Gillian Bouras
An Australian
Writer
Living in Greece

October 2012

 

Late again; this time the excuses are archaeological. The Hebrew proverb states that God never made anything single, and that certainly seems true of archaeology in Greece, which has a particular way of slowing most things, especially public works, up. Or down, which seems a more appropriate turn of phrase and direction. People complain about the time taken to complete projects, but Greek law insists, quite rightly, that whenever finds surface from underground, then all work must stop until the archaeologists are called in to assess and record the discoveries.

Such was the case, not just once, during the construction of the Athens metro system. This part of the public transport network has proved to be a boon and a blessing, but was slow to reach completion because of the same old problem: diggers, both manual and mechanical, kept unearthing bits and pieces of historical interest and value. The architects solved the problem at the Syntagma stop by incorporating the various finds in display cases built into the walls of the complex, so commuters can see artifacts from ancient history on their way to and from work. At Monastiraki station, one stop further on, interested people can view the best part of an ancient house.

I used to long for ancient treasure to turn up in my modest back yard. (A few shell fossils did.) But I have since learned some practical sense: farmers dread the day when a votive offering, parts of wall, or similar turn up on their land, for that means that said land can be taken over for a dig, and that there will not necessarily be any compensation. I even learned recently, to my horror, that a developer bribed the owner of a bulldozer to stop digging and dozing because it had become apparent that ancient walls lay under the development site. Not a word was said, and so now two blocks of flats rise above the buried walls of a certain ancient city.

Underwater archaeology has its own set of difficulties: the dangers inherent in diving to great depths, tides, winds, all the hazards of the deep. To my fascination, and to the fascination of countless others, news was recently released of the discovery of no fewer than six ancient ships, both Greek and Roman.  These lie at depths between 40 and 46 metres off the southern coast of Attica, just north of ancient Thorikos, site of ancient and very productive silver mines. The wide Evian straits were a very important sea lane for at least 800 years between the 4th Century BC and the 4th AD.

What is particularly exciting about these finds is that three ships appear to have lain untouched since their sinking, and so there may be actual wooden remains on the ocean floor, buried beneath layers of amphorae, the earthenware containers used in the shipment of wine and olive oil. One of the Roman wrecks contains 300 amphorae, and it is thought that these containers are only the top layer of the cargo. Another Roman wreck was carrying a cargo of roof tiles. As farmers and developers make discoveries on land, so fishermen and divers provide information for marine archaeologists, and investigations continue to be conducted despite the constrictions of the ongoing economic crisis in Greece.

In one of life’s little coincidences, I found myself yesterday at ancient Thorikos, place of spectacular views of those sea lanes already mentioned. The well-preserved theatre is possibly the oldest in Greece, and is part of a fascinating complex of religious and industrial installations. Quite close to the theatre are the washeries, where the rock containing lead and silver was first pounded and then sluiced with water before the metals could be taken away to be smelted. The process was extremely labour intensive, and the whole endeavour would have been impossible without slave labour. There were tens of thousands of slaves, and one imagines that their lives were nasty, brutish and short. When Attica was threatened during the Peloponnesian Wars, 20,000 slaves defected to Sparta: it is not known how many stayed loyal to Athens and took their chances. Such chances, one imagines, would have been few and unappealing.

The silver, of course, was a vital source of wealth, and in ways that were not always expected. After the battle of Marathon, in which the famous Themistocles fought in 490 BC, and which was the occasion of the defeat of the first Persian invasion of Greece, the humiliated Persians decided to attempt the total subjugation of Greece. It was that same Themistocles, master politician, who in 483 BC persuaded the Athenians to use the products of a very rich silver strike at Thorikos to build a fleet of two hundred triremes. These ships were eventually used in the Battle of Salamina, in which the Greeks routed the Persians, while Xerxes, their king, sat enthroned and weeping on the shore across the water.

This victory could not have been achieved without the work of the slaves. The sacrifice of the many for the sake of the few: nothing much changes throughout history.

Gillian Bouras

 

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