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From the President: Olympic Battle Volume 54 Number 4, July/August 2001
by Nancy C. Wilkie

New fighting on the plain of Marathon

The plain of Marathon, where the Greeks defeated the Persians in 490 B.C., is the scene of renewed fighting following the Greek government's decision to build a rowing and canoeing center there for the 2004 Olympics. A demonstration protesting the decision was staged by archaeologists, environmentalists, and citizen groups, who marched from the Marathon Tumulus, where Athenians killed in the ancient battle are buried, to the Schinias beach where the Persians are thought to have landed their ships. Letter writing campaigns are underway and Europa Nostra, a pan-European federation of more than 200 nongovernmental heritage organizations, has mounted a Campaign for the Protection of the Marathon Historic Site and the Schinias Wetland.

The Marathon site and adjacent wetland have yet to be fully investigated by archaeologists. The ancient historian Herodotus describes the famous battle, but it is Pausanias, a second-century A.D. traveler and historian, who has given us the most important information about the battlefield itself. He describes an image in the Painted Colonnade of the Athenian Agora depicting several scenes from the battle. In one, the Persians were shown falling and being pushed into the marsh, and in another they were depicted fleeing to their ships drawn up on the beach.

In an attempt to diminish the archaeological importance of the site, the Greek Culture Minister, Evangelos Venizelos, has argued that the landscape has changed significantly since ancient times and that the modern Schinias beach was three to six feet beneath the sea in antiquity. This is contradicted by a 1996-1997 study carried out by geologist Richard Dunn under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. By drilling a series of 20 bore holes to a depth of 26 feet across the plain, Dunn was able to determine that the ancient topography of Marathon was just as Herodotus described it--a marshy area behind a protective barrier-beach--and that the site proposed for the rowing center was not beneath the sea 2,500 years ago as those promoting the center claim. Dunn's conclusions are supported by Vassilis Petrakos, the archaeologist in charge of Marathon prior to his retirement in 1994, who is currently the general secretary of the Athens Archaeological Society.

Archaeologists are not alone in their opposition to the construction of the Olympic center. Environmentalists have joined in as well. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Schinias Wetland is the most important coastal wetland in Attica. It is home to 176 species of birds and many rare and endemic plants. To counter the objections of environmental groups, the Greek government has declared the entire site a National Park. However, the deletion of Schinias from the list of sites nominated by the government for inclusion in an official network of protected sites (Sites of Community Importance within the European Union) tells a different story. In an effort to mobilize public opinion on the issue, four conservation organizations in Greece have created a web site through which protests can be registered with the president of the European Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge.

I urge you to join in the effort to preserve this important historic and natural site.

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Nancy C. Wilkie is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.

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© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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