Archive for April 29th, 2013

Slice of ancient Thessaloniki to remain in situ

Monday, April 29th, 2013

A section of ancient Thessaloniki discovered during subway construction in 2006 and threatened with removal to accommodate the state company in charge of building the rail will remain in place where it was found. This is a big turn-around from four months ago when the ancient remains were slated to be moved far out of the way to make station construction easier.

In January, the Central Archaeological Council acceded to demands from the Attiko Metro company and decreed that the antiquities unearthed at the site of the future Venizelos subway station would be removed in their entirety to the Pavlos Melas camp in western Thessaloniki. Attiko Metro said it was not technically feasible to conserve the remains properly and build the station around them, and the General Director of Public Works supported them, as did the Deputy Minister of Education, Religious Affairs, Culture and Sports. The subway line is already four years behind schedule thanks to the excavation and the implosion of Greece’s finances; the government feared further delays might endanger the entire project.

Archaeological organizations responded to the ministerial decree with swift and public outrage. Polyxeni Veleni, the Director of the 16th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, described it poetically: “It is our Parthenon. Would you like to see Parthenon on Mount Taygetus?” (That’s a mountain on the south Peloponnese between Sparta and Kalamata, about 100 miles southwest of Athens.) The municipal leaders of Thessaloniki agreed. The city already lost much of its ancient history to hasty development after World War II, and thus the second most important city in the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople has little of its illustrious past to show for it.

This discovery is a window into that history, and it’s not the kind of find that can be dug up and shipped to a museum. It’s like a core sample of the city, a large section that preserves 83 yards of the 3rd century A.D. Roman marble-paved main street built over the Greek one from 300 B.C. that passed through the center of the city, the remains of buildings, columns, foundations from the 6th through the 9th centuries A.D., a monumental Roman-era gate and pieces of large public buildings from the 7th century that are rare finds anywhere in the Byzantine world.

This was the heart of the city, the crossroads that the main public buildings, smaller retail structures and the public market clustered around for centuries. The daily life of Thessalonians is literally inscribed into the stone. The marble slabs of the road are marked by wheel ruts from years of cart travel and some of them have children’s board games etched into the surface, a kind of permanent hopscotch pitch.

The headlines are calling it Thessaloniki’s Pompeii because apparently any extensive ruin of an ancient city is a Pompeii now, but what’s great about this discovery is not that it’s frozen in time, but rather an illustration of many phases the city went through from ancient Greece, to Roman rule to Byzantine and up to the present considering that the modern Egnatia street up top follows the path of the Roman decumanus below. Then there are the artifacts:

Working ahead of the rail construction drills, archaeologists have recovered over 100,000 objects in the area, including over 50,000 coins.

Vessels, lamps, vials and jewels of various types have also been found — in keeping with the area’s trading character — in addition to 2,500 graves of Hellenistic and Roman times.

Removing 2,500 graves and monument chunks of road, gate and building foundations seems a lot less technically feasible to me than leaving them where they are. The municipal council and the local university submitted alternate plans that would keep 84% of the discoveries (all of the big stuff, basically) in place and ultimately Attiko Metro acquiesced to the new plan. The rail station will be built around the chunk of ancient Thessaloniki giving tourists a fascinating and conveniently located new attraction.

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