Blast from the past propels village into the future
By Michel Muller
THE forest under the road has been hidden for 20 million years. Volcanic lava and ash engulfed and smothered it in massive waves of mud and pyroclastic matter that moved faster than the speed of sound.
It knocked out the air around the trees and leaves of a sub-tropical woodland and, with regular flows of torrential rain water, turned them into colourful stone, stone that tells a story of climate, fires and insects; stone that still identifies the trees and 46 plant species.
Many of these relics are preserved and admired in the Lesvos Petrified Forest, a national monument and protected area around Antissa, Sigri and Eressos, villages on Greece’s third largest island, itself a geopark.
Now more of these prehistoric relics – including fossils of the forest floor — are being revealed during excavations for a road to Sigri, a hamlet that has its eye on developing a bigger harbour in the Aegean Sea.
Geologist Elias Valiakos heads the department of research and study at the Natural History Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest in Sigri. He says the E40-million roadworks budget is the first to provide for the preservation of fossils in a capital project.
“More than 200 big trunks and 2000 smaller pieces have been coded (numbered) since last year.
“We try to save and protect each and every one,” he says at the museum.
The deluge is overwhelming.
“It’s messy. There’s a huge amount of material here. We use each and every space we have.”
There are experts at the roadside who recognise these solid old remnants of the Miocene age before the conservators isolate and stabilise the items. That means they cover them in a netted gauze and overlay it with white plaster of Paris, until it is time to move them.
They work in extreme weather – the cold, wind, rain and temperatures of up to 40 deg C — but today “this is luxury for them”, says Valiakos.
The conservators are busy brushing and joining in relative shelter outdoors at the museum and in the temporary exhibition hall that’s become a storage/workroom.
The seven assistants are led by the chief conservator, Dimitrious Koutlis.
He supervises their job from when they first “very gently” remove the plaster of Paris until they start the job of cleaning and repairing the fossils of various sizes.
“They’re expert professional senior conservators,” says Valiakos.
“They didn’t have any experience before the establishment of the museum (in 1994).
“The methodology was developed by us, through experimentation and collaboration.”
Some of the new material is displayed on plinths outside the museum and also inside, in custom-made pine boxes that are also used “for storage and transportation”.
Other trunks are still embedded in the roadside rock, stark in their white cloaks with red numbers noted on them.
All of them will add to the magnificent display of petrified trees, or parts of them, that lie or stand in the petrified forest parks, in situ, exactly where they towered 20-million years ago.
Trails have been laid out to their positions, and they attract visitors throughout the year.
You can see also shards and logs, splinters and huge trunks glimmering in and out of the Aegean Sea – once a solid land mass before the earth’s crusts collided and shifted dramatically.
The brilliantly coloured trees or stumps recline or stand on the land or in the water that laps the Nissiopi islet, a short boat ride form Sigri.
Emilia Gatsiou works for the managing authority of the structural funds for the North Aegean and manages the money for the EU public projects. The development of Nissiopi, where rugged paths and other infrastructure are being installed, is another capital project, a joint effort of the European Union and the Greek government.
She juggles the E2.4-million Nissiopi development budget to accommodate unexpected finds.
“Every day there are new discoveries here,” says Valiakos. “There is a high level of unexpected things” on Nissiopi island.
He points to a new path that has had to be rerouted to veer away from a big tree trunk.
“These workers are preparing trails of 4.5km,” says Gatsiou.
“They’re quite natural and demarcated by island stone. For the steps to the seashore, the workmen use wood, not cement.”
At the spectacular Fossil Beach, there is a log so big you can dive into it.
On the beach’s shore, the sea has eroded the soil to expose sparkling fossils, inviting in their lustre.
Some are small enough to pick up and put into your pocket.
“Oh no,” says Valiakos. “They’ve all been mapped and recorded with a GPS to account for removals and losses, and there will be vigilant guides with the walkers when the island opens next summer for visitors.”
Sigri has benefited from this remarkable geotourism.
“There are more beds available now for visitors – 300 — and the population of the village has grown.”
Viliakos says it is the only village on this western side of Lesvos that is not shrinking in size.
There are many spin-offs to having a coherent tourism product, including the opportunity for the island’s women’s co-operatives to sell their homemade indigenous wares from the museum’s cafeteria.
“Yes, the whole enterprise is a good example of Blue Economy best practice,” says Gatsiou.
“We’re looking forward to getting the glass-bottomed boat for the Nissiopi marine reserve trip too.”
The museum is also responsible for the travelling exhibition Aegean: Story of an Archipelago.
It recently closed in Athens and is now open for viewing in Crete.