Sofia (Bulgarie) : Subway expansion digs up Roman city Part.2


Yordanka Kandulkova: We will try to exhibit the archaeological heritage of Serdica in its authentic state

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Focus News Agency speaks about the archaeological discoveries from ancient Serdica with architect Doc Yordanka Kandulkova, Director of the National Institute of Immovable Cultural Heritage (NIICH) to the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture.

Focus: Doc Kandulkova, tell us about the archaeological discoveries made during the construction of the subway. What has been found recently in Antique Serdica?

Yordanka Kandulkova: This is an extremely difficult site, whose complexity stems from the fact that everything, from archaeological exploration to design and construction, should happen simultaneously. It would be better, if we had a preliminary archaeological research first which would allow us to take the decision on how the site should be developed. However, such a research, especially situated in the centre of Sofia, could happen only if it was coordinated with a major infrastructural project on a financial, organizational, and management level. The construction of the subway is exactly that type of project. We have to acknowledge the fact, that the subway made it possible for the first time to uncover the historical layers of which we have been aware for years. This represents a real chance for our cultural heritage. The problem is to find a way so that the two things – the construction of the subway station and the excavation works, do not hinder, but supplement, enrich, and nourish each other. This will allow us to create a new healthy and beautiful organism in our city. And this is happening on the very edge of compromise between the two projects. It goes on with the fear of mistake and it is highly probable such will happen when working at such lightning temps. We are, however, trying to make sure that no mistake would be fatal and that we would manage to correct such that occur.

Focus: What stage are you currently at?

Yordanka Kandulkova: On the subway station 8, under the Maria Luiza Blvd exploration is at its final stages. We have uncovered great findings there: cultural layers from II century AD, rooms with mosaic floors, glass making furnace, etc. We expect that by the end of August the level of exploration will have reached a stage at which we could start designing a project for conservation, restoration, and exhibition of the findings.
Exploration at the Largo site is going on simultaneously with construction works. At first, there were no findings there and almost everybody was expecting that the entire archaeological heritage there had been already destroyed. Fortunately, while working on block 4, workers found a fragment of a decumanus [east-west-oriented road in a Roman city] that had not been affected during XIX and XX century construction. Moreover, big portions of the road surface turned out to be preserved. This provoked the next in line revision of construction projects – a painful and hard, but necessary revision. Thus, designers are currently working on a new plan which would allow us to exhibit the part of the main road we found alongside present-day sites. We are going over all the possibilities. And what cannot be done today might be possible tomorrow or in the future. The ball is in the hands of designers now. We are talking about the part of the project that has been subject to much debate by the public recently. There have been allegations that findings were being destroyed by workers. In the moment we are trying to revise the projects in a way we will preserve discoveries and come up with opportunities to exhibit them.

Focus: How many times was the route of the subway moved because of archaeological findings?

Yordanka Kandulkova: The route of the subway does not change, only the areas leading to them, the entrance stations, have to be re-worked. The current re-work must be the fifth one. Just a couple of days ago designers faced another shock – they were just relaxing with the thought they had finished the next super project, when it turned out that even this project had to be re-worked. The pressure is immense and it is even harder for them since this is a really tough infrastructural project with its own time limits and financing which is dwindling. The capital city simply could not afford to be left without a subway. I have to remind myself all the time that archaeology will have a future and a place to be shown in the contemporary city. Thanks to this project and to people’s willingness to realise it, attention might turn to archaeology. And it is in no way easy.

Focus: What are the plans for archaeological sites discovered so far? Which findings are to be exhibited at the place where they were discovered and which are to be moved?

Yordanka Kandulkova: We have so far only moved findings from later periods, the dismantlement of which was necessary in order for exploration to go through on lower levels. That way, some discoveries from the Middle Ages, from the Ottoman period, and the National Revival were wrapped up and moved, thus allowing us to go on exploring the Antique layers. Antique findings represent a special interest in this complex stratigraphy picture. This is the great and glamorous Serdica that we all want to uncover and show to the world. On the other hand, the value of the so called “Heart of Sofia” lie exactly in the rich cultural layers, in the fact that on one and the same spot there are traces of various historical periods. And one of the major goals of the future project for conservation, restoration, and exhibition is to locate the places on the Largo, the area in front of TZUM [the Central Department Store], and under Maria Luiza Blvd where we would be able to demonstrate those multiple layers. Some of the findings, we have wrapped up and moved, will be returned back where they were found. That way we can show how the roots of present-day Sofia are entwined with that of Ancient Serdica and showcase the fact that our capital has lived through a lot of periods and still keeps the memory of them. This historical multilayeredness is part of the riches of the place.

Focus: Are you expecting any further discoveries? Might the end of construction works on the subway spell out the end of discoveries?

