Archaeologists in Greece have stumbled upon the remains of a sanctuary to Asclepios, the ancient god of healing, during the construction of a highway in central Greece, a project official said.

“We were fortunate enough to find this previously unknown sanctuary,” supervising archaeologist Maria-Fotini Papaconstantinou said.

She added that her team had “raced against time” to study and relocate the findings before the bulldozers moved in.

“It was just before the deadline for excavation when we would have had to hand over the site to construction,” she said. “In six months we carried out work that could have taken at least two years.”

The sanctuary was found some 200 kilometres north of Athens on the outskirts of the ancient port town of Dafnounta, near the present city of Lamia.

It dates to the fifth century BCE and is one of the oldest associated with the cult of Asclepios − and best preserved − ever discovered in Greece, the archaeologist said.

Its modest size, 30 by 15 metres, suggests that it was near a small provincial town, she said.

The remains of the sanctuary, which had been visited and cited by the Greek historian Strabon in the first century AD, were found during construction on the new Patras-Athens-Thessaloniki highway in 2005-2007.

Its identity was confirmed thanks to the discovery of snake-shaped offerings and jewels and shards bearing the healing god’s name.

Asclepios, son of the sun-god Apollo, carried a snake-entwined staff which remains a symbol of medicine today.

The entire sanctuary was removed stone by stone using cranes and rebuilt at an adjacent location as it lay directly in the highway’s path, Mr Papaconstantinou said.

The largest Greek shrine to Asclepios is in Epidaurus in the southern Peloponnese peninsula. It had healing baths, rooms, a dining hall and an incubation area, services associated with a modern-day spa.

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