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Plague Victims Found: Mass Burial in Athens April 15, 1998
by Nikos Axarlis

[image]The site of a mass grave and nearly 1,000 tombs from the fourth and fifth century B.C. (Nikos Axarlis) [LARGER IMAGE]

A unique mass grave and nearly 1,000 tombs from the fifth and fourth century B.C. were recovered during excavations prior to construction of a subway station just outside Athens' ancient Kerameikos cemetery. Both the mass grave and the tombs were destroyed after rescue excavations.

Located near the surface, the mass grave was excavated during 1994-95 by Efi Baziotopoulou-Valavani of the Third Ephoreia (Directorate) of Antiquities. Inside a shaft were some 90 skeletons, ten belonging to children. Baziotopoulou thinks a tumulus crowning the shaft may have contained 150 people. Skeletons in the graves were placed helter-skelter with no soil between them. It was bordered by a low wall that seems to have protected the cemetery from a marsh. Along with the skeletons, various ceramic burial offerings were found, far fewer than excavators expected.

[image] A white-ground lekythos (oil flask), left [LARGER IMAGE] and a black-glazed pot, right [LARGER IMAGE] were recovered from a mass grave. (Courtesy Efi Baziotopoulou-Valavani) [image]

"The mass grave," Baziotopoulou-Valavani says, "did not have a monumental character. The offerings we found consisted of common, even cheap, burial vessels; black-finished ones, some small red-figured, as well as white lekythoi (oil flasks) of the second half of the fifth century B.C. The bodies were placed in the pit within a day or two. These [factors] point to a mass burial in a state of panic, quite possibly due to a plague."

The fifth-century B.C. Greek historian Thucydides detailed the panic caused by the plague, which struck Athens and Sparta in 430 and lasted two years, killing nearly a third of the population. He wrote that bodies were abandoned in temples and streets, where they were collected and hastily buried. The disease reappeared in the winter of 427 B.C. Baziotopoulou has dated the grave to between 430 and 426 B.C.

[image] Construction of the Kerameikos subway station, shown here in progress, was eventually canceled by the Greek government. (H.R. Goette) [LARGER IMAGE]

Pressed by the state-owned subway construction company and its private contractors, Greek archaeologists were forced to work quickly. Bulldozers followed in their wake, destroying both the tombs and the mass grave. Ironically, construction of the subway station and a proposed subway tunnel underneath the cemetery was canceled last December by the Greek government. Neither government ministers or officials, nor the director of the state-owned company that oversees the building of the Athens subway, nor the contractors have offered an apology for destroying the site. A multistory parking lot is planned for the huge hole that remains.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America