The Early Christian Basilica of Paliambela

1. Introduction

The Early Christian basilica of Paliambela at Arethousa, located ca. 20 km west of Amphipolis in Northern Greece, was discovered in 1994 while preparing a forestry road. The main part of the church was excavated in 1994-95, under the direction of Polyxeni Adam-Veleni from the 16th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities. At the suggestion of Prof. Charalambos Bakirtzis, Ephor of the 9th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities, the Finnish Institute at Athens continued the excavation and study of the basilica in Paliambela between 1999 and 2004 under the direction of Dr. Arja Karivieri, with the permission of the Greek Ministry of Culture and under the auspices of the 9th Byzantine Ephorate in Thessaloniki.

2. Specific Aims

The aims of the Finnish project were to study the history of the Early Christian church and the site, to document and consolidate the pavements and walls found since 1994, and to make a plan for the future conservation, preservation and maintenance of the site in co-operation with the 9th Byzantine Ephorate, the International Committee for the Conservation of Mosaics, and the Greek Ministry of Culture. The conservation of the mosaics was carried out from 2000 to 2003, and the conservation and treatment of the walls in 2004.

Fieldwork in Paliambela began in 1999 with a survey around the church. Four trial trenches were dug to the northwest and southwest of the visible ruins in order to expose other wall constructions connected with the basilica. Part of a transverse wall belonging to the exo-narthex or an outer stoa of the church was found 4 m northwest of the narthex, built of spolia such as a Late Roman grave relief and a statue base. In 1999-2000 geophysical research was carried out at the site, and man-made structures were located below the surface. Based on these results, trial trenches were dug where the strongest indications were seen, in order to find stone structures belonging to the building complex.

3. Mosaics and opus sectile – floors

The apse and the choir of the church in Paliambela were decorated with opus sectile panels. The main nave of the church was decorated with four geometric panels made of coarse pieces of marble, local black schist, and spolia from inscriptions. The two westernmost panels had central circular medallions in opus tessellatum. These four panels, made of irregular pieces of small stone slabs, were surrounded by rows of large rectangular slabs of white marble.

The centre of the narthex in the church was embellished with a mosaic floor in opus tessellatum, depicting two peacocks on either side of a fountain, surrounded by a network of hexagons filled with animals and vegetal motifs. The two main entrances to the central room, in the northwest and southwest, are marked by an acanthus motif flanked by two birds. The floor mosaic in the southwestern room of the narthex depicts two deer flanking a cantharos in a rectangular emblema. The northeastern room of the narthex was decorated with a geometric pattern of red circles, surrounded by a wave pattern and an ivy tendril border. A new mosaic floor was revealed in 2002 in the entrance of the north aisle. This mosaic has a central opus tessellatum emblema with a bowl and a flanking decorative band, surrounded by stone slabs and tile fragments.

The combination of these pavements and other structures in the church is unique, so the maintenance and conservation of the site are therefore of high priority. The in situ method of conservation was chosen for Paliambela, being the best possible means of maintaining the historical evidence visible on the mosaic surface.

4. New structures found in 2002

In 2002, the baptistery of the church was revealed north of the room with the geometric mosaic. The baptistery has a cross-shaped baptismal font, with a circular outer form. A fine small marble pilaster was found in one of the cross arms. Pieces of glass bowls and perfume bottles were found in the corner of the room.

In 2002, a room that was used for wine-production was found in the so-called north aisle of the church. A structure with two parallel walls and two shallow basins with sloping pavements, covered with hydraulic plaster, was revealed: two treading floors for wine production, with terracotta pipes that directed the wine to large storage vessels. Storage vessels were located in a large hall with an earthen floor. Even foodstuffs, such as fish, olives, grain, dried fruits and vegetables, were possibly preserved in some pithoi. Two hearths were found, several tools, metal, slag, animal bones, and some grape seeds – evidence for the multifunctional character of this room. Economic facilities inside the building, as well as the amphorae, pithoi and a hearth found west of the narthex, can be compared with similar structures around other Early Byzantine churches in Greece.

5. The history and the destruction of the site

When was this church built, and when was it destroyed or abandoned? Today, it is located outside the modern village of Arethousa. The original construction of the church can be dated possibly to the late 5th or early 6th century AD with the help of the iconography of the mosaics and the excavation finds. Over 150 coins have been found during the fieldwork from 1999 to 2002, most of them from the 4th to the 6th century AD.  Lots of pottery, especially Late Roman and Early Byzantine pottery, both imported and local, fragments of oil lamps and an acanthus capital that can be dated to ca. AD 500, support this date. Pieces of the chancel screen and a marble bowl were found in the destruction layer inside the north aisle

Evidence has been found for a larger site: wall remains and some graves on the slope were destroyed when the dirt road was built in 1994. The archaeological site continues above the church on the slope, and below the church towards the river valley. The church of Paliambela was a meeting place for a small community in this valley near Thessaloniki, Serres, Amphipolis and Apollonia. It seems that this community belonged to an ancient city, possibly ancient Arethousa. The finds provide evidence for the existence of a settlement from Classical or Hellenistic times to the Early Byzantine period. The largest find group belongs to the Roman period, and includes imported pottery from Italy, North Africa and Asia Minor. Paliambela is located just 8 km north of the Via Egnatia, which connected Thessaloniki to Constantinople. The inhabitants of the ancient settlement seem to have had a great interest in imported material, even different sorts of wine, as the diverse imported amphorae show us. Even the name of the site, Paliambela, refers to wine production in earlier times.

