DISCOVER Vol. 24 No. 12 | December 2003 |
History is complicating the return of the Olympics to its
home. Construction crews preparing for the 2004 Athens
competitions, scheduled to open August 13, keep hitting
ancient buildings and artifacts. Despite time-consuming
efforts to preserve these antiquities, some archaeologists
charge that science is losing out to national pride.
At the center of the conflict is the rowing and canoeing
basin (below) being built at Schinias, 18 miles northeast of
Athens. Most archaeologists identify this beachfront land as
the site of the 490 B.C. battle of Marathon between the
Persians and the Greeks. The battle is regarded as one of the
most important in Greek history, says archaeologist David
Romano of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the
University of Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, the Greek Ministry
of Culture declared the site safe for construction based on
geophysical studies suggesting that the area had been a lagoon
at the time of the battle. “The epicenter of the battle is
about 4 kilometers [2.5 miles] away,” says Athens 2004 press
manager Serafim Kotrotsos. Archaeologist Michael Cosmopoulos
of the University of Missouri at St. Louis is skeptical:
“Independent archaeological organizations, such as the Athens
Archaeological Society, disagree.” The rowing and canoeing
basin hit another stumbling block when bulldozers struck the
remains of a 4,500-year-old Bronze Age village. The government
moved two of the three houses, and construction resumed.
The good news is that Olympic construction has also
unearthed thousands of artifacts that might otherwise have
remained hidden. The building of the Markopoulo Equestrian
Center revealed the remains of a temple to Aphrodite, and the
Olympic Village exposed a 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct.
Archaeologists made more than 30,000 finds during a recent
expansion of the subway. But excavations have put the games
behind schedule—by last August only two of the 29 venues had
been completed—and fueled a popular feeling that Greece’s
history is getting in the way of Greece’s modern progress.
“They can’t do anything without being reminded of their
ancestors; they are controlled by their past,” Romano says.