The Ancient Cemetery of Kerameikos in Athens

Athens has so many interesting archaeological sites and ruins that it’s hard to visit them all if you’re only here for a few days. Luckily, we had plenty of time to explore this ancient city, so we fit in as many historic sites as possible. One of the most interesting was the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos.

Let’s start our tour with the interior section of the site.

Kerameikos entry sign

Kerameikos was more than just a cemetery, however. While the cemetery itself was actually on the outside edge of this site, the interior was a busy potters’ quarter. It was once one of the largest working class districts in Athens.

This is where potters made the famous Attic vases, among other beautiful pottery. In fact, Kerameikos’ Latin name, Ceramicus, is where the word “ceramics” comes from.

Kerameikos, Athens

Themistocles built fortification walls around Kerameikos in 478 BC, after the Persian wars. The walls ran a length of 6,500 meters, and were 8-10 meters tall, surrounded by a moat.

Themistoclean Wall, Athens

The base of the wall was stone, with bricks and other building materials on top. Since the walls were built quickly, Athenians used whatever material was available, including rubble and broken fragments from surrounding buildings. This is called Spolia. Note the variation in building materials here:

Spolia used in Themistoclean wall, athens

The Themistoclean Walls also separated the inhabited inner quarter from the cemetery on the outskirts. Thirteen gates allowed access inside the fortified walls. But the Dipylon Gate and the Sacred Gate were the most important. The Dipylon Gate connected to the Panathenaic Way, leading to Plato’s Academy and the Parthenon. The Eleusinian, or Sacred Gate, was the access point for the procession of the Eleusinian Mysteries, one of the most important religious rites in ancient Greece.

This arched vaulted channel beside the Sacred Gate allowed the Eridanos River to flow through the gate. Potters settled in this area along the river (more of a stream, really) due to its rich clay soil – ideal for ceramics. Layers of rubble and sediment covered up the Eridanos river in the Kerameikos district for centuries, but work on the Athens Metro in the 1990s helped rediscover it.

Sacred Way and arched vaulted channel, Athens

Keep an eye out and watch where you step when you’re walking around Kerameikos. You may see a few Greek Tortoises lumbering about! These guys have a life span of 125 years or so!

Greek tortoise, Kerameikos, Athens

Greek tortoise, Kerameikos, Athens

This is the Pompeion – one of the largest and most important public buildings in Kerameikos. It was used for storage and the collection of offerings for the Panathenaic festival, held every four years. The nobility also ate great feasts here before the Panathenaic procession to the Acropolis, in honour of the goddess Athena. The building probably had other uses in between festivals as well.

Pompeion, Kerameikos site in Athens

Take a look at these delicate columns. Even in ruins, they are beautiful.

Columns in Kerameikos, Athens

This is a small sanctuary near the Sacred Gate. Scholars aren’t sure what deity it represented, but the marble altar was in use for around 650 years.

Sanctuary near Sacred Gate, Kerameikos, Athens

We didn’t know what this was used for. Was it a kiln perhaps? Anyone know?

Hole in ground, Kerameikos, Athens

Just a cool fragment from the ruins of a building. It reminded us of Lego bricks.

Stone fragment, Kerameikos, Athens

These are the remains of the foundations of a house. Note the stray kitty – a very common sight in Athens.

foundations of a house, Kerameikos, Athens

The Greek Archaeological Society started excavating Kerameikos in 1870. The German Archaeological Institute at Athens took over excavations in 1913, and have continued ever since. Today, the Kerameikos archaeological site covers approximately 11 acres. But more ruins lie under the surrounding modern buildings, waiting to be uncovered.

From the potter’s quarters, we walked to the outer district, which was the cemetery.

The tombs at Kerameikos date as far back as the Early Bronze Age (2700-2000 BC). In fact, Athenians used this cemetery almost continuously all the way up to the 6th Century AD.

This cemetery was the site where Pericles held his famous funeral oration in 431 BC. He delivered the speech at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War to honour those who died in battle.

Kerameikos Cemetery, Athens

This is the Street of Tombs. This is where you’ll find some of the most luxurious and elaborate monuments – many of which are reproductions of the originals. You can see some of the originals in the Kerameikos Museum on site.

Kerameikos Cemetery, Athens

This is a replica of the burial monument of Dionysios of Kollytos. The original is housed in the Kerameikos Museum.

burial monument of Dionysios of Kollitos

These are grave markers too, but much more restrained in their design. During his rule between 317-307 BC, Demetrios of Phaleron passed a law prohibiting the use of luxurious tomb monuments.

grave markers at Kerameikos, Athens

grave markers at Kerameikos, Athens

Be sure to visit the museum, which houses many of the original grave markers excavated here. It’s a small museum, but it has some great pieces in it.

Here is the original bull from the tomb of Dionysios of Kollytos. It dates to around 345-340 BC:

burial monument of Dionysios of Kollitos

I loved this marble sphinx! It dates to 550-540 BC:

Marble sphinx, 550-540 BC, Kerameikos Museum Athens

And note the deeply-set carving on this funerary tomb. This is the grave relief of Demetria and Pamphile, two deceased sisters, ca. 325-310 BC. This is one of the last elaborate tombs erected before the law preventing such ornate tombs came to pass. The artistry is just outstanding. Just look at the draping of the fabric and how their veils look so thin and delicate:

Grave relief of Demetria and Pamphile, Kerameikos Museum, Athens

This curly-haired fellow is the Sacred Gate Kouros. He was discovered during excavations in 2002, and he dates to around ca. 600-590 BC.

Sacred Gate Kouros, Kerameikos Museum, Athens

This is another tomb ornament on display at the museum. This Molossian dog kept watch over his master’s tomb for centuries. It dates to around 320 BC.

Molossian Dog Statue in Kerameikos

Kerameikos is a large enough site that even on busy days, it won’t feel crowded. But I also get the feeling that this isn’t a very popular site – although it should be, as it’s quite a fascinating place full of history and archaeological importance.

Getting There:

Address: 148, Ermou Street 10553

Public Transportation:

Electric Railway (ISAP): Thiseion station
Metro: Line 3 (blue line) to Kerameikos station
Bus No. 049 from Omonia Square and Piraeus
Trolley bus No. 21: Gazi station

Hours of Operation: 8:30 – 15:30

Admission: € 8, Reduced ticket € 4

 

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