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There’s no need to destroy and build upon ancient burial grounds, in Athens or Draper.


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Hello from Greece. There’s nothing like a little jetlag to make the usually simple chore of cranking out this column turn into a nightmare of missed keystrokes and lost thoughts. I began this column just a couple of minutes ago, but it seems like it’s been hours. Or, maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, the only thing going for me right now is that my hotel room is air-conditioned. I’ve visited Athens a number of times and have stayed in a half-dozen hotels. Upon flicking on the A/C in each, I’ve wondered the same thing: How was it possible to build a great city here, let alone a great civilization, without the benefit of an ice cube?

It’s hot today, but not that hot—only 33-orso Celsius. Once you get used to it, Celsius makes more sense than Fahrenheit. Today’s Fahrenheit was 92 degrees. However, Athens is a concrete jungle if there ever were one and temperature becomes relative when compounded by a lack of wind and lots of noisy cars. Athens basically absorbs heat, making walking around the city—which can’t really be avoided—a real adventure in hydration. On the bright side, Athenians are humanitarians when it comes to their water supply (a gift from the God Poseidon), selling the same size bottle as you find in your local convenience stores for about one-third the price. Water is one of the few real bargain in Athens, even allowing for payment in depreciated U.S. dollars.

We rose early to make the requisite trek up the Acropolis, stopping at Ariston pie shop on Voulis Street for a quick snack. As this touring party is comprised of mostly young adults who still don’t eat their vegetables, I was the only one who made a purchase—a tasty leek and feta cheese pie—before walking to the huge, open-air Athens Central Market, where the young adults were mostly surprised to find that meat really doesn’t come pre-packaged inside a hamburger bun. I’ll admit that seeing a display of lamb heads can be disconcerting, but since they passed on the vegetable pies, and the meat and fish repulsed them, I wondered what they’d do if Quaker Mills ever went out of business.

After the market, we pressed on to the ancient graveyard of Athens called Keramikos, which is part of the package when buying an Acropolis ticket. However, probably less than 5 percent of people visiting Athens ever go there, despite it being one of the most important archaeological sites in Athens. Besides the great funerary objects that remain and that some of Ancient Athens’ most prominent citizens were buried there, Keramikos—which takes its name from the potters who once thrived there making ceramics—is just far enough off the beaten path to deter many visitors.

It’s believed that Pericles delivered his famous funeral oration at Keramikos, in which he praised Athens’ war dead and challenged living Athenians—and future generations— to make their own life’s worth equal to those who died for them. Despite that, even, Keramikos, down a treeless and shadeless lane, remains, well, a tourist graveyard. There must be something about graveyards— except those in New Orleans, maybe—that just don’t light a fire under tourists.

That doesn’t minimize their importance, though. Graveyards and cemeteries are always tremendous resources for an archeologist or historian. Even the smallest trinket or bauble that was buried alongside its owner tells a revealing story, not only about that person, but also the culture that he lived in. The style of burial, the depth of the grave, the stone markings all contribute to the construction, from the dead, of a living civilization. The findings from Keramikos are so important that a proposed subway route beneath the area was halted when protesters and scientists concluded that even the slightest jarring of the area was not only disrespectful but could do permanent damage to the study of ancient Athens, as well. Today, the subway entrance goes nowhere.

Contrast that with the “so what?” attitude of many Salt Lake Valley residents who don’t seem to mind at all that a FrontRunner train station may be built on the site of a 3,000-year-old American Indian graveyard in Draper. The age of the proposed FrontRunner site is roughly that of when the first artifacts from Keramikos can be traced. That native culture has been lost to time but needn’t be erased for eternity. Last I looked, there was lots of open space remaining in Draper.

There’s no need to destroy and build upon ancient burial grounds, in Athens or Draper. It goes without saying that Athenians and Greeks are more mindful of their own past than the newcomers to Salt Lake Valley are to the history of American Indians. The level of disrespect accorded the native local cultures that thrived in the American West in the 1800s and that continues today is already well-documented. That those cultures have a diminished voice today doesn’t remove from the fact that their voice remains part of our own choir, though.

And, especially, lacking a strong voice doesn’t diminish the important, historical relevance of the proposed FrontRunner site. As Pericles said more than 2,300 years ago, the way we treat and revere our dead speaks to us. I’ve followed a few online comments equating the Draper site to a garbage dump and read quotes from various politicians and Salt Lake Valley residents making like this is no big deal since we’ve farmed the area to death, anyway. The ancient Greeks had a word for such people—particularly foreigners, as the insensitive people who now inhabit Salt Lake Valley are compared to American Indians—who would disrespect the dead and, with them, the living: barbarians. That’s the right word for them, I’d say.


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