THESSALONIKI, Greece: Archaeologists in Greece’s northern city were overjoyed in 2006 when a superbly preserved 2,300-year-old avenue – described as “Thessaloniki’s Pompeii” – was uncovered during construction work on the city’s new underground rail network. Now a decision to keep the neighborhood in situ has been hailed as a major win for preservationists in the cash-strapped country that has been forced to make unprecedented cuts to cultural spending.
“This is a great victory,” says Aristotelis Mentzos, a professor of Byzantine archaeology at the city’s Aristotelio University. “Such finds exist in other Roman cities but what they lack is duration of continuous use,” which in Thessaloniki’s case was unbroken for seven centuries.
The rescue excavation has unearthed significant evidence of the city’s urban life between the fourth and ninth centuries A.D., 5 meters beneath the city’s modern highway.
In addition to a 76-meter stretch of marble avenue originally paved in the third century B.C. that led to the harbor, there is a monumental Roman-style gate and the remains of public buildings, offering a rare glimpse into early Byzantine social and commercial life.
“This was a central crossroads where the city’s central market and public buildings were located,” said Despoina Koutsoumba, head of the association of Greek archaeologists. “The area has retained the same character today, it remains the heart of the city’s society.”
Several contemporary texts from lay and ecclesiastical authors specifically refer to this ancient avenue. Bustling with merchants and travelers by day, by night it was given to religious processions of holy icons and relics, a common Byzantine practice.
To the archaeologists’ shock, the state company overseeing the underground rail construction demanded that the avenue and buildings be uprooted and relocated, deeming their preservation “technically unfeasible.”
With the help of the city’s local council and the university, the rail company backed down.
The current plan envisages retaining up to 84 percent of the finds in place, where a rail station is to be built.
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 have also been found – in keeping with the area’s trading character – in addition to 2,500 Hellenistic and Roman-era graves.
A key Balkan port, Thessaloniki was founded in the fourth century B.C. by King Cassander of Macedon, who named the city after his wife, the sister of Alexander the Great.