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Advisory Body Votes to Move Antiquities for Thessaloniki's Subway

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Protesters outside Greece’s Central Archaeological Council. (Photo by Eurokinissi/ Bonis Christos)

THESSALONIKI - Greece's Central Archaeological Council ruled Thursday that a section of an ancient Roman road in the northern city of Thessaloniki should be removed to make way for construction of the city's long-delayed subway.

After a marathon 19-hour overnight session, the council ruled 13-2 for the antiquities to be removed and then reinstalled once a central subway station is built, in a decision that has led to outrage among some experts.

Critics argue that moving the artifacts will damage them and say the station should be constructed around the antiquities, a process officials say would be more time-consuming and expensive.

Unearthed in 2012, the antiquities date mostly from the 4th century, with 6th century additions. They consist of a 76-meter- (220-foot-) long and 7.5-meter- (25-foot) wide road and remains of shops, a collapsed monumental stone arch, water pipes and a sewage conduit.

"There is no danger for the antiquities to suffer any problems if everything is implemented correctly. Internationally the method has been implemented both in Italy and in Egypt at the Aswan Dam," Michalis Tiverios, a professor of classical archaeology at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and member of the archaeological council, told The Associated Press. "Entire temples have been moved kilometers away."

Tiverios said he didn't understand the objections to the plan, noting there was no similar controversy over the removal of other antiquities found in another station during the subway's construction.

Some archaeologists have protested the antiquities' removal since 2013, and a petition calling for the artifacts to remain untouched has gathered more than 12,300 signatures.

"I consider these monuments very significant and any removal and transport will not be feasible without damaging them," said Aggeliki Kottaridi, archaeologist and head of the archaeology department of the region of Imathia. "It is exceptionally problematic to remove them."

Kottaridi noted the artifacts were not a complete temple that could be moved as a unit, but a series of sections such as shops, buildings and roads.

"They are antiquities of incredible importance and they must remain in situ and be displayed there. If they can't stay there, the station shouldn't be built," Kottaridi told the AP.

The Thessaloniki Metro project has been mired by delays for more than a decade. Announced in 2004 as a solution to chronic traffic congestion in Greece's second-largest city, the subway is to extend 9.6 kilometers (six miles) with 13 stations. Construction began in 2006, and the subway originally was scheduled for completion in 2012.

But the unearthing of significant ancient finds during construction stymied the plans, and the city has yet to see any form of underground public transport. This is not the first time the archaeological council has ruled on the issue, with appeals from various sides leading to rulings both in favor and against the removal of the antiquities.

Successive governments have vowed to see the subway completed. Officials now say it will be finished by 2023.

Thessaloniki Mayor Konstantinos Zervas, who presented the municipality's position in favor of the removal of the subway antiquities during the council meeting, said the method to remove and later replace the artifacts was "technically secure, with a smaller cost and faster completion."

The mayor said 92% of artifacts removed would be replaced "in their natural space, will be accessible to visitors and will be displayed as befits every country that respects and honors its heritage."

Founded in the 4th century BC, Thessaloniki became an important city in Byzantine times. Remains of its past are still visible, including city walls, medieval churches, a Roman marketplace, a monumental arch and the perfectly preserved Rotunda, a 4th century Roman building that later served as a church.