‘Byzantine Pompeii’ archaeological discovery in Greece will be moved to make way for the Thessaloniki subway

Construction site of Thessaloniki's Metro seen from the inside of a tunnel. Wikimedia Commons, photo and caption by Geraki, CC-A-SA 3.0

As is often the case in Greece, digging the ground usually brings up archeological sites. Thessaloniki, Greece’s second metropolis, recently witnessed the discovery of a major ancient site while building its metro. Today, government officials, archaeologists, and local residents clash over the solution to preserve the past while modernizing their city.

The Thessaloniki Metropolitan Railway (or Thessaloniki Metro) is an underground urban transport system under construction in Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece, with a population of over one million people in its metropolitan area. The city is often described as Greece's northern capital and is listed to host the first driverless metro system in the country.

Construction began in June 2006 and was originally scheduled to end in October 2012, a symbolic date coinciding with the centennial of the city's liberation from Ottoman rule on October 26, 1912. In September 2018, the first Thessaloniki metro wagon was presented at the Thessaloniki International Fair. Following a recent announcement by current Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the subway is expected to open in April 2023.

The 11-year construction delay has become an object of online satire.

The ‘Byzantine Pompeii’ revealed

A major archaeological site was found in 2013 at the location of the future Venizelos Metro Station. At a depth of 5.4 meters, the Roman avenue Decumanus Maximus (later also known as the Byzantine Middle Road) was unearthed, along with shops and houses along the ancient Via Egnatia. A treasure trove of 750 jewels and more than 2,700 burial artifacts were also discovered in other metro stations currently under construction, all testifying to the heritage of Hellenistic and Roman times. International archaeological circles have since characterized the discovery as “Byzantine Pompeii,” as can be seen in this video: 

The government wants to move the antiquities

Following the discovery of the antiquities in 2013, the then New Democracy Deputy Minister of Culture Costas Tzavaras ordered their removal from the site in order to continue the metro construction work. Yet this plan was initially stopped following strong opposition from archaeologists and residents. Then Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris successfully appealed the suspension and annulment of Tzavaras’ decision.

After the 2019 parliamentary electoral win of the New Democracy party, the issue of what to do with the antiquities at Venizelos station resurfaced. Following a meeting with the prime minister, the Central Macedonia Regional Governor Apostolos Tzitzikostas said:

Όσον αφορά το μετρό της Θεσσαλονίκης, ιδιαίτερα μετά τις αποκαλύψεις της αναδόχου εταιρείας προτείναμε λύσεις από την πρώτη στιγμή ως Περιφέρεια Κεντρικής Μακεδονίας και επιμένουμε στην θέση αυτή ότι θα πρέπει να συνυπάρξουν αρχαία και μετρό. Να γίνει δηλαδή μία στάση – μουσείο, αλλά για να γίνει αυτό θα πρέπει τα αρχαία να αποσπαστούν, να ολοκληρωθεί η στάση του μετρό και στη συνέχεια να επανατοποθετηθούν.

Regarding the Thessaloniki subway, especially after the revelations of the contractor, we – as Region of Central Macedonia – proposed solutions from the very beginning, and we insist on this opinion, that antiquities and subway should coexist. That is, to make a subway station-museum. But to do so, the antiquities must be detached, the subway station construction works completed, and then the antiquities repositioned.

The Minister of Culture Lina Mendoni reacted by saying during a press conference that her office and the Ministry of Infrastructure had not reached a decision yet and that “when the time comes, they would deal with it.”

To add to the confusion, the current Mayor of Thessaloniki Konstantinos Zervas and local officials have stated they are in favor of the removal and repositioning of the antiquities.

One of the main reasons for such opposite views is that keeping the ruins would require to scrap the central subway station, which could jeopardize a 3.5 billion-euro project co-financed by the European Union. This at a time when Greece's moribund economy sees very few major public projects. 

Outrage among the public and the scientific community

Opposition politicians, archaeologists, and citizens have been outraged by the Greek government's plans to displace the delicate antiquities.

Students of the Department of History and Archaeology of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki are opposed to the government's decision. Additionally, the Christian Archaeological Society has sent an appeal to the prime minister himself.

Byzantinology scholar Paolo Odorico, director of the Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, visited the antiquities of Venizelos Station in 2013. He argued that the displacement of the Byzantine Middle Road would irreversibly destroy the structural authenticity of the antiquities of the monumental set, a value protected by international and Greek law.

Αυτό που έφεραν στο φως οι εργασίες για το μετρό είναι η βυζαντινή Πομπηία! Το καταλαβαίνετε; Και σκοπεύετε να την ξεκολλήσετε, για να την επανακολλήσετε αργότερα; Τρελαθήκατε; Θα κάνετε τις αρχαιότητές σας Lego; Σκοπεύετε να στήσετε τη βυζαντινή Disneyland; Να μας το πείτε! Και να αναλάβετε τις ευθύνες σας.

What the metro construction procedures have brought to light is the Byzantine Pompeii! Do you understand? And do you plan to remove it and reattach it later? Are you crazy? Will you make your antiquities a Lego game? Are you planning to set up the Byzantine Disneyland? Tell us! And take on your responsibilities.

Former Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris also sent a letter to the prime minister speaking on behalf of the newly established “Thessaloniki Citizens’ Movement for the Protection of Cultural Heritage.” The same citizen movement initiated an online petition entitled “Save the Antiquities at Venizelos Station in Thessaloniki.”

Europa Nostra, the pan-European organization for Cultural Heritage, a recognized consultant and non-governmental partner of the European Union, the Council of Europe and UNESCO, addressed a letter to the Central Archaeological Council in support of the antiquities’ remaining at the site.

The case before the Central Archaeological Council

The decision on the ultimate fate of the antiquities was entrusted to the Central Archaeological Council (CAC), a key body that decides on the fate of sites in Greece. Attic Metro SA, the company building the metro in Thessaloniki, presented its own study advocating for the removal of the antiquities. Following a 14-hour deliberation, the CAC eventually approved the company's proposal. The decision was welcomed by many government officials

Members of the political opposition, such as former SYRIZA party Deputy Minister of Culture Costas Stratis, had opposite views: 

Η γνώμη του Κεντρικού Αρχαιολογικού Συμβουλίου προεξοφλήθηκε από τον πρωθυπουργό σε ζωντανή μετάδοση στη ΔΕΘ. Παραπέμποντας σε τριτοκοσμικό σουλτανάτο. Σίγουρα πάντως όχι σε κράτος που θέλει να λέγεται σύγχρονο, ευνομούμενο, ευρωπαϊκό.

The Central Archaeological Council's opinion was judged in advance by the Prime Minister in a live broadcast at the Thessaloniki International Fair. [As if we were] a third-world sultanate. Certainly not a state that wants to be called modern, favored, European.

There were also both offline and online reactions and protests by netizens:

“Both Metro and Antiquities.” The Citizens of Thessaloniki sent their message.
“Mr. Mitsotakis [Greece's current Prime Minister], hands off the city's body and history!”

Twitter user Fiogkos cited the city of Sofia, Bulgaria's capital, to remind officials that there is a feasible alternative:

In Sofia, the metro station's location was changed thrice to avoid transferring antiquities
Read more at: https://t.co/KMdLi6CO1G

About the Metro station in Thessaloniki…Take precious care of our antiquities, you losers. We have been talking about the metro and we have not seen it for the last 30 years…Our antiquities though are more important! Take your own chances!!

An online magazine, HOT DOC, also makes the following accusations:

They inflate, up to three times, the cost of the “in situ” remaining antiquities project to prove that the removal is a cheaper and therefore more preferable solution

The Hellenic Archaeologists Association, in a press release, has opposed the CAC decision, stating that the Council's opinion is a dark blot for archeology and announced that it intends to appeal to international organizations and the State Council. 

But while the Ministry of Culture's “Unified Fighting Movement” line of workers has identified a redesign study of Venizelos Station with “in situ” conservation of the antiquities and brought it to light, both the Minister of Culture Lina Mendoni and Attic Metro S.A. President Nikos Tahiaos have questioned the study's very existence, describing it as a “purported solution” or as  a “non-existent study.”

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