The City of Athens in Prehistoric Times

By Dr. Maria Pantelidou/Gofa
Acting Professor of Archaeology
University of Athens

The city we live in, this vast Άστυ that is constantly expanding to embrace the whole of Attica, has a long history, starting many centuries ago, thousands of years before the use of writing and the recording of History.

The first people arrived in our city around the end of the Neolithic Era, sometime between 3500 and 3200 BC. Their few remaining traces show that they were the first to choose the area of the rock of the Acropolis for their permanent place of living. Possibly, at first they did not wish to stay exactly on the top, but excavations have shown that they had certainly dispersed along the southern and northern sides of the rock, and that they occasionally used the two small caves over Dionysus’ (Διόνυσος) theatre. Water, the first and most fundamental element for the development of a new settlement, was provided from 21 shallow wells, 3-4 metres deep, that had been dug at the northwest of the rock, in the same place where, in later historic years, stood the famous ‘Water Clock’ (Κλεψύδρα) fountain.

Few and far between, the houses on the side featured solid built bases while their walls and roofs were knitted from branches covered with mud. Inside their one single area there was a built stove, used for heating and cooking food. Food and other commodities, acquired via land cultivation and barter, were stored inside simple shallow dug outs on the ground. Animal hunting in the area was of vital importance, not only for the meat it provided, but also for the skins.

Apart from taking care of their various living necessities, these people also decorated their bodies with stone and bone jewelry and it is also possible that they painted their faces with ochre. Four obese female statuettes bear testament to the worship of the female deity of fertility, the same one that dominates the East throughout the Prehistoric Era.

Another group of people had probably settled in the neighbouring hill of the Olympeion (Ολυμπίειον), which was later flattened, so that the temple of Olympeion Zeus (Ολύμπειος Δίας) could be built upon it. Nothing remains from it (nor would it have been possible, since the soil was cut and removed), but the shape and position of the hill make the spot ideal for a Neolithic settlement: low ground angle, close to a river and flat area surroundings with fertile soil for cultivation.

From these sparse findings, and more particularly from the types of pottery, it can be figured that the people who resided on the sides of the Acropolis in the Neolithic times were oriented towards the sea and kept in close contact with the coasts of the Saronic (Σαρωνικός), Aegina (Αίγινα) and Kea (Κέα). Their relations with the Northeastern Peloponnese (Πελοπόννησος), Thessalia (Θεσσαλία) and Asia Minor (Μικρά Ασία) were a lot less tight.

The early Bronze Age (3200–2000 BC) finds the residents of then modern Athens a lot more influenced by the Neolithic way of living. Originally, they remain within the bounds of their own area, but soon afterwards, they start to communicate with the Peloponnese, Sterea (Στερεά), and the Cyclades (Κυκλάδες). No houses and permanent constructions have survived, but the sparse traces of pottery found show that they continue to reside in their old places; while others now definitely live on top of the rock close to the Erectheion (Ερεχθείο), where clear traces of them have been found. Inside the Ancient Marketplace (Αγορά) a pathway leading to Plato’s Academy (Ακαδημία Πλάτωνος) in the West begins to be formed; this pathway will later become a road.

In the East it is certain that the hill of the Olympeion is made use of, and one of its inhabitants was found buried in a small carved grave of the time. That and another grave in Cerameicos (Κεραμεικός) show from their shape and their burial gems (κτερίσματα) that the residents of the area both retained their close connections with the Cyclades or the Cycladic settlements of Attica, and followed a lot of customs of their own.

After all these sparse and poor remains one can’t fail to be impressed by the wealth and variety of the findings from the second Βronze Age, of the Middle Helladic period (2000-1600 BC). Houses, wells, stoves, storage dug outs, graves of various types and all kinds of pottery with plenty of material can be found scattered over a large area. On top of the rock, at the east of the Erectheion, there used to remain five small box-shaped (κιβωτιόσχημος) graves, and, at the north of the same temple, a layer of a levee. On the southern side, signs of the Middle Helladic Era can be found not only close to the Proto Helladic ones, but everywhere where an excavation took place. Two stoves, two storage dug outs, a burial inside a large jar, a burial tomb north of Eumenus’ Gallery (Στοά του Ευμένους), two rooms or houses, one well, two small simple graves, and, lower, towards the east of the Museum hill, one large well-constructed grave, another couple of earlier ones, and, of course, pottery everywhere.

A large amount of pottery was also found in the east, around the area of the Olympeion. In the north, inside the ancient Marketplace, wherever the rock had retained its older levee Middle Helladic use is hinted. Pottery, two storage dug outs at the base of the Areios Pagos (Άρειος Πάγος) and, especially, parts of a road in the centre and in the northwestern corner, above the pathway of the Proto Helladic period.

