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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Row Besets Crimea's Roman Temple

BALAKLAVA, Ukraine -- The fragment of prayer to the greatest of Roman gods was small: "Jupiter the great, most powerful and beautiful ..."

But the carving on a stone tablet was a huge discovery for Ukrainian archaeologists last month, when they excavated it at a construction site in this small town on the tip of the Crimean peninsula.

When they uncovered sacrificial tables and altars to Hercules and Vulcan, the god of fire, it became clear that they had found the first ancient Roman temple north of the Black Sea. During a tour of the pagan pantheon emerging from the soil that concealed it for nearly two millennia, archeologist Oleh Savelya called the site "absolutely unique in this part of the world."

So is the legal problem it is creating.

The archaeologists want the site declared a historical preserve. "It will add to the area's potential for attracting tourists," Savelya argued.

But unlike vast swaths of post-Soviet Ukraine's territory, the land is privately owned. The conflict between public and private interests could test the strength of property rights under Ukraine's new constitution.

"I have no claims on the artifacts. They can take them all to a museum. But this land is mine," declared owner Oleh Taran, a Baptist deacon who is pouring a 660-square-meter foundation.

"We've known there was something big here since 1991, when we found the remains of a Roman administrative building over there," Savelya explained, waving at a parched field nearby. When Jupiter's prayer was found on the spot where Taran plans restrooms, Savelya, whose approval is needed for any building, ordered construction suspended.

Under Ukraine's Soviet-era laws, builders must allow "salvage" excavations before any permanent construction. Unique ruins -- Roman pantheons, for example -- can be declared national reserves, where building is banned.

Although Soviet constitutions provided a "right to housing," they never allowed ownership of the land the housing stood on. Declaring someone's state-owned back yard an archeological reserve was simply an issue of allocation.

But under Ukraine's new constitution enshrining private-property rights, it is an issue of expropriation. If the city decides to take Taran's land for reasons of public interest, the national charter says he must be compensated first.

Alexander Rudometov, chief culture official for the region, is certain the city would offer Taran alternative land and pay for a foundation. The problem is, more digging is needed to decide if the pantheon is special enough to warrant taking the land. But a complete excavation will cost about $15,000, which the regional administration doesn't have.

While the archaeologists are hoping Kiev will scrape the money together, the land is in legal limbo.

But the archaeologists excavating Taran's back yard have also been doing some other digging. Dig leader Andrij Filippenko unrolls what he says is a copy of Taran's blueprint.

The sketch shows a large complex of plazas and outdoor restrooms. The house planned for the spot where the altars to Hercules and Vulcan stand today appears as a large structure marked "prayer room." "This is no private house!" said Savelya. "It's a Baptist church, and he needs a special permit to build one here."

Taran denies the charge and the authenticity of the blueprint. "According to all the official documents, this will be a private home," said the young deacon. But he admits that Balaklava Baptists, who now rent space in a cultural center, will come to pray there and he may even donate the house to them when it is built. "It's my property," he declared. "I can do whatever I want with it."