Yordanka Kandulkova: The boom in discoveries in connection with the subway has, in fact, given birth to a desire of finding more and more, but you can see for yourself the scales of this work. I am sure there will be more discoveries. But this will happen only when there are means provided for the purpose – for preservation, exhibition, and adequate promotion, i.e. new projects are required. Archaeological studies should continue in the area of the square around St Nedelya church where we expect one of the most glamorous buildings of the ancient city. In the future, they must cover a space up and under TZUM to be able to integrate decumanus maximus with the area to its north. Explorations should continue towards the West Gate, as well. But we should also respect the fact that in those areas the decumanus is entering beneath existing residential and public buildings. Uncovering traces there would be possible only after part of those buildings get destroyed or some new technological advancements happen. Could we afford this? In order to answer such a question we should think of all the issues such an initiative would unearth: human, social, economic, and not least – issues concerning the loss of cultural traces from our newest history. We cannot start demolishing buildings just like that. Most probably, we will continue explorations in the near future and stick to free urban areas until then.

Focus: What is happening with the medieval church of Holy Salvation, which is under the building of UniCredit Bulbank?

Yordanka Kandulkova: The medieval church of Holy Salvation under UniCredit Bulbank’s building, is, thanks God, preserved. If there is a problem with it – it is its insufficient promotion. We need to look for a project, which would resolve this issue in the future, so that the fragments of the Old town of Sofia, regardless of the historical layer they belong to. They should be integrated in a new public area, which we expect to happen with the “lower ground” – the big archaeological underpass. This is a question of looking for new means of integrating these long discovered and preserved historical traces in a complete cultural-communication complex.

Focus: What do you plan to do with the Western Gate of Sofia?

Yordanka Kandulkova: This part of the project does not concern the Western Gate. The exhibition of the Western Gate is a thing that was discussed back when the first metro station Serdica was being constructed. There are many things there that were not done. The removed archaeological pieces were not returned for exhibition. The project included removal, packaging, and storing of archaeological finds and subsequently their reinstallation at their exact locations. Unfortunately this did not happen and it left people with serious fears and disbelieve that if something was once removed it would never be returned. And quite rightly! When a person has had bad experiences, it is logical to expect such things and to do everything in their power to avoid such mistakes from repeating. One of the reasons that such finds are not returned to their original places is that the slabs, that are supposed to hold these finds, do not adhere to the construction requirements for such a load. There probably are many other reasons, which are even more influential, connected with the change of ownership and the will of people to use these areas for different purposes, and etc. I am not aware of all the reasons. Nonetheless, we are pleading this project to be expanded westwards and solutions to be found the removed segments to be returned and used accordingly. Our aim is to have Antique Serdica exhibited more adequately in all directions.

Focus: Many NGOs have been alarming, recently, about the placing of concrete along the main street of the Roman town.

Yordanka Kandulkova: The main street of the Roman town, an east-west-oriented road, is the decumanus maximus, via principalis, I was talking about. When we were constructing block 4 we were lucky enough to come upon a well-preserved road surface and in this very part we had to make changes to the constructional projects in order this part to be exhibited accordingly. The street is not covered with concrete but is filled with underground engineering infrastructure. We have made pylons, which will have sufficient height to reach the ground base of the street. We have conducted a drilling archaeological research, in advance, in the area. We have also made underground beams. For this purpose part of the stones of the authentic road surface have been displaced and will subsequently be replaced.
The stones were accurately photographed with geodetic means, were catalogued, and were marked with unique numbers, which were transferred on the respective dissembling-assembling plan, so that when this road service is reconstructed the original stones will be reinstalled. When the restoration and conservation project is being fulfilled, even the stones that are currently lifted will be uninstalled, because their bases are deformed. We need to consolidate these bases and restore the authentic road surface, so that one day people could walk along it. In order to achieve this we have made another change in the project – a hole will be drilled in the wall, which separates the decumanus in the underpass in front of the Bulgarian National Assembly. The construction of the new area also envisages such a hole, so that the decumanus could enter from the Eastern Gate of Serdica to the big underpass area and the walking area along the decumanus.

Focus: What part will these revelations play in the nomination of Sofia for European Cultural Capital?

Yordanka Kandulkova: Extremely positive, if the whole society manages to fulfil this fascinating project successfully. How many cities in Europe do you know that have such a place? A similar passage, but in a much limited scale, could be seen in the centre of Vienna. In the square area near the St Stephen cathedral, you could see a draft of the old church in its two periods. When you go to the metro station there – there is an exhibition window, through which you can see the remnants of this old church, above which the new cathedral is constructed. Our passage is similar. We will try, however, to exhibit the bulk of the archaeological inheritance of Antique Serdica in a very authentic way and we will try to exhibit the historical multilayeredness of this place.