Clearly, the Middle Helladic findings cover a wide area, a lot greater than all known Middle Helladic settlements. Of course it would be pointless to regard this whole area as a uniform and continuous settlement. However, the findings are real and where they stand we should place houses, built in groups and more densely on the southern and the northern side; another group should be placed east of the Museum hill, and others on the Olympeion and the Marketplace. The residents of these settlements do not appear to remain confined in their places of residence. On the contrary, they maintain close relations and continuous contact with Sterea, the Peloponnese and the Cyclades. From the various traded goods we only know the pottery items. Burial customs are now clearly Helladic without any Cycladic influences.

And so we reach the later Bronze Age, the Post-Helladic (Υστεροελλαδική), better known as ‘Mycenaean’ (Μυκηναϊκή). Its 500 years can be broken down into smaller periods, of 100 or 150 years each, each with its own characteristics. The first years of the Mycenaean civilisation (1600-1500), which appears and matures in Argolida (Αργολίδα), find the residents of Athens deeply influenced by the Middle Helladic (Μεσοελλαδικό) way of living.

The Era of the royal pits and of the gold Mycenae, with their luxurious vessels and novel styles, is, for most Athenians, unknown. The city’s art and customs follow Middle Helladic models and retain their Middle Helladic character. The new style is accessible only to a few people – the ones residing upon the hill, on the southern side and on the Olympeion. Other types of findings, especially graves, show that some families did pass from the one Era to the other, and experienced the period of cultural change without modifying their traditional customs.

In any case, after the period that followed, the Post-Helladic II (1500-1400), Athenians acquire Mycenaean styles and proceed along the same lines in terms of art, perhaps even also of administration. The top of the hill and its sides are the place of residence of the king and of the ruling class (pic.4). In these areas people utilize luxury items and keep in their houses items from Argolida and Crete (which has only just started exporting some of its products to Athens).



The size of the settlement in the lower city is not clearly defined during this period. However, findings show that apart from the older positions that have always been inhabited (east of the Museum and of the Olympeion), another area relatively further away begins to be used, with houses that form part of a new complex. Their inhabitants are buried in a different cemetery, next to a turn of Ilissos (Ιλισός) river, at the end of what today is Dimitrakopoulou street.

These people’s burial places are built according to the new standards of the thalamoeid (θαλαμοειδής) grave, while older families still use Middle Helladic box-shaped graves.

In the third Mycenaean period, the Post-Helladic ΙΙΙ, and especially during its first years (1410-1380), Athens undergoes its greatest development. Its population spreads out to the southern part and everything speaks of a general prosperity both in terms of quality and means of living. Some graves in Athenian cemeteries contain burial gems (κτερίσματα) comparable to those of Argolida. By contrast, the northern side appears to remain temporarily uninhabited. Still, there must have been a settlement somewhere in that area, because in the Marketplace, especially around the Gallery of Attalus (Στοά του Αττάλου) a cemetery is formed, too large to have been only for the families residing on top of the rock (pic. 6). The really rich Athenian graves were found in Areios Pagos (Άρειος Πάγος), carved into the rock, and at least these must have hosted lords.



Finally, another cemetery, the third of the settlement, seems to develop at the west of the Acropolis, at the root of the hill of the Nymphs.


All this area that is defined at its edges by two and three cemeteries is larger than any previous one and cannot possibly be accepted that it was a uniform and continuous settlement. To get closer to reality, we must assume that Athenians were concentrated in groups, or “κατά κώμας” as Thucydides (Θουκυδίδης) would say, with their central core on top of the rock and on the southern side. Some houses must have formed another group at the west of the Acropolis, others at the east of the Museum, or along the western bank of Ilissos and others at the Olympeion. It should be clarified, though, that this structure didn’t have anything to do with any particular economic or social differentiation of the population, because the burial gems of the two great cemeteries are totally comparable in terms of quality. Higher quality ones could only be found inside the graves of Areios Pagos, but, as we noted, these were royal ones.

This κατά κώμας population structure shown by excavation findings in the area leads to a certain speculation. The word ‘Αθήναι’, as shown by its suffix ‘–ήναι’, precedes historic times and is always put in the plural. Could it be that the plural number refers exactly to this division and referred to the total of the smaller settlements that together formed a co-settlement, as it happens in the cases of cities like Mycenae and Thebes?


This interpretation is simply a speculation, with no further evidence to prove it, while tradition attributes the name to later years, subsequently to the co-settlement of Theseus (Θησέας), and ancient authors mention older names for the city such as Cecropis (Κεκροπίς) and Erecthees (Ερεχθηίς).

