Greek and Danish archaeologists excavate the ancient Greek harbour town Lechaion

Related Articles

Related Articles

In Greece, underwater excavations of Lechaion, ancient Corinth’s partially submerged harbour town, reveal the infrastructure of more than a thousand years of flourishing maritime trade.

Researchers from the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports and the University of Copenhagen are using cutting-edge methods to uncover the configuration and scale of the harbour.

Corinth ranked among the most economically and militarily powerful, and enduring, cities of the Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods. The city had an exceptional geographical advantage in the North East corner of the Peloponnese and controlled the Isthmus that facilitated land travel between Northern and Southern Greece, and travel by sea between the Western and Eastern Mediterranean.

 

Corinth, which lay some three kilometres from the sea, built on this natural advantage by constructing two harbour towns – the main harbour Lechaion on the Corinthian Gulf to the West, and Kenchreai on the Saronic Gulf to the East (see map to the right).

“According to ancient sources, most of the city’s wealth derived from the maritime trade that passed through her two harbours, eventually earning her the nickname ‘Wealthy Corinth’,” says archeaologist Bjørn Lovén from the University of Copenhagen and co-director of the Lechaion Harbour Project (LHP.

The moles and warehouses of Lechaion saw vibrant maritime activity for over a thousand years, from the 6th century BC to the 6th century AD. Ships and fleets departed from here laden with cargoes, colonists and marines destined for ports all over the Mediterranean and beyond.

Cutting-edge methods reveal a partially sunken city

Lechaion’s extensive underwater ruins lie nearly untouched, but that picture is changing. The Lechaion Harbour Project (LHP), a collaboration between the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities in Greece, the University of Copenhagen, and the Danish Institute at Athens, has undertaken an exploration of  the submerged main harbour of ancient Corinth.

The research team has initiated full-scale excavations and a digital and geophysical survey of the seaward side of the harbour using various innovative technologies, including a newly-developed 3D parametric sub-bottom profiler. To date they have uncovered two monumental moles constructed of ashlar blocks, along with a smaller mole, two areas of wooden caissons, a breakwater, and an entrance canal that leads into Lechaion’s three inner harbour basins.

The 2015 excavations focused on two areas. The first is a unique, early Byzantine mole constructed of six well-preserved wooden caissons together stretching 57 meters in length. The second is the stone-lined entrance canal to the little-explored Inner Harbour of Lechaion.

“We have found and documented several monumental architectural structures, built at great expense, showing that Lechaion was developed as a grand harbour to match the importance of her powerful metropolis, Corinth,” says Bjørn Lovén.

The discovery of well-preserved wooden caissons, however, caught everyone off guard. The wooden caissons acted as single-mission barges, built for the express purpose of being sunk together with their concrete cargoes, all of which were designed to form a solid foundation to hold back the force of the sea along this highly exposed stretch of coast.

Roman imperial engineers employed a similar technology on a large scale at Caesarea Maritima in Israel in the late first century BC, but these are the first of their kind ever discovered in Greece with their wooden elements still preserved. A preliminary C-14 carbon date places the caissons in the time frame of the Leonidas Basilica, the largest Christian church of its time. Construction of the basilica began in the middle of the 5th century AD. It was 180 meters long – about the same size as the first building phase of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Scholars generally assume that harbour facilities in the Mediterranean were built in the Greek and Roman period, then simply repaired and maintained during the Byzantine period. The discovery of the mole constructed of wooden caissons challenges this picture.

Aerial photo of the Western Mole (K. Xenikakis & S. Gesafidis)
Aerial photo of the Western Mole (K. Xenikakis & S. Gesafidis)

The mole is a rare example of major harbour construction in this later era, but it may be indicative of a larger pattern of more ambitious harbour construction in this period, such as the Theodosian harbour (modern Yenikapi) at Constantinople which has recently been excavated. Is it possible that the construction of this immense edifice coincided with renewed buildup of the harbour, thereby facilitating the arrivals and departures of visitors and pilgrims? At all events, the benefit of these innovations was short-lived, as Lechaion and its basilica were destroyed by a massive earthquake in the late 6th or early 7th century AD.

Vestiges of the ancient entrance canal have been exposed on the modern beach for years, so there has been little doubt of its location. The scale, however, was surprising. So far, the team has uncovered some 55 meters of its sides, which protected ships coming into and exiting the three inner harbours of the town. And the team has also found evidence that the ancient harbour was likely located much farther to seaward, perhaps as far as 45 meters from the modern shore. A geophysical study is underway to understand how the site has evolved over time as a result of sea-level change and possible coastal subsidence.

According to Bjørn Lovén, the Lechaion Harbour Project is endeavouring to advance our understanding of how this bustling harbour evolved over time and enabled the development of Corinth as a major economic and military power during the Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods.

UNIVERSITY OF COPENHAGEN

Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic

LATEST NEWS

Camulodunum – The First Capital of Britannia

Camulodunum was a Roman city and the first capital of the Roman province of Britannia, in what is now the present-day city of Colchester in Essex, England.

African Crocodiles Lived in Spain Six Million Years Ago

Millions of years ago, several species of crocodiles of different genera and characteristics inhabited Europe and sometimes even coexisted.

Bat-Winged Dinosaurs That Could Glide

Despite having bat-like wings, two small dinosaurs, Yi and Ambopteryx, struggled to fly, only managing to glide clumsily between the trees where they lived, according to a new study led by an international team of researchers, including McGill University Professor Hans Larsson.

Ancient Maya Built Sophisticated Water Filters

Ancient Maya in the once-bustling city of Tikal built sophisticated water filters using natural materials they imported from miles away, according to the University of Cincinnati.

New Clues Revealed About Clovis People

There is much debate surrounding the age of the Clovis - a prehistoric culture named for stone tools found near Clovis, New Mexico in the early 1930s - who once occupied North America during the end of the last Ice Age.

Cognitive Elements of Language Have Existed for 40 Million Years

Humans are not the only beings that can identify rules in complex language-like constructions - monkeys and great apes can do so, too, a study at the University of Zurich has shown.

Bronze Age Herders Were Less Mobile Than Previously Thought

Bronze Age pastoralists in what is now southern Russia apparently covered shorter distances than previously thought.

Legio IX Hispana – The Lost Roman Legion

One of the most debated mysteries from the Roman period involves the disappearance of the Legio IX Hispana, a legion of the Imperial Roman Army that supposedly vanished sometime after AD 120.

Popular stories

Legio IX Hispana – The Lost Roman Legion

One of the most debated mysteries from the Roman period involves the disappearance of the Legio IX Hispana, a legion of the Imperial Roman Army that supposedly vanished sometime after AD 120.

The Secret Hellfire Club and the Hellfire Caves

The Hellfire Club was an exclusive membership-based organisation for high-society rakes, that was first founded in London in 1718, by Philip, Duke of Wharton, and several of society's elites.

Port Royal – The Sodom of the New World

Port Royal, originally named Cagway was an English harbour town and base of operations for buccaneers and privateers (pirates) until the great earthquake of 1692.

Matthew Hopkins – The Real Witch-Hunter

Matthew Hopkins was an infamous witch-hunter during the 17th century, who published “The Discovery of Witches” in 1647, and whose witch-hunting methods were applied during the notorious Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts.