Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
online features
Gold and Aristotle December 17, 2001
by Nikos Axarlis


Residents of the village of Olympiada in the Chalcidice peninsula of northern Greece rally to protest construction of a gold-processing plant nearby. (© Euagelos Tokas) [LARGER IMAGE]

In a decision made on April 11, 2001, the Greek Council of the State (Greece's Supreme Court) decided that TVX, a Canadian gold company that aimed to build a large gold-processing plant near the ancient city of Stageira in Chalcidice, northern Greece, could not go ahead with its plans. The Council ruled by a large majority, 20 to 7, that the company's plans would endanger the area's environment and antiquities. It was a huge victory for Greek archaeologists, environmentalists, and the inhabitants of nearby Olympiada village and a sharp rebuke to the Greek government, especially to Deputy Finance Minister Pahtas and Environment Minister Laliotis, and to the Ministry for Culture's Central Archaeological Council, which had accepted TVX's environmental study.

Archaeologists and conservationists had feared that the plant would severely effect the environment, seriously threatening the health and way of life of Olympiada, a village close to the ancient city, and the antiquities. Situated on a promontory on the east coast of the Chalcidice peninsula, Stageira, the birthplace of Aristotle, was destroyed in 349 B.C. by the powerful Macedonian king Philip II.

Despite protracted mass demonstrations during the last decade by the inhabitants of Olympiada and nearby villages, TVX Hellas-Hellenic Gold pushed ahead with its plans. The company secured the full backing of the Greek Government, the Ministry for Culture, the Ministry for Environment, and certain archaeologist and scholars who sit of the Central Archaeological Council (CAC), the advisory body of the Minister for Culture. In May 2000, CAC members voted by 12 to 4 to allow TVX to build their plant literally on top of an archaeological site that includes Early Iron Age (tenth century B.C.) settlements and Hellenistic era antiquities.

When TVX-Hellas's plans were unveiled in 1996, nearly 100 archaeologists and scholars from the United States and Europe signed protest resolutions. The Greek branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites described the proposal to establish a gold-processing plant in the "native city of the great philosopher Aristotle" as "a time bomb."

TVX-Hellas is half owned by Toronto-based TVX Gold, Inc., and half by Normandy Mining, Ltd., of Australia. Its gold-production method consists of using cyan to extract gold from the large quantities of mined arsenic pyrites. The result is colossal amounts of toxic waste dumped into tailing ponds.

During the last few years, the area close to the ancient city of Stageira frequently turned into a battlefield. There were mass demonstrations by local people opposed to the TVX-Hellas plant. Resistance ommittees were formed and an outpost was set up on the road from the village of Olympiada to the mining installations, which operated 24-hours a day throughout the year. Violent clashes with the special riot units of the Greek police, sent in from Athens and Salonica, resulted in hundreds of arrests. Police set up road blocks and stopped locals going about their business. Incidents of police placing their revolvers against people's heads were reported. At mass trials demonstrators--mostly inhabitants of the Olympiada--were accused of "resistance to police" and "destruction of private property" and dozens were convicted and sentenced to jail.

Soultana Athanasiadou, who lives in Olympiada, spoke of the fear and insecurity felt by the villagers. "We fear for our health and for the village. We have a beautiful village surrounded by forests, clean sea, and ancient Stageira. Many tourists come here. All this would be gone if TVX have their way."

Nikos Mitsios, a local Councilor, pointed out that TVX-Hellas was preparing a large-scale installation that would have processed "not just the minerals produced at Chalcidice, but also minerals from all over the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean." It would, he said, have become "an international processing center using cyan and arsenic, deadly toxic materials."

Mitsios was tried seven times and has received a total sentence of 12 years on charges relating to demonstrations. He spoke of the "cynicism and hypocrisy" of the Greek Government and of the ex-Minister for Culture, Elisavet Papazoi, currently Deputy Foreign Minister. A few years ago Papazoi strongly protested against the establishment of a gold-processing plant close to the ancient city of Pergamos on the Aegean shore of Turkey, but signed the decision allowing TVX-Hellas to build a similar plant on top of antiquities in Greece.


Aerial photograph above shows existing gold-processing plant with pools of toxic waste. [LARGER IMAGE] Potter's workshop of the fourth-second centuries B.C. appears in center of photograph [LARGER IMAGE] and portion of Hellenistic Stageira's city wall appears in trenches at lower left. [LARGER IMAGE] (Photographs courtesy Kostas Sismanides)



City Wall

A road built in 1960, and now out of use, bisects the archaeological site of Stageira. Road constructors paid no attention then to antiquities, but since 1990, following repeated intensive petitioning by local Olympiada authorities to the Ministry for Culture, the archaeologist of the 16th Ephorate (district) of the Greek Archaeological Service, Kostas Sismanides, is excavating the city of Stageira. His team has unearthed the city walls, the Agora, temples, and other buildings of the sixth-fourth centuries B.C., as well as houses dated to the fourth-third centuries B.C.

Sismanides holds that following its destruction the city became uninhabited, although the third-century B.C. houses his excavations revealed need explaining. In Byzantine times (tenth-eleventh centuries A.D.), defensive walls, a fort, and some related installations were built; these are being excavated by the 10th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities.

Clearly visible at a distance of just three kilometers from the site of ancient Stageira and two kilometers from the village of Olympiada, are the installations of the gold mine acquired in 1996 by TVX-Hellas. Following a decision by the Ministry for Culture in July 1999, archaeological excavations were carried out in September-November 1999 at the specified area where TVX-Hellas proposed building their gold-processing plant.

The excavations, carried out by Sismanides, revealed remains of Early Iron Age (tenth century B.C.) settlements and buildings of the Hellenistic era (third-first centuries B.C.) including parts of a city wall, standing up to 1.50 meters high and 2.60 meters thick, a sacrificial area, houses with cobbled stone floors, storage spaces, and workshops including two well-preserved pottery furnaces dated to the fourth-third centuries B.C. Some members of the CAC have expressed doubts about what Sismanides describes as "city wall" and "sacrificial area."

Sismanides holds that the whole area upon which TVX-Hellas intended to build the gold-processing plant lies "in the middle of a large ancient city which, according to the archaeological finds, flourished from the middle of the fourth to the first century B.C." According to the ancient Greek historian Plutarch, when Aristotle was tutor to Philip's son the later Alexander the Great, he appealed successfully to the Macedonian king to allow the inhabitants of Stageira to rebuild their city a few years after its destruction.

For Sismanides, the city he claims to have found is the rebuilt Stageira of the Hellenistic times, although he has yet to find any inscriptions confirming this. He states that "I'm able to say this because all excavated finds are dated post the middle of the fourth century B.C." that is after the destruction of the Stageira of the Classical era. But his view is doubted by archaeologist Haido Koukouli, current acting head of the 16th Ephorate, who says that it is not certain that the finds indicate an ancient city.

The problem is that Sismanides was not allowed to complete his excavations at this site. Minister for Culture Papozoi remained convinced that there was no reason why the TVX-Hellas plans should not go ahead. She could only allow Sismanides to carry out limited excavations to be concluded by May 15, 2000, a decision that brought fierce protests from local Olympiada authorities.

Sismanides identified numerous archaeological settlements from prehistoric times to the nineteenth century A.D. near the area he was able to excavate. These uninvestigated sites were seriously threatened by the construction of the proposed gold-processing plant and the toxic waste it woould have generated.

