Kerameikos – the combined ancient ceramic quarter and necropolis – might not be as famous as the Acropolis and Agora, but it is well worth a visit.
This potters’ district, which lies by the banks of the ancient Eridanus River, was not always hospitable to previous civilizations. The potters had initially found the area suitable to their needs, thanks to the clay-like soil around the river, but the body of water often flooded and the area slowly became a burial place that lasted several millennia.
Curiously, the river was actually ‘lost’ for hundreds of years until excavations revealed its presence in the 1960s (the stream now runs through the site in this formidable graveyard). What’s impressive about this site is that the earliest tombs date from as far back as 2700 BC, meaning they’re almost 5,000 years old. In Greek archeological terms there are tombs from the Sub-Mycenaean, Geometric and Archaic periods, as well as more “recent” ones from the Hellenistic period and even up to early Christian times (i.e. only 1,500 years old).
Outstanding Athenian vases were found on the site – such as the Dipylon Amphora now sitting at the Athens Archeological Museum – with many relics on display also at the charming onsite museum. Note the elaborate replicas of tombstones and grave monuments onsite, as well as the nondescript stone stumps that at some point replaced more elaborate grave markings under stricter laws. Stumps aside, many notable funerary monuments from the Classical period dot the streets of Kerameikos, the most notable being the Stele of Hegeso, Tomb of Dexileo, the marble bull linked to Dionysus of Collytus and the Relief of Dimetria and Pamphile.
The site is also significant as it was on the Sacred Way between the Acropolis and Eleusis where the Eleusinian Mysteries and one of the most intriguingly famous spiritual events of the ancient Greek religion took place. The city’s ancient walls, known as the Themistoclean Walls, also run through Kerameikos and were built around 500 BC to protect Athens against Sparta.