A headless statue of Aphrodite, a 15-meter fountain, 50,000 coins and the remnants of intricate mosaics dating back to the 4th century AD. The Thessaloniki Metro in Greece, which is currently under construction, holds a treasure trove of valuable artifacts and insights into the port city’s 2300-year-old history, from its imposing 6th-century central highway to its sophisticated urban planning.
As part of the excavations that are being carried out to build tunnels for the city’s subway, archaeologists have now stumbled upon a number of other fascinating finds, including a small clay head of what appears to be a bearded man with an aquiline nose and an “ugly grin”.
According to the junior archaeologist overseeing the digging, the artifact was a likely a votive offering. The latest discoveries have also shed some much-needed light on the ancient metropolis’ surprisingly-modern, stone-paved central highway called the Decumanus Maximus.
Speaking about the finds, Polyxene Adam-Veleni, head of the Culture Ministry’s Thessaloniki Antiquities Department said –
“We did not know such important urban changes had been carried out in this era, probably under (Byzantine Emperor) Justinian. We were surprised to discover the road in such exceptional condition. This phase of the city’s history was mostly unknown to us.”
Adding to the list of items unearthed at the site are portions of an urban villa as well as ancient instruments that were used in mud-bricked jewelry workshops. Inside the villa, which is believed to date back to the late fourth century, workers have also discovered a hot bath with a gold ring lying on its floor.
“It was probably dropped by a young woman who made the mistake of taking her jewelry into the baths,” added another site archaeologist.
Inside The Daily Life Of The 2,300 Year Old Greek City
As per the researchers, the remains of the mud-bricked workshops uncovered at the site point to the act of jewelry making. Among the 5,000 graves and tombs along the metro route, they also discovered golden wreaths and other pieces of jewelry. Elaborating further, Adam-Veleni stated –
“We found vessels shaped like hand grenades. Initially, we couldn’t figure out their purpose. Then we realised they were used to store mercury for the making of jewellery. This plain object was extremely valuable to us. Because ultimately it gave us the interpretation that it was used in these workshops.”
Since the start of the excavations works at the site, a whopping 300,000 antiquities have been discovered in and around the Greek city, including 50,000 coins, an entire fountain complex, and an early Christian church.
Last month, in addition to a headless statue of Aphrodite, the archaeologists excavating the area (near the southern entrance of the Hagia Sophia station) unearthed parts of a well-preserved 4th-century mosaics. Showcasing their geometric patterns, these multicolored mosaics were possibly a part of a public building complex or at the very least bedecked the floors of an urban villa.
In any case, it is believed that this unidentified complex was destroyed by the 5th century and a marble-lined square was then built atop its structural remains.
Previously, the researchers overseeing the digging were also able to find a medal with an engraving of a woman in a seated position (with her visage being damaged) along with a child. Apart from the highway and the villa, they came across the ruins of walls, baths and possibly even a tank that used to supply water to the bathing facilities.
These were complemented by the fragments of broken glass that allude to the bevy of ancient aromatic substances kept in jars that were applied by the bathers.
The History Of Thessaloniki: An Overview
Situated on the Thermaic Gulf along the northwest corner of the Aegean Sea, Thessaloniki, also known as Thessalonica, Salonica, or Salonika, is currently the second-largest city in Greece, home to over 1 million people. As per historical records, the city was founded in circa 315 BC by the King Cassander of Macedon.
It is believed that Thessaloniki derived its name from Thessalonike, a half-sister of Alexander the Great. Under the kingdom of Macedonia, it had its own autonomy and parliament. However, after the fall of the kingdom of Macedonia in circa 168 BC, the city was named the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia.
Post the creation of the Roman Empire, Thessaloniki emerged as an important trade-hub, with its roads connecting it with major centers of commerce such as Rome and Byzantium. It was around this time that it served as one of the early centers of Christianity.
As per historical records, Paul the Apostle, while visiting this city’s chief synagogue during his second missionary journey, helped build Thessaloniki’s first Christian church.
Later, it was also considered the most important city of the Eastern Roman Empire, second only to Constantinople. Thessaloniki held onto its status as a major hub of trade and commerce even after Ottoman Sultan Murad II captured it in circa 1430 AD.
In the late 15th century, it also saw the arrival of nearly 20,000 Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula following their expulsion from Spain by the 1492 Alhambra Decree.
Interestingly, the Greek city’s ruins hold evidence of all three religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. For instance, the Galerius Palace Complex, built in 4th century AD, housed a circular, domed structure called the Rotunda, which served both as a Christian church and a mosque.
Currently, under construction, the Thessaloniki metro project was commissioned in 2003, with work commencing in 2006. It was originally scheduled for completion in 2012. Since then, however, it has incurred several delays, largely due to the archaeological work being carried out in and around the subway site. According to him, the archaeological excavations to date have cost over $93 million.
Despite the delays, Yiannis Yiannis Mylopoulos, the Attiko Metro Chairman, is certain that the unexpected archaeological ‘interlude’ wouldn’t hinder the progress of their work. The $1.8 billion project is slated to reach its conclusion in 2020. He added –
“The city was called to decide, metro or antiquities? This was a false dilemma. We are doing both. The city is discovering and showcasing its history. These will be archaeological sites open to the public.”