In Greece, a priceless archaeological site is now at great risk of irreparable damage.
In 2013, the construction of the Venizelos metro station in Thessaloniki led to the discovery of impressive remains dating from the late Roman and early Byzantine period (4th-9th centuries AD), a time when Thessaloniki was considered a multicultural city at the crossroads of East and West.
These archaeological finds are of immense historical and cultural importance because nowhere in the world has archeology found a central urban area of this time so well preserved and with such an extensive surface (the site covers more than 1,500 m²).
The monumental complex includes parts of the avenue Decumanus Maximus paved with Roman marble, its intersection with the main road of the city (the cardo maximus), workshops, shops and residences, and portions of a square surrounded by colonnades. Some experts even refer to the complex as the “Byzantine Pompeii” because it is in excellent condition and, as in the case of Pompeii, it gives a clear idea of what everyday life was like back then.
But the way the Greek government has chosen to handle the spectacular discovery has sparked fierce debate, both domestically and internationally, and deserves the attention, and perhaps intervention, of European institutions.
In March 2020, despite the significance of this monumental complex and against the majority opinion of the archaeological community, the government decided to dismantle the ancient finds into pieces and temporarily transfer them to a storage unit outside the city, with the intention to place them. come back after the construction of the station. The main argument for this decision was the need to complete the construction of the station on time and avoid the repercussions of the European Investment Bank, which finances the works of the Thessaloniki metro.
In doing so, the government ignored a scientifically and technically sound solution for a win-win construction plan to build the station on time and keep the antiquities on site. This alternative, realistic and respectful scenario was proposed by a group of experts: to excavate and build the station under the archaeological layers.
According to archaeologists, the procedure for disposing of the finds destroys the underlying archaeological strata and exposes them to external risks.
In addition, the project of moving the delicate pieces requires a lot of time: in case of removal, a new archaeological excavation must be carried out because under the level of the current complex there are another three meters of archaeological layers, estimated to be 700 years old.
The Greek government should learn the lessons of previous failed attempts. A similar plan was implemented when extremely important finds were discovered near the Hagia Sophia square, also in Thessaloniki. The archaeological site was dismantled and stored outside the city. Unfortunately, once the construction works were completed, the effort to return the finds to their original place proved impossible because they no longer fit in the space from which they had been extracted.
We must ensure that the remains found at Venizelos station do not suffer the same fate.
Public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to removal: according to a recent survey, two out of three residents in northern Greece do not support extraction.
International law also does not approve of the strategy: all international conventions on cultural heritage, namely the Charter for the Protection and Management of Archaeological Heritage (Lausanne, 1990), the UNESCO World Heritage Convention (revised on June 10, 2019), the Nara Document on Authenticity (1994) and the Venice Charter (1964): underscore the need to preserve monuments of cultural significance in the place where they were originally discovered.
This is an essential precondition, in terms of integrity and authenticity, for any monument to be considered for the UNESCO World Heritage list of monuments.
A possible award of the new archaeological site as a World Heritage Monument would be very beneficial for Thessaloniki, as it would help promote the city as a tourist destination and generate economic benefits. It would be a shame to lose this potential title and all its advantages.
For all the above reasons, cultural institutions, such as Our Europe and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), academics, civil society and legislators are mobilizing to stop the impeachment process and prevent a destructive scenario from occurring.
Time is running out: Greece’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, has already given the green light extraction, rejecting all three appeals by a narrow margin of 13 out of 25 votes.
This problem concerns the whole of Europe, and only Europe can act now.
My colleagues in the European Parliament and I have already addressed a question to the European Commission, asking whether the executive intends to intervene and defend the in situ preservation of Thessaloniki’s antiquities before the damage is irreparable. Looking ahead, the European Union must establish guidelines for similar cases to ensure that the works on the substructure do not erode our ancient history.
We must seize this unique opportunity to build a modern metro line that benefits the development and connectivity of the city while preserving and highlighting our common European cultural heritage.
Alexis Georgoulis is a Greek member of the European Parliament who belongs to the group The Left and is part of the committee on culture and education.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism