Not long after Greece won the right to host the 2004 Olympics, organizers here began dreaming of another kind of victory.
For almost two decades, Greece had been trying to force Britain to return its most cherished antiquities statues and friezes that once adorned the Parthenon. What better way to pressure London, they reasoned, than to build a museum to showcase the Parthenon Marbles and open it just in time for the Games?
But, in an ironic twist, the museum itself is being criticized as a threat to Greece's heritage. On the site where the New Acropolis Museum is being built, archaelogical ruins have been discovered, opening the latest chapter in an an epic cultural saga.
"The ruins are very, very important.... There isn't anything like this anywhere in Athens," says Thanos Papathanassopoulos, a Culture Ministry official who has joined forces with a handful of local residents, historians and archaelogists to protest the museum's construction.
Fearing that the ruins of an early Christian settlement will be sacrificed in the campaign to recover the lost marbles, they are filing suit against the government.
The excavated museum site is packed with foundations of buildings and houses built between the 2nd and 7th century, a period archaelogists say is sparsely represented in Athens. The site also includes ancient roads, a circular marble fountain or well, and two nearly complete tiled floors. Acropolis Museum director Dimitrios Pantermalis the site is unusual because it contains ancient wells and water-reservoirs, rare in the parched city.
Protesters say it isn't worth destroying parts of the site to make way for the $100 million museum.
But others say the new exhibition space is vital to efforts to bringing back the 2,500-year-old marbles.
"I think the new museum is absolutely crucial because it takes away the last remaining argument about returning the marbles the argument that the Greeks wouldn't take care of them, or that no one would see them, that they'd have nowhere to put them," says Anthony Snodgrass, a retired Cambridge archeologist who heads an international campaign for the marbles' return.
In the new museum, which would also display other archeaological treasures, the space designed for the marbles would be left mostly bare, with labels marking the spots where the missing sculptures would be displayed. Greeks hope that,with thousands of visitors seeing those empty spaces during Athens' moment on the world stage, the pressure on Britain will reach a breaking point.
Late last month, Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis gave his British counterpart, Tony Blair, a letter outlining proposals for either returning the marbles permanently or sending them to Greece on a long-term loan. It was the first time Athens had taken the case directly to Downing Street.
Italy, which also owns a fragment of the marbles, said last month that it plans to return part of a statue of Peitho, goddess of persuasion and seduction to Greece in a 99-year loan.
In Britain, the sculptures are known as the Elgin marbles, named after Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, who cut them off the temple 200 years ago and carted them back to England. While some pieces were dispersed among various European museums, most were sold to the British Museum, which resolutely refuses to return them.
The British Ministry of Culture, Media and Sport, however, has said that while no moves of the marbles are planned, it is now open to talks with Greece.
Next week, just across the street from the British Museum, Greece is making an elaborate presentation on the New Acropolis Museum and the missing marbles to ratchet up the pressure on London.
Britain has long claimed that it houses and displays the sculptures better than Greece ever could. Even Greeks admit this was justified: many Greek museums are overcrowded and poorly organized, and many art works were damaged during a 1999 earthquake in Athens.
But Greece says the new museum answers these criticisms. Designed by Bernard Tschumi, an internationally renowned architect who recently retired as dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, it will be built mostly of glass, with a direct view to the Parthenon.
The marbles would be displayed on the museum's top floor and arranged in the same order and proportions they had on the Parthenon, which would be clearly visible behind them. "We have restored the relationship in looking at the frieze as it would be while walking around the Parthenon itself," says Tschumi. "The same Attic light will shine on them."
To protect the marbles, builders say glass will be treated with ultraviolet light filters, and foundations built with the same shock-absorbent earthquake-proof technology used in California museums.
Stumbling on ancient ruins amid new construction is commonplace in Greece and becoming increasingly frequent as Athens scrambles to complete dozens of Olympic venues and modernize by 2004. Construction on a long-delayed metro system was slowed by the discovery of countless graves, pots and sculptures, for example. Protesters held up construction of an Olympic rowing center 19 miles outside Athens, where ancient ruins were found on what is believed to be the site of the 490 BC Battle of Marathon, where an army of 192 Athenians repulsed 6,000 Persians.An Olympic equestrian center was stalled after discovery of an ancient brothel on the site. In some cases, the government has attempted to preserve such finds.
Pantermalis concedes that there's no way to build the new museum without destroying at least some of the site. But much of the site will be preserved: Plans for the museum now call for it to be elevated on columns, with glass floors, so visitors can peer down at remains below the building. Pottery and sculpture found on-site will be displayed in the museum.
Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos has agreed to meet with the protesters and consider their arguments about the site. But for now, construction plans are moving forward.
With the time constraints, "there is no other solution," says University of Crete archeologist Petros Themelis, who initially opposed the project. "The thing now is that we have to build this new museum. It has to be done."