The Thessaloniki metro project, due to be completed by 2020, has brought to light outstanding remains that allow archaeologists to fill gaps in their knowledge of the city’s long history.
Armed with shovels and brooms, twenty or so workers evolve in the remains of an ancient villa, deeply buried under the hustle and bustle of modern Thessaloniki.
Suddenly one of them leaves the group to come to deliver a find, a small clay head representing a bearded man with a hooked nose and a grinning smile. „Probably a votive offer,“ slice the young archaeologist on duty.
The Thessaloniki metro project, to be completed in 2020 after 15 years of work, has brought to light remains such as a VIth century road and other urban works, allowing archaeologists to fill gaps in their knowledge of the city’s long history.
„We did not know that urban works of this magnitude were carried out at that time, probably under (the Byzantine emperor) Justinian,“ observes Polyxena Adam-Vélèni, head of the department of antiquities of Thessaloniki at the Ministry of Culture . „We were surprised to discover the road in such an exceptional state, this phase of the history of the city was unknown to us,“ she told AFP.
50,000 coins discovered
Other finds like the villa are older, dating back to the end of the fourth century. On the floor of the hot bath, archaeologists found a gold ring, „probably misplaced by a young woman who made the mistake of taking his jewelry bath,“ says an archaeologist site.
Founded in the 4th century BC, named after the half-sister of Alexander the Great, Thessalonica was an important center of the Roman Empire before becoming the second city of the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople. The city continued to grow under the Ottoman Empire with the arrival in the 15th century of thousands of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain.
Excavations have revealed more than 300,000 important objects, including 50,000 coins, besides two marble squares, a 15-meter fountain and a primitive Christian church.
Along the paved main road, the Decumanus Maximus, the excavation teams also found the remains of earthen brick workshops where jewelers, as they still do today, used to live in apartments above the building.
Local gold crowns and jewelery were also found in more than 5,000 tombs along the subway route, but this is another seemingly humble discovery that has aroused archaeologists, according to Mrs. Adam-Vélèni.
„We found containers shaped like hand grenades, and at first we did not know what they were used for, until we understood that they were used to store the mercury needed to make jewelry, a very valuable discovery“ she explains.
„The municipality was asked to choose between the metro and antiques, but it was a false dilemma“
The construction of the metro was ordered in 2003 and work began three years later. It was originally scheduled to be completed in 2012. But the project came up against a debate about the best way to preserve the antiquities discovered, explains Yannis Mylopoulos, the president of the public railway construction company Attiko Metro.
Archaeological excavations cost more than 75 million euros depending on the company. „The municipality was asked to choose between the metro and antiques, but it was a false dilemma … we do both, the city discovers and exposes its history,“ says Mr. Mylopoulos, professor of civil engineering and former rector from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
Once completed, the walkways above the two metro stations where the main discoveries were made will provide a general view of the shopping district of the old town.
„These will be sites open to the public … a city under the city, exactly as it was in the third and fourth centuries,“ he said.
With a cost of 1.5 billion euros, the Thessaloniki metro will initially have 13 stations over a distance of 9.6 kilometers. Future expansion is planned to serve the airport.