[image] [image]

Two views of second-century B.C. seal that was excavated at the gold-processing plant near Olympiada. Left: donkey. [LARGER IMAGE] Right: Greek letters spelling out Dionysou ("of Dionysos") may give the seal owner's name. [LARGER IMAGE] (Photographs courtesy Kostas Sismanides)

TVX-Hellas proposed that the toxic waste should be dumped at a new tailings pond to be created at a ravine three kilometers away. Preliminary excavations in that area, carried out in the second half of 1999 by Yiannis Tavlakis of the 10th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities, produced few pottery sherds from the thirteenth century A.D. onward and remains of various mine related buildings from Byzantine to modern times.

The site of the proposed tailings pond was on the boundary of a Natura 2000 protected site that was officially described in 1999 by Kimon Chatzibiros, an associate professor at the National Technical University of Athens, as a "landscape which refers to the image we have about virgin prehistoric nature. Its condition is characterized as natural and perfect," which is "very sensitive to any intervention."

The cyan gold-processing method is practiced in the United States and elsewhere, although it has been heavily criticized. The policy of the European Union is unclear, but cyan is being used widely at a number of gold mines in Eastern Europe. It was at an old processing plant of this type at Baia Mare, Romania, where a tailings pond dam recently failed, causing an unprecedented pollution and ecological catastrophe which effected Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria. Drinking water was contaminated and the fish population was exterminated.

The Chairman of the Board and Managing Director of TVX-Hellas Yiannis Drapaniotis claimed that "the Baia Mare case does not apply to TVX." Although he accepted the possibility that "cyan can cause great damage to the ecosystem," he emphasized that TVX-Hellas would take all measures for "destroying cyan" after use and insists that the processing method was "not dangerous."

TVX-Hellas financed the archaeological excavations at the site to the tune of over 200 million drachmas (about $500,000.00). Drapaniotis stated that his company was prepared to "take every measure to protect and preserve the antiquities found and will make them accessible to visiting scholars." TVX-Hellas also contributed substantially to a fund donated by the Greek Head of State Kostas Stefanopoulos to the Royal Ontario Museum as a contribution to a new exhibition hall for Greek antiquities.

But TVX-Hellas has been accused numerous times of ignoring environmental restrictions imposed by the Greek Ministry for the Environment and neglect towards antiquities. In fact, the 16th Ephorate of Antiquities filed a legal suit against the company for the alleged destruction of antiquities at two locations. In the early 1970s, when Greece was ruled by a military junta, the then owner of the gold mines carried out ground leveling activities that obliterated antiquities near Sismanides' excavations.

By the 1980s, METBA, a Greek state-owned company, attempted to revive and extend gold processing at Olympiada. The outcome of this attempt is clearly and revealingly set out in an official parliamentary reply in April 1992 by the Deputy Minister for Industry and Technology to a question asked by Christos Pahtas, a Parliamentary Deputy for Chalcidice: "As regards the investment for gold production from the pyrites of Chalcidice by METBA, we inform you that the investment was definitively canceled because the area's inhabitants, as well as the local authorities, strongly reacted and called upon the Government not to go ahead with the establishment of such a plant in Chalcidice. The same reaction occurred at other areas where an attempt was made to establish the plant."

According to local Olympiada authorities, Pahtas, who with the election of a new Greek Government in the fall of 1993 became the Deputy Minister for Industry and Technology, played a leading role in supporting TVX-Hellas's successful bid to buy up the gold mines at Olympiada and elsewhere in the Chalcidice peninsula.

In January 1994, alarmed by "unconfirmed information" that the Ministry was planning the establishment of a large gold-processing plant at Olympiada, the late Ioulia Vokotopoulou, then head of the 16th Ephorate of Antiquities, sent an "urgent" letter to Pahtas, stating that "the excavation of ancient Stageira is in process with very important finds up to now, which augur for important future discoveries. This fact and the name of Aristotle, the philosopher from Stageira, already make this area one of the most important historical and archaeological sites in Europe."

In 1995, the then Minister for Culture Thanos Mikroutsikos stated in Parliament that it would be "a world's first and shame if a gold metallurgy is constructed near the ancient Stageira." By contrast, in 1998, Pahtas, now a Deputy Finance Minister, declared according to a press report, that "the Government and company will face together whatever reactions." In that year the Government's candidates were heavily defeated at local elections in the wider area of Stageira.