The church was destroyed and the roof constructions collapsed at the end of the 6th or beginning of the 7th century AD. A thick layer of broken roof tiles was found above the pavements and around the walls. This destruction can have two possible explanations. First, it is known that a group of Slavs destroyed cities and churches in Greece in the 580s. Another explanation for the destruction in Paliambela could be an earthquake, and the literary sources mention several earthquakes in Greece during the Late Roman – Early Byzantine period.

6. Forthcoming publication

A publication presenting the report of the first excavation at the site by Polyxeni Adam-Veleni, as well as the first results of the Finnish excavation project, is under way, to be published in the series Papers and Monographs of the Finnish Institute at Athens. Renée Forsell publishes the imported Roman and Late Roman pottery, Carita Tulkki  the local Late Roman and Early Byzantine pottery, Arto Penttinen the Hellenistic and older pottery, Minna Lönnqvist the amphorae, Kenneth Lönnqvist the coins, Nikos Roumelis the bone finds, Hanne Selkokari the glass finds, Pirjo Hamari the roof tiles, Maria Gourdouba the marbles, Ezequiel Pinto Guillaume the molluscs, Olof Pettersson the results of the survey of the site, and Kjell Persson the geophysical study and phosphate analyses. Arja Karivieri will publish the lamps, the architectural and stratigraphical analyses of the excavation, and has the main responsibility for the editing of the book.

7. Participants in the fieldwork

Director: Arja Karivieri, Assistant Director: Renée Forsell

Helmut Bergold (1999-2000), Per-Erik Egebäck (1999-2000), Hedvig von Ehrenheim (2000), Patrick Franzén (1999), Maria Gourdouba (2001-2002), Pirjo Hamari (2000-2001), Nina Heiska (2001), Tiina Hiekkalinna  (2001), Timo Iipponen (2001-2002), Kristiina Leimu (1999), Kenneth Lönnqvist (2000-2001), Minna Lönnqvist (1999-2002), Heli Maijanen (2000-2001), Jukka Palm (2000-2001), Kjell Persson (1999-2000), Olof Pettersson (2000), Anna Pietiläinen (1999), Marko Pitkänen (1999-2001), Nikos Roumelis (2000), Esko Tikkala (2002), Carita Tulkki (2000-2002), Rauno Vaara (2000-2002), Isto Vatanen (2001), Sisko Vuoriranta (2001-2002).

Conservators: Nikos Benos-Palmer (2002), Maria Fallia (2003), Johanna Kangas (2000-2001), Riikka Köngäs (2002-2003), Nikos Pitsalides (2000), Athanasia Spyridou (2001-2002), Savvas Vatides (2003).

Furthermore, several local workmen participated in the fieldwork between 1999 and 2004.

8. Selected bibliography

P. ADAM-VELENI, Anaskaphi palaiochristianikis basilikis se thesi ellinistikon palaiochristianikon chronon stin Arethousa N. Thessalonikis, «AErgoMak», 9, 1995 (1998), p. 351-365.
A. KARIVIERI, Oi nees archaiologikes ereunes sta Paliambela Arethousas, «AErgoMak», 13, 1999 (2001), p. 117-121.
A. KARIVIERI, Anaskaphi stin Arethousa to 2000, «AErgoMak», 14, 2000 (2002), p. 117-124.
A. KARIVIERI, Anaskaphi stin Arethousa to 2001, «AErgoMak», 15, 2001 (2003), p. 181-186.
A. KARIVIERI, Anaskaphi stin Arethousa to 2002, «AErgoMak», 16, 2002 (2004), p. 191-195.
A. KARIVIERI, Arethousa 2003, «AErgoMak», 17, 2003 (2005), p. 139-142.
A. KARIVIERI, Floor mosaics in the Early Christian basilica in Arethousa (Central Macedonia), in : La mosaïque gréco-romaine IX, Actes du IXe Colloque international pour l’Étude de la mosaïque antique et médiévale organisé à Rome, 5-10 novembre 2001 (Collection de l’École française de Rome, 352), vol. 1, ed. H. Morlier, Rome 2005, p. 371-378.
A. KARIVIERI, Floor mosaics in the Early Christian basilica in Arethousa: Conservation, maintenance and presentation, in : VIIIth Conference of the International Committee for the Conservation of the Mosaics (ICCM), Wall and Floor Mosaics: Conservation, Maintenance, Presentation, Thessaloniki 29 October – 3 November 2002, Proceedings, ed. Ch. Bakirtzis, Thessaloniki 2005, p. 191-202.

9. Sponsors

Finnish Institute at Athens
Finnish Cultural Foundation
Niilo Helander Foundation