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The only objects on display in the Greece and Rome gallery which were certainly found in Athens are two pieces of sculpture brought back to England by Edward Daniel Clarke. He recorded that a sculpture of the god Pan was “found below a Grotto of that Deity, in a garden at the base of the Acropolis of Athens”, while the architectural slab decorated with a male torso also came from the Athenian Acropolis “a gift of the Turkish Governor in the Acropolis” (E.D. Clarke’s Greek Marbles). Some pottery in the gallery is documented as “said to be found in a grave near Athens” but no further details are given.

However, the majority of the Greek objects in the collection were produced in and around Athens. This is clear because of the materials they are made out of: the rusty red, iron-rich clay that is typical of Athenian pottery, and the tightly-grained marble from the quarries of Mount Penteli which overlooks the city.

The view over modern Athens and the ancient Acropolis looking out to the port of Piraeus.© Kate Cooper, 2008.

Classical Athens is perhaps best known as the birthplace of ancient democracy. In the 5th century BC it was the centre of the Athenian empire, and the wealth generated by this empire paid for the buildings on the Acropolis. It was on the slopes of the Acropolis, in the theatre of Dionysus, that the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and the comedies of Aristophanes were first performed. In the 4th century BC Athens was home to Plato’s school of philosophy, the Academy. Even after Athens was no longer powerful, its fame endured in the ancient world, attracting Alexander the Great and the Roman emperor Hadrian.

Many of the ancient buildings of Athens are visible today. The Parthenon, temple of Athena Parthenos on the Acropolis, has survived for centuries, converted into a church and then a mosque, before today being returned to its Classical appearance. The ancient Agora was the commercial centre of Athens in the Greek and Roman periods, and the remains of the market place, administrative and public buildings and temples survive. Around two gates in the ancient city wall, excavations have uncovered the Kerameikos, where burial monuments line the roads leading out of the city, while inside the walls are the remains of potters’ working quarters.

Reconstructions of the ancient grave markers of the Kerameikos. Photo  ©  Kate Cooper, 2008.

It may have been in the Kerameikos that the craftsmen who made the pottery in the Fitzwilliam collection worked. Although the workshops of individuals have not been identified, some of the potters and painters who worked in Athens signed their work. Much of their pottery was widely exported throughout the Mediterranean, as is shown by some examples in the Fitzwilliam. For instance, a red-figured drinking cup, made and signed in Athens by ‘Hieron’, was found at Poggia Sommavilla in Italy.

Determining where sculpture was made is more complicated, because there is evidence that marble blocks, cut from the quarry and sometimes roughly shaped there, could be transported long distances before being carved. Sculpture carved in Athens could also end up far from Greece, transported throughout the Mediterranean. In the Roman period the high demand for Greek sculpture meant that many small-scale pieces produced in Athens from Pentelic marble was sent to Italy. Warehouses of sculpture awaiting shipping have been discovered at Piraeus, the port of Athens. However, at least some of the sculpture in this gallery was probably carved and erected in Athens. The intricate grave stones and monumental marble vases would once have commemorated the dead in Athenian cemeteries such the Kerameikos.

Further reading

Robin Barber, Blue Guide: Athens (London, 1999).

Michael Llewellyn Smith, Athens: A Cultural and Literary History (Oxford, 2004).

For information about the archaeological sites in Athens see the website of the Greek Ministry of Culture: The Athenian AcropolisThe KerameikosPlato’s Academy and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens: The Athenian Agora