When the age-old history of Halkidiki, buried in the earth and under its blue seas, comes to light, we are reminded of the timeless culture of the Kassandra and Sithonia peninsulas. Thanks to the recent discovery of one of the largest ancient cemeteries in northern Greece, the wealth of the region’s archaeological heritage, often overshadowed by its touristic development, has once again been brought to our attention. More than a thousand burials of different types, yielding numerous finds, have been discovered in the coastal area of Aghios Ioannis on Sithonia.
Two excavation projects (2018-2019 and 2020), led by Eleni Lambrothanasi, Despoina Vovoura and Charikleia Koromila, archaeologists from the Ephorate of Antiquities of Halkidiki and Aghios Oros, revealed 912 graves after property developers began digging in the area for the construction of a modern tourist unit. The plot had been purchased by Tourism Development S.A. “Akti Ioannis” through TAIPED, the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund S.A.
Excavation of the area where the beach-side recreation center was to be located brought to light a number of undisturbed tombs, tightly arranged in a sandy and marshy layer of sediment, and ranging in date from the 10th to the 5th centuries BC. The burials bear witness to the wide range of funerary practices that went on in the region from the Iron Age to the early Classical period, including pithoi (large storage jars), up to two meters tall, and amphorae inside stone enclosures, burial cases, cist and pit graves, and a sarcophagus.
The burials also yielded a large number of grave goods that accompanied the dead, including ceramic vessels in the shape of a beetle, kraters (mixing bowls), cauldrons, skyphoi (drinking cups), amphorae and feeding bottles for infants, figurines, and jewelry. The first indication of the existence of an important necropolis in the area came to light in the late 1970s and 1980s with the discovery of 132 burials, excavated by K. Romiopoulou (1977) and E. Trakosopoulou (1984-1988). With the latest excavations, that number has risen to 1,044.
According to Lambrothanasi, despite the most recent round of excavations, it remains unknown as to which ancient settlement the cemetery belonged. It was first assumed that the site was associated with the settlement on the nearby island of Kastri, where, in 1977, excavations brought to light a number of prehistoric and Archaic-era (c. 700-480 BC) buildings. The continuation of the excavations will hopefully provide an answer, something that archaeologists have been searching for for years.
Shipwreck of the 1821 Greek Revolution
It was a small miracle that saved the sunken Revolutionary-era warship in the sea off the Kassandra peninsula from treasure hunters. The half-buried shipwreck has kept its ordnance in excellent condition, including two cannons and a flintlock musket, as well as dozens of other objects that shine a light on the 1821 Revolution in the region of Macedonia.
Part of the wreck was first discovered three years ago off Skalas Fourkas Beach, when waves shifted the sand that had covered it for 200 years. The initial discovery alerted the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities to the site, a mere 80 to 100 meters from the shore, at a shallow depth of four meters.
A team of archaeological divers, led by Stavroula Vrachionidou from the Northern Greece office of the Ephorate, proceeded with an underwater emergency rescue excavation last November. “From the very first dives we saw an impressive wreck, half-buried in the sandy seabed, with its portable artifacts in almost perfect condition,” explained Vrachionidou. “Two cannons, a type of rifle that was widely used during the period of the 1821 Greek Revolution, and many everyday items that were used by the crew were excavated from the visible part of the wreck,” she continued.
Pottery, clay and porcelain vases, bronze bottles, a wooden basket and an ink pot stand are among the 34 objects recovered so far by the archaeologists. Most of the artifacts were concentrated at the northern end of the wreck. Traces of sails, ropes (ground tackle) and other organic elements have been preserved in the top layer of sediment that covers the wreck, including a sack of coffee beans and a straw basket. The archaeologists estimate that more objects await discovery in the section of the wreck that remains buried, items that were stored in its cargo hold.
The wreck, which was a type of square-sailed brig, approximately 25 meters long and 8 meters wide, also preserves a number of structural elements of its wooden hull, including the bow, and other features such as the keel that likely remain buried under the sand.
What was an 18th-19th century brig doing in the area of Halkidiki? Where was it heading? And was it part of a bigger fleet? For the time being, based on the available data, the archaeologists can only speculate. “The first through refers to the uprising in Halkidiki in 1821, led by Emmanuel Papas,” said Vrachionidou. If this is the case, the question is whether the shipwreck was a vessel that carried Papas’ fighters, or one of the warships that sailed from the naval islands further south to aid the Halkidiki rebellion.
The ancient cemetery of Aghios Ioannis and the 1821 shipwreck were among 68 presentations at the 35th conference of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki on Friday, March 10, showcasing archaeological work in the regions of Macedonia and Thrace. The conference highlighted the most recent excavation data from all sites, except the ongoing metro works in Thessaloniki.