-- At the edge of a muddy construction site sits a rec- tangular, weather-proof box, the size of a trailer. The box, surrounded by a chain-link fence, remains undisturbed as nearby bulldozers push mounds of red clay and debris, but it will be opened like a giant present when the Summer Olympic Games get underway in August 2004.
The contents of the box will become the centerpiece of the Olympic Village. Inside is a portion of the Roman Emperor Hadrian's aqueduct that dates from about 100 A.D. When the Games begin, 10,000 athletes will greet something that is 1,900 years old.
Throughout Athens, the birthplace of the Games, government and Olympic officials are rushing to finish some three dozen construction projects. The partially built venues, highways and railways are intended to bring Athens soaring into the new millennium -- preferably in time for the Summer Games. But even as officials strain to meet deadlines, they must tiptoe around delicate remnants of the ancient past, tangible pieces of history that tend to turn up in Greece whenever a shovel strikes earth.
At the equestrian site in Marcopoulo, archeologists found a number of ancient dwellings and tombs, including remains of what is believed to be a 2,500-year-old temple to the love goddess Aphrodite -- and which may also have served as a brothel. At the rowing and sailing site at Schinias Beach, the site of the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., the foundations of three 4,500-year-old homes were discovered.
"Not only will the Olympic Games be done in places where the Olympics were born in antiquity, but in areas where antiquity is there," said Nicoletta Valakou, the directorate of prehistoric and classical antiquities at the Hellenic Ministry of Culture. "We have the modern and antiquity together in a very good combination."
After the beautiful and smooth-running Sydney Games in 2000, many wondered how Athens, then mired in pollution and endless blueprints, could present a Games that did not look flawed by comparison. Greek sports deputy minister Giorgos Lianis, when asked to name Athens's greatest challenge, replied with one word: "Sydney." Athens officials would greatly have preferred to follow the oft-criticized '96 Games in Atlanta, marred by a bomb and rampant commercialism.
But Athens officials are more optimistic these days. They say they will do what no other Olympic host can: present Athens's extensive history -- actual pieces of it -- with care and grace. Not only will television cameras pan the Acropolis, the Roman Agora, Hadrian's Arch and the other well-known monuments of Athens, but just about every significant artifact discovered while digging or bulldozing will be displayed near the site of its excavation.
"We are very fortunate to have this unique heritage," said Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, the president of the Athens Organizing Committee for the 2004 Games. "We are the ones, even if it causes some delays, who have found a way to expose these findings. We are very proud of all of this."
Construction projects throughout Greece, no matter how maddeningly behind schedule or egregiously over budget or internationally important -- all of which generally have applied in the case of the Olympics -- are required by federal law to proceed with a rigid adherence to archaeological guidelines rather than modern deadlines. Work snakes around ancient finds, but never over or through them. When an instrument strikes an artifact, construction stops. Authorities are summoned. Excavations are undertaken by archaeologists from 25 districts throughout Greece. The Central Archeological Council assesses the value of discovered artifacts and makes recommendations about how to deal with them. The Hellenic Ministry of Culture ultimately calls the shots.
Plans are often changed. Delays of months are not uncommon. The builder -- not the archaeologists -- is responsible for picking up the tab. Nobody is expected to complain.
"It's a very strict law," said Panos Protopsaltis, the organizing committee's transportation general manager. "Whenever you discover something, you don't just improvise, you call the archaeologists and they come and impose their own rules. We may not like their pace, but we respect their mission. This is inevitable."
In the case of the equestrian site, some 10 miles southeast of Athens, government officials demanded that plans be revised before a single scoop of earth had been moved to avoid apparent sites of antiquities. Even so, archaeologists found the temple, houses, tombs and various items of interest that warranted the commencement of 20 digs. Olympic construction eventually resumed -- but only where the archaeologists weren't working.
At the rowing and sailing site 25 miles outside of Athens, building continued only after the Greek government agreed to dismantle and move the remnants of the Neolithic homes 50 yards, a laborious and expensive process. Archaeologists, environmentalists and government officials debated the necessity of moving the artifacts, which the Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos had at first deemed of little value. Not surprisingly, the voice of the preservationists won out.
The portion of Hadrian's aqueduct found at the Olympic Village was unearthed by archaeologists before construction had begun. It was enclosed in a protective trailer, where it will remain until the building is complete. Then it will be displayed, incorporated as a central component of the design of the village square.
Officials say it is impossible to put a price tag on the archaeological work, which has been absorbed into the overall construction costs. All told, the government and organizing committee have budgeted more than $6 billion to prepare for and stage the Games.
Despite all of the delays, Athens officials say the venues are on schedule. (Other venues, such as those slated for the old airport grounds at Helliniko, are further behind.) The International Olympic Committee, which two years ago threatened to move the Games if Athens did not speed up its glacier-paced Olympic construction, has accepted the antiquity-related challenges with little grumbling.
"You can't really turn around and say, 'Keep the bulldozer going and don't tell anybody,' " said IOC marketing director Michael Payne. The finds "will be part of the beauty of these Games. You will see an incredibly beautiful city in 2004."
It was in Athens that the first Olympics were staged in about 776 B.C., and it was here that the modern Games resumed in 1896. When the IOC awarded the Olympics to Athens in 1997, members admitted they did so largely as an apology for not having given Athens the centennial Olympics. Had the '96 bid been better organized, Athens likely would have won the Games then.
"The 3,000-year heritage is unique," Payne said. "The visual presentation [of the city] to what the athletes will experience in walking in the footsteps of their predecessors three millennia ago is an incredibly powerful cocktail."
The laborious process of tilling the earth for antiquities is far from unique to Olympic preparations. At various stops on the gleaming, meticulously clean Athens metro, which opened in early 2000 and is being extended for the Summer Games, archaeological exhibits greet riders. Artifacts up to 3,000 years old, which were discovered in the very earth through which the metro trains speed, are displayed in glass-enclosed cases.
Such museum-like displays, or roped-off areas for larger artifacts, are likely to welcome Olympic visitors in 2004.
"We do feel pride because a lot of things were there, and the archaeological service had no opportunity and funds to do its job," said George Kazantzopoulos, the Games' environment chief. "The problem with Greece is there are so many archaeological findings; they don't have the funds required to protect and reveal everything. This is a very good opportunity for them.
"Thank God they were there. The end result has made us all proud."