remain open for continued investigation so as not to hold back the completion of the building works. But the tone was tetchy, and the Foundation’s President appeared to be growing impatient with the archaeologists. A few days after the meeting the latest finds were presented, and the theory of the Kylonian Conspiracy was mooted. Meanwhile, articles have begun to appear, critical of the Foundation for taking what is seen by some as a high-handed approach and failing to provide support commensurate to the status of the find.
In a recent article it was reported that the KAS (Greece’s Central Archeological Council) took the decision by a close vote to keep the remaining section of the excavation open and seek solutions for its conservation and exhibition. It is unclear where any further funding for the excavation will come from, what arrangements will be made for exhibiting the finds, and how these will fit in with the existing functions of the building which is now almost complete. The Niarchos Foundation has not made any further statement on the matter, but a resolution will need to be reached in the near future. The situation is complicated further by the sudden departure of the SNFCC’s Managing Director.
This will be a test not just for the Foundation, but also for the institutions involved in shaping cultural policy in Greece, which have traditionally resisted the involvement of the private sector but now find themselves deeply embroiled, given both the context and the scale of the find. Sensationalising archaeological finds in pursuit of funding, access or political favour, however tempting, is a risky strategy – as we have noted previously in the case of Amphipolis. The importance of this particular find is indisputable, but it is not because of the shaky Kylon connection.
The Faliron Delta cemetery may be one of the largest ever excavated in Greece. It was in use for almost three hundred years during a poorly understood period on the cusp between prehistory and the historical era. The large sample size will make it possible to reach significant conclusions about the population of Archaic Athens, its genetic makeup, its diet and its historical evolution. Moreover, the preservation conditions are exceptional, because the site lay in swampy ground in a river delta. In addition to the mass graves, it includes an amazing variety of funerary practices, including infant jar burials, funeral pyres, boat burials (with carved wooden boats fully preserved), and animal burials (including several horses) (further information and photos here). Archaeological techniques for recovery, conservation and analysis have progressed significantly since the first excavations on the site, but the sheer volume of material will undoubtedly pose a logistical, as well as a funding challenge for those involved (an international team based in the American School of Classical Studies in Athens has already been given permission to study the osteological material).
Although the present situation looks like a bind, it actually presents an enormous opportunity to overhaul the practice of archaeology and heritage management in Greece. Having excited the popular imagination with blood and gore, we hope that the public will be rewarded with access to the findings, breaking with the tradition of proprietorial neglect that characterises large swathes of archaeological practice in Greece at the exclusion of the public. At the same time, it would be a mistake to treat the private sector as a bottomless source of unconditional funding to make up for the shortcomings of the public sector. It would be a shame if the emerging tussle between public and private sectors were to condemn such important finds to the darkness of museum store room, so a constructive and innovative approach is needed from both sides. The discovery would also seem to present a unique (if unforeseen and unbudgeted-for) opportunity for the Niarchos Foundation to add a further dimension to its cultural project by promoting a thoroughly modern look into the past. The technologically forward approach which aims to deliver a zero-emissions building would find a natural extension in the scientific approach to the archaeology on the site, while the Foundation’s educational initiatives would harmonise with innovative practices of study and display.
This is a tremendous opportunity to give the public a deeper and perhaps more interactive understanding of the archaeological past and its relevance in the modern world. If in years to come we remember the Faliron cemetery simply as the site of a failed coup, it should be counted a failure.
Image by the Greek Ministry of Culture, via press release from phys.org.