Highway Digs Unearth Greek Bronze Age - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Highway Digs Unearth Greek Bronze Age April 10, 2000
by Nikos Axarlis


A new national road will pass over the city wall of the ancient city of Alos in central Greece. This photo shows a view of the southern end of the west wall. (Fotini Tsiouka)

Excavations accompanying the building of the new six-lane Athens-Thessaloniki national highway in Greece, jointly financed by the European Union and the Greek state, are revolutionizing knowledge about the ancient history and political geography of central Greece. Scholars say the salvage work has provided information about the movement of people and their settlements, and has led to "a revision of views held about the history of the end of the Bronze Age in Greece" (1150-1050 B.C.), says Fanouria Dakoronia, who headed the Phtiotis ephorate for Prehistoric and Classical antiquities based in Lamia during the salvage operation.

The South Thessaly Ephorate for Prehistoric and Classical antiquities based in Volos conducted 25 excavations on a 30-mile stretch of the highway in southern Thessaly. Near the village of Aerino, 12 miles west of Volos, at an area known for a number of ancient sites, contractors came upon a prehistoric settlement on a hill slope. Despite protests from archaeologists, they pushed ahead leveling half the hillside.

The Aerino site, explained excavator Polyxeni Arahoviti, "is dated to the beginning of the Bronze Age (3000-2800 B.C.) and consists of some dozens stone foundations, which survive up to a foot-and-a-half in height. The two long sides of the buildings are parallel, but the other two are round. The settlement is considered unique for Thessaly." The relationship of Aerino to at least two other settlements on the other side of the highway is being investigated. The Greek Ministry of Culture's Central Archaeological Council decided that the settlement must be preserved and contractors have to redesign and the route at a cost of 300 million drachma (about $900,000).

However, some archaeology has had to be sacrificed to facilitate road construction. Near the village of Mikrotheves (some 15 miles southwest of Volos), a small but highly significant third-millennium B.C. settlement and 400 to 600 graves of the Hellenistic and Roman periods that have been excavated will be reburied.

In the case of the ancient city of Alos (ten miles south of Mikrotheves), the Central Archaeological Council approved a plan for the road to pass over its city wall, but a bridge will be built so the walls will remain visible and open to visitors. The Volos ephorate will also excavate the entire city and create an archaeological park.

The old highway, a two-lane highway built in 1960, bisected the site passing over the western city wall. Alos included an acropolis, nearly half of which was destroyed in recent years by a stone quarry. Alos' impressive stone walls, surviving up to a height of some 15 feet, include several towers. To the north of town, settlements and burial grounds of the Geometric period (1000-800 B.C.) were discovered. Excavators Eleni Nikolaou and Zoi Malakassioti say that the graves and well-preserved cremation remains are of the same period.


Part of the city wall of the ancient city of Alos. The present national road is in the background. (Nikos Axarlis)

In Ftiotis, the district south of Thessaly, the highway follows the coastline and the bulk of the excavations were conducted between 1994 and 1998. The variety and importance of the antiquities found led to a permanent exhibition at the Lamia Castle Archaeological Museum titled "The Road Has Its Own History." Finds are also exhibited in a new museum at Atalante, some 45 miles south of Lamia.

Excavations were carried out in two large areas. East of Lamia a classical town was found near the village of Pelasghia. This site will be made open to the public. To the southeast, in the area known in antiquity as eastern Locris, near the village of Arkitsa some 35 miles from Lamia, the fourth century B.C. city wall of the town of Alopi and part of a cemetery were excavated. These will be covered up by the new road.

Further south near the village of Proskynas, terra-cotta figurines of the early Helladic period (third-second millennium) were found, according to archaeologist Olga Kyriazi. She adds that the site contains building remains from all periods of prehistory. Also excavated was an eighth-second-century B.C. cemetery of the ancient town of Corseia.

The Lamia Ephorate organized international conferences in 1994 and 1999 titled "The Periphery of the Mycenaean World." Dakoronia views Ftiotis as "part of the Mycenaean world and in no way its periphery." The excavation finds, she says, have convinced her of this.

Archaeologists carried out these excavations under tremendous pressure from the Greek Ministry for the Environment and Public Works and private contractors. Vassiliki Adrimi, head of the south Thessaly Ephorate, based in Volos, complained of the lack of consultation by the Ministry for the Environment and Public Works responsible for the national road project. "In 1993 we were given the plans with the route already designed. We found out that the budget for the national road did not include money for archaeological excavations."


Part of the city wall of the ancient city of Alos. The new national road will pass over the wall on a bridge. (Nikos Axarlis)

In 1994 archaeologists pointed out that the Ministry's policies would probably destroy antiquities. The Ministry was forced to concede to the archaeologists' demands for proper excavations for all sites, known and unknown. It is estimated that nearly one billion drachmas a year (more than $3 million) has been spent on archaeological excavations since 1994 in southern Thessaly alone.

A temporary exhibition at the Archaeological Museum at Volos presented a number of antiquities from the excavations, which are in storage there. Adrimi says the problem archaeologists now face is the conservation of antiquities. "They give us peanuts for conservation. I have asked for those archaeologists and conservators whose contracts run out at the end of the national road excavations to stay for a further two years."

Such experiences appear to have hardened archaeologists who neverthess seem able to resist pressures from state officials and contractors alike. Adrimi is hopeful: "I feel that after all this, the authorities have now understood that antiquities must be protected. Technocrats now have a different attitude."

Nikos Axarlis is an Athens correspondent for ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America