The archaeological site of the Kerameikos, between Ermou, Peireos, and Asomaton Streets, is a small part of the ancient Attic Deme of Kerameon, one of the largest demes of ancient Athens, located on the northwest edge of the city. As suggested by its name, the Kerameikos (from the Greek word for pottery) was a settlement of potters and vase painters, and the main production centre of the famous Attic vases. Those parts of the Kerameikos that were located near the riverbank suffered continuously from the overflowing river, and so the area was converted into a burial ground, which gradually developed into the most important cemetery of ancient Athens.
Potters were drawn to the Kerameikos by the clay deposits of the Iridanos, the small river that runs through the Kerameikos archaeological site. The river lay buried for centuries under eight or nine meters of landfill (level of Ermou Street), but was uncovered again in the 1960's during the archaeological excavations.
The earliest tombs at the Kerameikos date from the Early Bronze Age (2700-2000 BC), and the cemetery appears to have continuously expanded from the sub-Mycenaean period (1100-1000 BC). In the Geometric (1000-700 BC) and Archaic periods (700-480 BC) the number of tombs increased; they were arranged inside tumuli or marked by funerary monuments. The cemetery was used incessantly from the Hellenistic period until the Early Christian period (338 BC until approximately the sixth century AD).
The most important Athenian vases come from the tombs of the Kerameikos. Among them is the famous 'Dipylon Oinochoe', which bears the earliest inscription written in the Greek alphabet (second half of the eighth century BC). The Kerameikos excavations began in 1870 under St. Koumanoudis of the Archaeological Society of Athens. They continued in collaboration with the German archaeologists A. Brueckner and F. Noack over the next few decades, and are carried out by the German Archaeological Institute since 1913.
The site is regularly cleared of undergrowth. A set of projects, such as the construction of a network of visitor paths, the restoration of buildings, the re-opening of the Kerameikos Museum, the placement of informative signposts, and the construction of an amphitheatre, were completed in 2004. Moreover, recent expropriations of neighbouring land plots are expected to expand the site and allow further excavations to take place in the future. The site's small museum houses the finds from the Kerameikos excavations.
The archaeological site of the Kerameikos comprises part of the Themistoclean Wall, the Dipylon Gate and Sacred Gate, the Pompeion, the burial enclosure of the Stele of Hegeso, the Demosion Sema, and other well-known monuments. The entrance to the approximately eleven acre archaeological site is located on Ermou Street.
The Themistoclean wall was built hastily in 478 BC, after the Persian retreat, in order to protect the city from the Spartan threat. It surrounded the entire ancient city of Athens and divided the Kerameikos into two sections, inner and outer Kerameikos. Inner Kerameikos (inside the city walls) developed into a residential neighbourhood, whereas outer Kerameikos remained a cemetery. The section of the wall that crossed the Kerameikos in a N-S direction is preserved to this day, together with two important gates, the Dipylon, the largest and most formal Athenian gate, and the Sacred Gate.
Two important roads, the road leading to Plato's Academy and the Sacred Way (Iera Odos), which connected Athens with Eleusis, began at the Dipylon and Sacred Gate (Iera Pyli) respectively. The Sacred Gate was the starting point for the procession of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the Dipylon the starting point of the Panathenaic procession, which moved along the Panathenaic Way towards the Acropolis. The preparations for the Panathenaic procession took place inside the Pompeion, a large building with peristyle court, located directly behind the wall, next to the Dipylon. The building dates from the end of the fifth century BC.
In the Classical period (fifth-fourth centuries BC) the streets were lined with cemeteries and funerary monuments, mostly of families and often decorated with reliefs. Some of the best-known funerary monuments are the Tomb of Dexileo, the Stele of Hegeso (c. 400 BC), the Relief of Demetria and Pamphile, and the marble bull from the funerary enclosure of Dionysios of Kollytos (c. 345 BC).
Outside the Dipylon, along the street leading to Plato's Academy, lay the Demosion Sema, or Public Cemetery, the burial place of Athenian notables and war heroes. This is where Pericles delivered his famous Funeral Oration for those who died during the first year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC).
(Odysseus, Greek Ministry of Culture)