In May 2000, the Central Archaeological Council decided by a 12 to 4 vote to allow TVX-Hellas to build their plant right next to antiquities excavated by Sismanides. Dimitris Konstantios, Director of the Byzantine Museum in Athens, stated in the CAC session that he could not agree with the view that the antiquities excavated at the proposed TVX-Hellas plant be protected, but not the "cultural entity as a whole," that is the totality of the archaeological site. The Chairperson of the CAC Lina Mendoni, the General Secretary of the Ministry for Culture, replied to Kostantios' argument by stating that the "subject of the cultural landscape" could have been discussed if earlier mining and processing operations "had not altered so much" of the landscape.

[image] [image]

Part of the Classical city wall of Stageira following restoration in the 1990s [LARGER IMAGE] The area of the agora or marketplace of Classical Stageira following restoration. [LARGER IMAGE] (Photographs courtesy Kostas Sismanides)

Ironically this very issue was included in archaeological legislation revealed at the end of the September 2000 by the current Minister for Culture, Theodoros Pangalos, who like his immediate predecessor and like the Greek Ministry for the Environment, has approved the gold plant. The new bill states that "archaeological sites include the necessary surrounding space, which allows monuments to preserve their historical, aesthetic and operational unity." This view has been accepted by the CAC, but when the Council proposed a 300-meter protective zone around the antiquities at the TVX-Hellas premises, the company challenged it.

The study and protection of archaeological sites and monuments in unity with their natural environment, is a cornerstone of modern archaeology and site management. This philosophy has been codified and included at international cultural conventions and in agreements ratified by Greece. Yet it appeared that the Greek Government gave the go-ahead to TVX-Hellas' plans, on the pretext of a financial investment crucial to the Greek economy, while contravening international agreements and simultaneously proposing a new archaeological law of which cases such as TVX-Hellas would have been in violation. It is also contradictory that a few years ago the Greek Government decided to preserve, protect, and make available to the public the remains of the Lykeion, Aristotle's school in Athens, while it would abandon the ruins of the philosopher's native city to a company whose activities, by their very nature, would drastically alter the environment.

Such paradoxes can only be explained by a double standard. The Greek government in theory accepts the principles of archaeology and protection for antiquities, but in practice, such principles can be waived at the behest of powerful companies who have the expressed support of Ministers. This situation is a mockery of science, ethics, and the law.

On both sides of the Aegean, at Stageira and at Pergamos, the drama of gold-processing plants versus peoples' health, the environment, and antiquities has been acted out on epic proportions, in the cases of extreme importance for the future of proper protection of antiquities. It appears that Normandy Mining Ltd., half-owner of TVX-Hellas, also own the gold plant near Pergamos, as well as a company that is trying to establish gold-processing plants in Thrace, northeastern Greece. The locals' wishes and rights are being suppressed by state agencies who, in a truly "big brother" mentality, say they know best. As the Managing Director of TVX-Hellas put it, "the wider society and the Greek state decided in favor of the gold plant for the benefit of local society."

And so, the archaeological area of Stageira and the inhabitants of Olympiada, descendants of refugees from Asia Minor, faced a second destruction. This time by toxic waste and road and port facilities constructions which would transform the present picturesque tourist resort into a heavily polluted environment. It was under these circumstances that the local Olympiada authorities appealed to the Council of the State in a final attempt to reverse the government's decision to allow TVX-Hellas build a gold-processing plant.

The April 11 decision by the Council of the State may mean the end for TVX-Hellas's plans, but in theory, the company can produce a revised environmental study of the consequences of the gold-processing plant operations. This new study would have to be considered by the Council of the State. In the past, however, the Council of the State has never overturned any of its previous decisions.

Nikos Axarlis is an Athens correspondent for ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America