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Digging the trial trenches west of the church, with the river valley in the background.

    Finnish Excavations at Arethousa
    in Northern Greece

    Arja Karivieri


In July 1999 the Finnish Institute at Athens launched an archaeological project in Arethousa, in Northern Greece. This, the first archaeological field project of the Finnish Institute at Athens, will include three field seasons between 1999 and 2001. The finds and the excavation report will be published in the publication series of the Finnish Institute, and the most important objects will be deposited in the storerooms of the 9th Byzantine Ephoreia in Thessaloniki. The excavation project is being financed by the Finnish Institute at Athens and the Finnish Cultural Foundation.

The director of the project is Dr Arja Karivieri, and the assistant director is Renée Forsell from the University of Lund. The excavation group of the year 1999 consisted of a trenchmaster, Minna Lönnqvist from the University of Helsinki, and four excavation assistants, Patrik Franzén (University of Oulu), Kristiina Leimu (University of Turku/University of Helsinki), Anna Pietiläinen (University of Helsinki) and Marko Pitkänen (University of Turku). This is in keeping with one of the aims of the excavation project, which is to offer Finnish students of Classical archaeology the opportunity to obtain fieldwork experience. Furthermore, two field technicians, Per-Erik Egebäck and Helmut Bergold, a research engineer, Kjell Persson from the University of Stockholm, and two local workers participated in the fieldwork.

Arethousa is located ca. 100 km. east of Thessaloniki approximately 10 km. north of Via Egnatia, the main road of the Roman period between Thessaloniki and Constantinople. The modern highway, Ethniki Odos, follows the course of Via Egnatia along the north coast of the Strymonic Gulf. The archaeological site called Paliambela is located ca. 2 km. south of the modern village of Arethousa. The excavation area is on an elongated gently sloping terrace on the steep eastern slope of a river valley. The archaeological remains around the Arethousa area are not yet well known. However, surface finds that can be dated from the Neolithic period onwards, as well as several ruins and concentrations of finds, attest to the existence of ancient settlements in the area.

In 1994 and 1995 the Classical Ephoreia of Thessaloniki made excavations in Paliambela, as pieces of mosaics and marble had been found in connection with roadwork on the slope. The excavations have revealed the ruins of an Early Christian basilica, whose main nave was decorated with colourful marble plates. The choir of the basilica was found to have an opus sectile floor, and it was further decorated with geometric mosaic panels made of rough pieces of marble. The entrance hall of the church was embellished with an opus tessellatum floor mosaic consisting of small rectangular tesserae depicting two peacocks surrounded by fish and small birds. The floor mosaic in the lateral room represents two deers flanking a large vase. On the basis of the iconography of the mosaics and coins it proved possible to date the basilica to the second half of the 5th or the first half of the 6th century AD. After these excavations, the mosaics were protected by sand for future conservation, which is planned to start in the near future.

The area was flourishing, when the basilica was built

The Finnish Institute at Athens is continuing the excavation and the study of the basilica at Paliambela with the permission of the Greek Ministry of Culture and under the auspices of the 9th Byzantine Ephoreia in Thessaloniki. The church is part of a larger complex whose existence was verified by a surface survey preceding the excavation work in summer 1999. Several destroyed cistgraves were found during the survey, and some stone walls were discernible on the surface. The surface survey along the ditches of the dirt road by the church turned up a lot of pottery fragments from different periods, mostly from the Late Roman period (AD 300-600). The finds seem to indicate that the area was flourishing at the time, when the basilica was built. The pottery fragments included pieces from, e.g. Italy, Asia Minor, and North Africa.

A geophysical survey that was undertaken in the area by Kjell Persson, a research engineer from the Archaeological Research Laboratory at the University of Stockholm, succeeded in verifying that there is a concentration of man-made structures and finds near the basilica. Based on his results two trial trenches were dug to the west and south of the visible ruins of the church to expose other wall constructions connected with the basilica.

The area around the basilica was cleared of thorny vegetation in order to facilitate the excavation work and the mapping of the area, and four trial trenches were opened. Two trenches were dug to the west of the church in order to locate the walls of the atrium, i.e. the peristyle hall that was usually located in front of the main entrance, to the west of the entrance hall. The other two trenches were dug south of the church, since the geophysical study suggested the existence of a longer wall in the area.

An art historically significant grave relief

A part of the expected atrium and a door opening were found four meters west of the entrance hall. A thin wall including previously used material had been built against the atrium wall. This wall consisted of a statue base of marble and a marble grave relief that had been placed upside down in the wall. The grave relief can probably be dated to ca. AD 300. The lower part of the relief, consisting of six busts, became visible when we started to dig the layer attached to the atrium wall. The special character of this marble slab became clear when the busts and the depiction of a funerary meal in the upper part of the relief were exposed at a lower level in the wall construction. The participants in the funerary meal in the relief seem to be the deceased man, his spouse and two lamenting women. This grave relief is art historically significant, as it presents a more recent variant of grave reliefs that were produced in Macedonia in the Late Roman period. It also indicates that there are graves in the area that are older than the church construction, and furthermore, that existed an earlier settlement somewhere in the surrounding area.

The statue base found beside the grave relief in the same wall predates the church and was originally made for a bronze statue. Both finds, as well as the decoration of the church, attest to the fact that Paliambela was an important settlement in Antiquity. Further studies in the area of the atrium are planned for the coming summer.

Another trench west of the church was difficult to dig because of thick roots. No wall constructions were discerned in the trench, but a thick layer of roof-tiles from the destruction layer of the church were found, as well as some Late Roman coins. The two trial trenches south of the church revealed part of a stone wall, the extent of which will be studied during the following field seasons.

The study of the basilica and its environs is providing new important information on the ancient contacts between this area and Amphipolis, Philippoi and Constantinople to the east, Thessaloniki in the west, the metal-rich mountain-ous area in the north, Chalkidike in the south, and across the sea towards Southern Greece, Asia Minor, the Middle East and Africa.