The Secrets of the Ancient Neighborhood Beneath the Acropolis

ancient neighborhood Acropolis
Remains of the ancient neighborhood that lies beneath the Acropolis Museum. Credit: Lessormore/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

The ancient neighborhood beneath the Acropolis Museum reveals life in ancient Athens long before the Parthenon and how the sculptures on the Acropolis hill were even created.

The remains of the ancient Athenian neighborhood, uncovered during the excavations to lay the foundation for the Acropolis Museum, show a place that was teeming with life for centuries.

Archaeologists brought to light an entire neighborhood with a constant human presence from classical times until the Byzantine era.

According to archaeologists, human settlement in the area began somewhere between 3,500 and 3,000 BC. Until the 9th century BC, houses, workshops, and cemeteries coexisted side by side or were chronologically positioned in the space.

The residential use of the ancient neighborhood underneath Acropolis Hill is consolidated from the middle of the 8th century BC and onward although it was not densely inhabited.

Until the beginning of the 5th century BC, the area was located on the outskirts of what was then the city outside older fortifications.

Ancient neighborhood shines in the 5th century BC

A big change came at the end of the 5th century BC, however, when the area was paved, finally acquired its urban character, and was integrated inside the walled part of the city.

The 5th century BC was, of course, the Golden Age of Athens, the last part being the Age of Pericles (495-427 BC). It was then that the Parthenon and all the other grand buildings and statues atop the Acropolis were built.

Until the early 1st century BC, a dense road network was developed and the space was occupied by houses with small inner courtyards, along with shops and workshops.

In 86 BC, the neighborhood was destroyed by the troops of Roman general Sulla and was abandoned for several years.

However, during the middle of the 2nd century AD, the ancient neighborhood beneath the Acropolis experienced a revival.

The houses became larger and most had peristyle courtyards with rooms having colorful murals sometimes with mosaic floors and private toilets. The wealthy even had their own baths.

Destruction and rebirth

This era of prosperity was interrupted in 267 AD, when the area was among those destroyed by the Heruls (or Heruli), a Germanic tribe from the north who stormed the city and destroyed most of its buildings and works of art.

Yet, the ancient neighborhood was reorganized again at the end of the fourth to the beginning of the fifth century AD.

All the houses at that time had peristyle courtyards, but their character and dimensions were different. Next to smaller houses, possibly of middle-class people, larger and more luxurious buildings were built, including the urban villas of wealthy citizens.

Around the middle of the 5th century, most homes were repaired and still inhabited. The place of two villas was taken up by a luxurious building with mosaics and a private bathroom. Archaeologists believe this was likely the seat of a high-ranking official or local lord with access to the imperial court.

At the beginning of the following century, that particular building acquired a new wing with innovative architectural features.

This addition, as well as the continuation of the habitation of some older houses and the construction of new ones, proves that urban life continued at a time when Athens and its population was considered to be in a period of decline.

At the end of the sixth century, certain buildings were destroyed while others were damaged. Workshops were established, however, which operated at least until the beginning of the eighth century.

It seems that the area had been abandoned for several years and then deserted. However, new houses appeared in the 10th to 12th century and were inhabited until the final abandonment of the site at the beginning of the 13th century AD.

Tour of the ancient neighborhood

The ancient neighborhood has once again come alive, however, as 21st century people from all over the world can walk on glass atop its streets and marvel at its remains.

“Walking in the ancient neighborhood of the Acropolis Museum” is a tour provided by the  Acropolis Museum to visitors, who can both walk on the glass above the ancient streets and look down at the excavated neighborhood from a mezzanine level.

Archaeologists guide visitors through the streets and buildings which stretch underneath the museum like a giant exhibit itself.

Visitors can see the ancient neighborhood’s streets at the slope of the Acropolis, take a closer look down into the houses with their courtyards and wells, and see the impressive mansions with their private baths.

They can also examine the workshops with their water reservoirs and take a stroll through time, immersing themselves into the daily lives of the people who lived in the shadow of the Acropolis for over 4,500 years.

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