From the variety of findings in Athens we conclude that relations with Argolida, Boeotia (Βοιωτία) and the rest of Attica are close. However, the quality of the imports is not excellent and this seems to imply that Athenians were not particularly keen at spotting high art. Local workshops try to imitate those of Argolida, but rather unsuccessfully, while certain ones remain attached to, or simply remember and reproduce forms and styles of the Middle Helladic Era. Some local uniqueness is encountered in certain vessels with crumbled surface and some water vessels constructed in exactly the same manner as the Middle Helladic ones, with the same clay, dyeing and decoration. Quite infrequent are products from distant Hanaan (Χαναάν), but what should be commented on are Athens’ relations with Crete. According to myth the youths of Athens, Theseus and Aegeas (Αιγέας), are connected with Crete and the Minotaur in a tragic manner. However, our available evidence does not prove any essential Minoan influence that would justify such a myth.

In the second half of the 14th Century (Post-Helladic ΙΙΙ Α2) life continues along conservative lines. Residents remain in their places without moving out into new areas, while they do not develop any special activity either. This is quite puzzling, as it is exactly during this period that the first serious expansion of the Mycenaean civilisation out into the Aegean Sea takes place, with new settlements appearing everywhere – even in Attica.

Only Athens does not take part in the ongoing “cosmogony” and our own findings cannot seem to provide an explanation for this. Still, we may be allowed to surmise that the most vital parts of the population moved towards the sea and settled down in coastline settlements (which, as we know, prosper during this time), such as Alyki (Αλυκή) in Voula (Βούλα), Varkiza (Βάρκιζα), Faliro (Φάληρο) and others. The most conservative part of the population remained in the older houses and continued to work at their own pace.

This relative isolation and conservatism lasts for about half a century. By the start of the next century, the 13th, Athens enters the most important phase of its development. The size of the small town remains the same, but from the findings it can be deduced that the northern part, with its easier access to the Acropolis, is now used more. A few houses are built upon the northern side and it is almost certain that the residents of the area use the pathway around the rock that will later develop into the well known Peripatos (Περίπατος).

The area upon the rock is reformed. Where later will be erected the Erectheion and the first hundrent-staired temple of Athena (Αθηνά), a flat area with a levee is formed, upon which the Mycenaean palace is built. Very little remains from this building, but from what is left (two flights of stairs to the second level, one pillar of wide diameter) we can conclude that the palace had the same shape and basic characteristics as the known Argolidean ones. Within the generation that follows, it gets fortified with a powerful cyclopean wall surrounding the rock’s higher surface. Its foundation, construction technique, materials, planning and route, all parts of the wall adhere to Argolidean models.

The main entrance is equipped with a strong tower that allows only a narrow passage, so as to entrap possible invaders within a small space. The second access gateway to the north, where there had always been the path leading to the top of the rock, is now blocked by the wall. Finally, the underground descend to the northern fountain is constructed, that is meant to supply the besieged with water. The fountain lies at 40 metres from the top and the staircase, made of stone and wood, was ingeniously grounded within a vertical fissure so as to be invisible from the outside.

The construction of the Acropolis presupposes a king powerful enough to impose his will upon a large population. Findings from the lower city and ‘τας κώμας’ are not many, but they are enough to show that the old positions are not abandoned, and that people, especially the older families, do not leave their homes.

The continuous development and prosperity of the Mycenaean world is set back at the beginning of the 12th Century. The reasons for this are to be found outside the Helladic domain and it is a fact that the turmoil in the East affects the trading of goods and seriously damages the trade of the Achaean palaces. The consequences will also be felt by the Athenian king, who, suddenly, loses control and warding of local commerce.

The demographic change was swift and apparent. The craftsmen, producers and merchants that gathered around the palace are released from their administrative and financial dependence, spread out to the islands and other opportune areas and take care of the distribution of their products themselves. The population of Athens thins down, the houses gathered in the Northeastern ascend are abandoned and the residents disperse even within the small town. The northern fountain remains in use for a few more years, but all remains and findings attest to the general drop in quality. Very few burials take place in the Marketplace and in the western cemeteries, while another burial is spotted in Cerameikos. In that spot will be formed the first core of what will, in historic times, become the main cemetery of the city of Athens.

However, the lord remains on the Acropolis and completes his settlement with a few more houses south of the Parthenon. These last Achaeans (Αχαιοί), with their poorly means and limited capabilities, save the city from complete depopulation, and after the short time of the Sub Mycenaean (Υπομυκηναϊκά) years, Athens enters the Historic Age, which elevated the city into the cradle of civilization.

