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.