Fifth-century finds of unique beauty found at Oraiokastro

THESSALONIKI – Oraiokastro was a wealthy suburb in antiquity, where the residents of Thessaloniki used to build luxurious country homes. They took their urban customs with them and brought in the finest artists to decorate their lavish villas. A building complex found during recent excavation work at Palaiokastro in Oraiokastro presents a picture of the social and cultural life of rich people from Thessaloniki during early Christian times. The unexpected find is thought to be of unique importance as it confirms the wealth of the landowners who had houses in the country as large and well-decorated as those they had in town. At least 1,000 square meters survive of the Villa Rustica, as such country houses were known. Its superb, elaborately decorated mosaic floors are in exceptional condition, as are the murals painted by artists from studios in Thessaloniki. The house was built in the fifth century AD, when Thessaloniki was the capital of Illyriko. It was destroyed by fire during incursions in the seventh century, and after some repair work was in continual use until the Dark Ages (eighth-ninth century), when it was abandoned permanently. The fortified villa has a enclosure with a tower that served both as a porter’s lodge as well as defending the villa, as it overlooked and protected the main entrance. It is surrounded by a court enclosed by columns, in the center of which is a masonry well; there is also a storeroom with a wine press. The rooms, on either side of a large banqueting hall, are decorated with mosaics depicting geometric designs and human figures. The archaeologists from the Ninth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities who came in for the rescue dig were astonished to see the mosaics in perfect condition. The owner of the ancient villa, who was discriminating in his choice of decoration, liked a mixture of Christian and mythical traditions. In addition to the geometrical designs typical of the time, there are many depictions of plants and humans. The mosaic floor in the banquet hall symbolizes Christian paradise. The corners of the square are decorated by four pots from which a vine bearing grapes grows across the entire space. Among the branches of the vine, birds and animals of at least 33 species are depicted, the most common being the hare, the cockerel and the eagle. Leda and the swan In contrast to the Christian themes in the banquet hall, the other rooms have mosaics with mythological themes. Of exceptional beauty are the mosaics depicting Leda and the swan and a dancer in another room. The personification of the River Echedoros, of which only parts survive, is thought to be unique. It is the bust of a bearded man with an elaborate hairstyle. An inscription identifies him as Echedoros, the personification of the Gallikos River. Confirmation that the villa was in use until the end of the seventh century comes from coins from the time of Justin and Sophia (late sixth century), which were found among other portable objects such as pots, lamps, sculptures, glass utensils and small crafted objects. This new find, to be announced at the annual archaeologists’ conference on excavation research in Macedonia and Thrace (February 13-15), illuminates the cultural levels of Thessaloniki’s suburbs, about which little was been known till now. The Ninth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities has already taken action to preserve the mosaic floors, fence the site, set up electric lighting and repair a roof to shelter the ancient building. But it is waiting for the expropriation of the land, which is usually a time-consuming procedure. The public and the owner want the Culture Ministry to buy the land at once, both to make timely use of the archaeological site and to release the owner from the laborious process of expropriation.