History Underfoot in Athens

Saving Evidence of the Roots of Western Democracy

Detail of a map showing the Agora site. For a larger view, see the photo gallery. Courtesy National Geographic Society hide caption

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NPR's Chris Joyce stands at the foundation of the ancient stoa where Socrates was indicted. In the background is an Athens commuter train. For a larger image, see the photo gallery. All photos: Jessica Goldstein, NPR hide caption

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Site of the latest archaeological "dig" at the Agora in Athens. hide caption

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John Camp holds a stone tablet from about 300 B.C. honoring a statesman named Callius, unearthed from the Agora site. There are more than 7,000 such tablets in storage. For a larger image, see the photo gallery. hide caption

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Maria Zahareah, a student at the University of Virginia and a native of Greece, digs at the Agora si

Maria Zahareah, a student at the University of Virginia and a native of Greece, digs at the Agora site. hide caption

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Maria Zahareah, a student at the University of Virginia and a native of Greece, digs at the Agora si

Maria Zahareah, a student at the University of Virginia and a native of Greece, digs at the Agora site. All photos taken by Jessica Goldstein, NPR. hide caption

itoggle caption All photos taken by Jessica Goldstein, NPR.

July 26, 2004 — The city of Athens is glowing with fresh paint and crowded with shining limousines as Greece prepares to host the 2004 Olympic Games. Western culture owes a lot to the Greeks — they invented the first grand games 2,700 years ago, and also invented some of the fundamentals of our modern version of democracy: a code of law, a legislature, even impeachment votes.

For the NPR/National Geographic co-production Radio Expeditions, NPR's Christopher Joyce reports from the site in Athens called the Agora, where these democratic ideas took shape — and where the ruined remnants of that glorious age are still being uncovered with pick and shovel, then carefully catalogued and stored.

The Agora was once the city's marketplace, an area the size of several city blocks that sits at the base of the more famous Acropolis. When Athens was the envy of the ancient world, citizens gathered at the Agora in structures called stoas to make laws, plan wars or to celebrate at festivals and parades.

The site is rich with history, and always threatened with encroachment by modern Athens. Every 90 seconds, a commuter train runs by the spot where the philosopher Socrates was indicted in 399 B.C. for corrupting Athenian youth.

The site itself looks like a vacant lot, with stone foundations poking up through the grass. "That's the way it is in Athens," Joyce says. "Immortal monuments next to — or under — railroads, buildings or churches."

Archeologist John Camp, who first came to work at the site in 1966, says the Agora is richer with history than most other sites in Greece. "These ruins here are about the most important I can think of for the history and development of Western civilization," he tells Joyce. "And whether you're looking at law, architecture, show business and theater, philosophy — you can trace them back to Athens, about 500 B.C."

There is a wealth of history still underfoot. In a newly uncovered pit the size of a city block, Camp and his comrades have found the foundations of the mythical "painted stoa." Built about 470 B.C., the building is named for its once-prized art collection.

Digging down to the site, the crew uncovered the debris of other civilizations, like layers of cake: modern debris on top, then Turkish, then Byzantine, then Roman, then ancient Greek, like a big garbage pit full of history's cast-off junk.

"Invaders eventually overran Athens," Joyce says. "They buried the Agora under their own cities — but the democratic ideas born there were set loose, and have survived for as long as the buried limestone and marble of ancient Athens."

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