What is Kerameikos?
Kerameikos is an archaeological site in Athens that once stood on the boundary of the ancient city, and was named after the potters who worked there.
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The name Kerameikos derives from the Greek word for pottery clay and that’s exactly what this place was once all about. In antiquity, this was a large neighbourhood divided by the walls of the city into the inner and outer Kerameikos. The inner area, within the city limits, was the quarter where the city’s potters had their workshops. It was on this site that they crafted their exquisite black- and red-figure vases, now the archetypal image of ancient Greek art. The outer Kerameikos was the ancient city’s cemetery, the whole area scattered with elaborate graves filled with goods left to accompany the dead to the afterlife.
The ancient Greeks believed that the soul was immortal and that after death it travelled to the realm of Hades (also known as the Underworld), a kingdom beneath the ground populated by wandering souls. In the Kerameikos, the Athenians didn’t simply lay the dead to rest. They also exhibited the power and wealth of their family through rich offerings and lavish tombstones. In fact, the marble monuments of some individuals were so elaborate, so beautiful and so expensive that a law was passed in the 6th century BC prohibiting such flagrant exhibitions of wealth at the Kerameikos. Among other things, the state forbade any constructions that ‘required more than three days’ work for ten men’. In a democracy, all citizens must appear equal, even in death.
A century later, the fashion for elaborate burials returned, but it didn’t last long. Towards the end of the 4th century, such ostentation was forbidden once more. You’ll find some replicas of ancient tombstones as you walk around this open site. However, the originals are kept at the Kerameikos Archaeological Museum.
Following the Persian invasions in the early 5th century BC, many Greek city states were in disarray, their key structures and fortifications destroyed. Themistocles, a leading Athenian statesman and general, decided that the damaged city wall ought to be rebuilt. Against the wishes of the Spartans, their allies in the conflict against Persia, Themistocles ordered the surrounding rubble (of which there was a great deal) to be repurposed into a wall that was about six kilometres long. The main entryway was called the Dipylon (literally Double Gate), the remains of which are located here in the eastern part of the Kerameikos archaeological site.
Although soldiers who died in warfare were originally buried where they fell, from the 5th century BC onwards the Athenians began the practice of transporting their bodies home and honouring them with state funerals. It was near the Dipylon that the most important fallen warriors were buried, in the hope that they would protect the city from beyond the grave. From a building near the Dipylon began the procession of the Greater Panathenaea, the city’s foremost festival held in honour of their tutelary goddess Athena. It’s easy to imagine throngs of people and animals walking solemnly towards the Acropolis, where the procession would end and the festivities proper would begin.
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