Archaeologists Announce the Discovery of Aristotle’s Lyceum

During excavation for the construction of a new gallery for modern art, workers uncovered parts of what is believed to be the site of the original Lyceum, the school founded by the philosopher Aristotle in 335 B.C.E.

Summary of Event

Most of the known works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle Aristotle were produced during his twelve years as head of the Lyceum in Athens, Greece. Continuing and extending the tradition of Plato’s Academy, where Aristotle himself had studied, the Lyceum formed the prototype for schools and libraries throughout the Greco-Roman area of influence. Although many of Aristotle’s writings were lost, some of them, including those that probably began as lecture notes for his talks at the Lyceum, were preserved for more than twenty-three hundred years and were seminal in the development of Western science, philosophy, logic, and other disciplines. The term “lyceum” itself was eventually applied not only to schools but also to learned societies, libraries, museums, and even theaters around the world. Lyceum
[kw]Archaeologists Announce the Discovery of Aristotle’s Lyceum (Jan., 1997)
[kw]Discovery of Aristotle’s Lyceum, Archaeologists Announce the (Jan., 1997)
[kw]Aristotle’s Lyceum, Archaeologists Announce the Discovery of (Jan., 1997)
[kw]Lyceum, Archaeologists Announce the Discovery of Aristotle’s (Jan., 1997)
[g]Europe;Jan., 1997: Archaeologists Announce the Discovery of Aristotle’s Lyceum[09630]
[g]Balkans;Jan., 1997: Archaeologists Announce the Discovery of Aristotle’s Lyceum[09630]
[g]Greece;Jan., 1997: Archaeologists Announce the Discovery of Aristotle’s Lyceum[09630]
[c]Archaeology;Jan., 1997: Archaeologists Announce the Discovery of Aristotle’s Lyceum[09630]
Lygouri, Effi
Venizelos, Evangelos
Goulandris, Basil P.
Goulandris, Elise B.

More than two millennia later, citizens of the modern city of Athens, now the capital of Greece, found themselves having to balance the care, preservation, and systematic study of their many archaeological sites with the needs of a bustling metropolis. The general vicinity of the original Lyceum had become a prestigious urban area filled with museums and embassies. Because of the proximity to other museums, the area was selected by Basil P. Goulandris and Elise B. Goulandris, two philanthropists who were avid collectors of modern European art, for the location of a new museum to display their collection and share it with the public. At first they were interested in another site in the neighborhood, but this would have entailed the destruction of an older building. After this plan was rejected, they chose a relatively empty parcel of land near the juncture of Rigillis Street and Vasilissis Sofias Avenue near Syntagma Square. World-famous architect I. M. Pei was chosen to design the building.

After the Greek government granted the site to the Goulandris Foundation, excavation for the Museum of Modern Art began in May, 1996. Part of the location was being used as an unpaved parking lot. In accordance with the policies of protecting any hidden antiquities that might be inadvertently damaged or remain lost, the first step in preparing the construction site was for archaeologists to complete a “rescue” excavation. With its long history and layers of culture, any kind of construction within the city would almost inevitably unearth artifacts from previous eras.

The preconstruction project was conducted by the Third Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities and was led by Effi Lygouri. After about half of the excavation was completed, workers discovered the foundations of a large structure, forty-eight meters wide, with its northern, eastern, and western sides inside the new construction site, and extending south past the boundaries of the excavation toward the former bed of the Ilissos River. It was noted that many aspects of the structure’s form, including the very symmetrical arrangement of the rooms, its north-south orientation, its earthen floors, and its central court surrounded by stoas, were consistent with the palaestrae of the Academy, Delphi, Delos, and Olympia. The structure included a room in which wrestlers were oiled, tanks for bathing in both hot and cool water, and a drain leading to the river.

By studying coins, pottery shards, and other objects found on the same level, archaeologists identified the last quarter of the fourth century b.c.e. as the time of the building’s original construction. Because its foundations were on bedrock, no older layers were discovered. They determined that the building had been in use for a very long period and that it had gone through at least two cycles of reconstruction during the Roman period, the first after the destruction of Athens by Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 86 b.c.e. and another after the Herulian invasion in 267 c.e. After this, it was rebuilt and used once again until its final destruction near the end of the fourth century c.e.

An aerial photograph shows ruins discovered in Athens in 1997 that are thought to be the remains of the Lyceum, the school founded by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in 335 b.c.e.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

For centuries, the general location of the original Lyceum had been known from literary sources, but little evidence had remained of any physical structure. In the smaller Athens of classical times, its location would have been in a park-like suburban area outside the city walls and near the Ilissos River, with groves of trees, springs, and temples on the banks of the river. According to the classical literature, Aristotle had liked to teach while walking the grounds with his students. The name “Lyceum” comes from the protective wolf-slayer or wolf-related form of Apollo Lykeios, to whom a shrine was dedicated at that location, even before the days of the great philosophers. Like many places of worship and learning at this time, the Lyceum had been a place for physical cultivation as well and included a palaestra, a structure for wrestling matches as well as meetings and discussions. This very palaestra was the setting for one of Plato’s dialogues. Troops had been mustered at the Lyceum to defend the city-state in times of emergency. However, in spite of many references in literature, the exact location had been lost for centuries.

The discovery of a building of such large dimensions, with these particular qualities, and so consistent with the ancient literary descriptions, made it clear to scholars that the newly discovered palaestra belonged to the original Lyceum of Aristotle. Excitement built very quickly, and formal announcements were made in January, 1997, by Minister of Culture Evangelos Venizelos. While there has been some skepticism, most scholars have accepted the validity of the claim. Having the precise location of this part of the Lyceum has also proven useful in determining the overall placement of other ancient structures described in the classics.


At first, it was thought that the new Museum of Modern Art and the Lyceum site could somehow coexist, which was suggested by Evangelos Venizelos in his initial announcements. The generosity of Basil and Elise Goulandris had presented the city with a great opportunity, and the proximity of the site to other museums, especially the nearby Byzantine and Christian Museum and the Museum of Cycladic Art, suggested the potential for the new museum to become a popular location for visitors. Eventually, however, the Goulandris Foundation started to explore other locations for the modern art museum. Meanwhile, the rediscovered palaestra of the Lyceum was in need of care. In response to concerns about rain causing damage to the sensitive archaeological site, it was agreed in 2003 that a light protective roof would be constructed, and plans were also made to integrate the site with an archaeological park adjacent to the expanded Byzantine and Christian Museum. The concept of a park, with its open space, was more consistent with the area’s appearance in classical times. The idea that one could walk in Aristotle’s footsteps was now more than just a metaphor. Lyceum

Further Reading

  • Blackman, David. “Archaeology in Greece, 1996-97.” Archaeological Reports 43 (1996-1997): 1-125. Detailed description of the site just after it was unearthed, including the layout of the building and the rationale for identifying it as part of Aristotle’s Lyceum. Illustrations.
  • Haworth, Karla. “Greek Archaeologists Say They Have Found the Lyceum.” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 24, 1997, p. A14. Summary of initial announcements of the discovery, including the issue of whether or not the Byzantine and Christian Museum would still be built at the site.
  • Isle, Mick. Aristotle: Pioneering Philosopher and Founder of the Lyceum. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2006. Primarily for precollege readers, this is a comprehensive introduction to Aristotle, with biographical material as well as discussion of ideas and impact. Illustrations.
  • Lynch, John Patrick. Aristotle’s School: A Study of a Greek Educational Institution Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. Begins with detailed discussion of the Lyceum’s physical setting, including its role as a gymnasium and its even more ancient role as a shrine. Indexes, appendixes, extensive notes.

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