Destination Eleusis

The excavation of the sanctuary of Demeter transformed Eleusis into an international destination. As the archaeologists demolished the old houses of the settlement and removed the soil that covered the Telesterion, the international scientific community and amateur lovers of antiquity from Greece and abroad turned their attention to this corner of the Thriasian Plain, where the famous monuments mentioned by the classical writers were slowly coming to light. It was a magical moment in the history of Eleusis and a reminder of its significance for the cultural heritage of humanity.

Trains and boats

The silent stones and the tangled ruins exerted an irresistible attraction on a wide audience, who defied the tribulations of the journey in order to get to know the place of the Great Mysteries. Visitors who lacked private means of transportation could use the Peloponnese Railway or the small steamships that connected Piraeus with Kamatero, Eleusis, and Megara.

Eleusis was a small industrial settlement dominated by large winery, soap and cement factories, although the natural landscape remained pristine. A tree-lined road connected the railway station with the northern entrance to the sanctuary, where the most illustrious visitors could hope for a personal guided tour by the archaeologists who worked on the site.

The excursion

The significance of the discoveries in Eleusis was formalized with the great excursion to the archaeological site during the first International Congress of Classical Archaeology, organized in Athens by the Hellenic Archaeological Service, the Archaeological Society and the University of Athens with the participation of foreign Archaeological Schools in Greece in the spring of 1905. More than 850 scientists and amateurs from nineteen countries participated in the conference’s proceedings and events.

The trip to Eleusis on March 27 was a great success. It took three trains to transfer all the delegates. They passed through fields full of blooming daisies and almond trees. The beaches of the Saronic Gulf and the verdant mountain slopes made foreign visitors hang from the wagon windows in wonder. Among the hundreds of passengers were the Crown Prince Constantine, Prince Christopher, Prince George, the metropolitan of Athens, prominent foreign archaeologists and upper-class ladies.

Two worlds collide

The station in Eleusis was packed with locals who waited for the trains. Notable among them were the radiant girls of Lepsina with their festive costumes covered with gold coins, as well as countless barefoot children running up and down screaming and yelling. As the delegates crossed the town towards the archaeological site, the women of Eleusis stood at their porches and watched the passersby with curiosity, while cows grazed in the courtyards. Among all these people a ten-year-old boy stood out; he had climbed on a capital (the topmost member of a column), and watched the parade of visitors with a cool look of indifference.

The little anarchist

Much like today, the archaeological site of Eleusis gave the impression of a labyrinth of corridors, stairways, walls, and foundations. The secretary of the German Archaeological Institute, Wilhelm Dörpfeld, gave a tour in German, the Ephor of Antiquities, Andreas Skias, spoke about the temple in Greek, while the archaeologist Dimitrios Filios made a presentation in French. He even advised the attendants not to approach the walls because there was a great ditch on the other side and there was a grave risk of someone falling in.

But while Filios prevented delegates from approaching the walls, the organizers decided to treat the eminent visitors to a thousand beer bottles, which they placed on the wall. Anyone who was thirsty had to jump a ten-meter-deep trench to enjoy a refreshing drink.

And as if this was not enough, terrible confusion ensued when a loud bang was heard coming from the Telesterion. Many thought it was a gunshot and the gendarmes looked frantically for the perpetrator, but, as it turned out, it was just a firecracker hurled by a young boy to “add more pomp to the proceedings.”

Demeter’s blouse

Visitors were also fascinated by the small museum of Eleusis, which was built in 1890 to house the finds of the excavations. The ground-floor stone-built building with its five halls was one of the first museums in the newly established Greek state and housed great artifacts. The headless statue of Demeter was much admired by the visitors in the 1920s with its “blouse which is so transparent that the chest is barely covered with a spiderweb.”.

The semi-naked Demeter pleased Poseidon, who enjoyed the view from the corner where he had been placed. The wealth of statues, reliefs, inscriptions, and vases, however, proved too much for the museum, which was demonstrably too small for the needs of Eleusis. Many sculptures were located behind a wire mesh that did not allow the elegant ladies with their fur coats to appreciate them. It was obvious that Eleusis had great potential but there was still much work to be done to effectively promote its cultural heritage.

Bibliography

Αγνώστου (1905). Η χθεσινή εκδρομή των αρχαιολόγων εις την Ελευσίνα. Εμπρός (28.03.1905)  [in Greek]

Αγνώστου (1920). Χειμερινή πορεία. Εμπρός (07.01.1920) [in Greek]

Αγνώστου (1927). Ελευσίς. Εμπρός (17.04.1927) [in Greek]

Dyson, Stephen (2008). In Pursuit of Ancient Pasts: A History of Classical Archaeology in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Papangeli, Kalliopi (2002). Eleusis: the archaeological site and the museum. Athens: Latsis Group.

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