The area of the Kerameikos was first used as a burial ground in the 11th century BC or ‘Submycenaean’ period, the period after the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces and the associated civilization. More than a hundred simple but neatly laid-out Submycenaean graves have been found, attesting to the presence of a sizeable and organized community nearby. The Kerameikos remained the principal cemetery of Athens into the Roman period.
In the Protogeometric and Geometric periods (ca. 1050 to 700 BC) the custom of cremation was introduced, funerary gifts became increasingly more rich and grave markers more monumental. The Kerameikos is famous for its large terracotta amphorae and kraters – initially called ‘Dipylon vases’ because they were found in the area of the later Dipylon Gate. Many of these bear depictions of the prothesis (the lying-in-state of the dead) and the ekphora (funerary procession) in a severely geometric style. These impressive, sometimes man-high vases were set up as grave markers, while other pots and valuable objects, including weaponry for the men and gold and other precious jewelry for the women, were placed inside the grave.
From the 6th century BC monuments carved in stone and marble take the place of ceramic grave markers. The Kerameikos has produced some very early and fine Archaic statues of young men or kouroi. An almost complete example, now on display in the Kerameikos Museum, was found as recently as 2002. Like most other Archaic funerary statues and reliefs from the Kerameikos, this kouros was not found in its original setting, but reused in the foundations of the city wall that was put up in great haste after the Persian invasion of Greece and the destruction of Athens in 479 BC. Other Archaic statues, such as those of a lion and sphinx suffered the same fate.