For many centuries, the Athenian legends and traditions constituted the spiritual heritage of the population and in them Athenians identified their first History. Traditions refer to specific persons, kings and heroes, whose various life events are connected with facts or spots of the area. Newer research repeatedly tried to locate the historical essence in them and separate it from mythic or other additional elements. The identification of topographic elements of the myth with particular places in the area is not always easy. However, now that we have painted the picture of Athens via the findings, let us examine the possible relationship of the mythical traditions of Athens with the facts and topography.

During the historic times, various chthonian worships had concentrated upon the rock, and especially around the Erectheion, as well as the graves of the two founders of the city, Cecrops (Κέκρωψ) and Erectheus (Ερεχθεύς), that are very tightly associated with the Athenians’ faith in their indigenous origins. In particular, Cecrops’ grave was below the Protases of the Daughters (Κόρες) and further to the West the temple of Cecrops. Erechthonios (Εριχθόνιος), an infant deity born from the Earth and raised by Athena, was usually identified with Erectheus, a sacred figure and mythical king, who had been buried inside his later built temple.

Scholars usually believe that the two graves (of Cecrops and of Erectheus) are located in the particular spot because of their antiquity and the existence there of the Mycenaean palace. As we saw, however, during the Proto Helladic and the Middle Helladic periods, exactly on the spot where the Erectheion was built, and because, for purely pedologic reasons, access was easier, a small settlement had developed.

Besides, we should note that tradition could not have pinpointed the two graves of the city’s founders in that spot, at the time when the Mycenaean palace -a structure both well known and in use- was still there. The creation of the myth must have started from older elements that not even they could specify chronologically. It is therefore logical to assume that around the Erectheion should have been not only the five Middle Helladic graves we know of, but a few more, that were brought to light in the Mycenaean Era, quite possibly during the construction of the palace’s levees. Their forms and shapes showed that they were older, the place was the seat of the king, so it was natural that the impression was created that within lay buried the ancient kings and founders of the city.

Aegeas’s residence is placed in the Olympeion. He is the only Athenian king who did not use the Acropolis as his seat, but, according to Plutarch (Πλούταρχος) that was west of the ‘Αιγέως πυλών’ at what was known as Perifracto (Περίφρακτο) of the Delfinios (Δελφίνιος), (according to tradition, Delfinios’ temple had been built by Aegeas himself in the same year when Theseus arrived in Athens). Some attributed the connection between Aegeas and the Olympeion to the fact that Aegeas was not an Erectheidis (Ερεχθείδης), meaning an indigenous Athenian. Others thought that an old palace used to be in that spot. Both views, however, had serious disadvantages. Firstly, it is not possible to have a king so close to the palace of another king, and secondly, the area of the Olympeion from the YE III B-III Γ period (1300-1100 BC), that is the time when the palace must have been built and inhabited, gave findings of relatively lower quality, which bear no resemblance to known palace artifacts.

Following the topographic examination of Athens, we are in position to express some tentative assumptions, without having conclusive proofs. In the Olympeion settlement that we discussed, there may have been a family of royal origins, such as the one that was buried at the end of the southern cemetery, and that must have stayed there for centuries, as shown by some graves. Thus, folk tradition connected this exceptional family with a mythical figure, a king, who, however, came from a different place. Theseus is the mythical Athenian figure par excellence. An Ionian hero and a king of Athens, his activities spread out to a number of places and counties. Born in Troizina (Τροιζήνα) he comes to Athens when still young, and his feats are connected with the mainland Greece, and the islands in the Aegean, particularly Crete. From the vast literature, it can be surmised that Theseus does not stand for one person only, but rather for the national hero of Athens, to whom are attributed acts and deeds spanning many different periods quite far apart from each other.

As we discussed, the trip to Crete cannot be interpreted in the light of the known relations between Athens and Crete.

Another achievement of Theseus’ is the realization of the so-called ‘co-settlement’. By this is not meant the general concentration, but the direct subordination of the population to a single authority. The memory of the rise and the preponderance of the Athenian king as the lord of the various settlements scattered all around Attica must have been preserved up until the historic times, distorted and adapted to the administrative system of the Greek city. The notion of ‘co-settlement’ may conceal in it the variform dependence of Attica’s settlements on the king of Athens. This, according to archaeological evidence, must have taken place within the Post-Helladic III B period (1300-1230 BC), at the time when the palace and its fortification were built and the city expanded to the North. Such a move could not have been possible neither before nor afterwards, because before there are no tokens of political radiance, whereas afterwards, the Achaean world is dissolved.