The myth of sunken cities and civilisations has been a lure throughout history, but in many cases the myth is actually reality.
1 – Dunwich, Suffolk
Dunwich is a quaint seaside village with holiday caravans in Suffolk, England. But during the Anglo-Saxo period, Dunwich was the “unofficial capital” of the kingdom of the East Angles and a major trading port.
By the 11th Century, it was the 10th largest town in England and boasted eight churches, three chapels, five houses of religious orders, including Franciscan and Dominican monasteries, a preceptory of the Knights Templar, two hospitals, and probably a mint and a guildhall. By 1225 Dunwich is considered to have extended approximately a mile from north to south, covering an area similar in size to London.
But in the year of 1286, Dunwich was struck by a massive storm surge followed by repeated great storm systems that began to erode the coastline and resulted in a loss of the town’s harbour. This was an economic catastrophe for the port and Dunwich became largely abandoned after 1338. Over the centuries, long-shore drift erosion has swallowed the remainder of the town beneath the sea, where the last Saints’ Church fell into the sea between 1904 and 1919. All that is visible today of Dunwich is a ruined Franciscan friary known as Greyfriars, that was originally situated on the far western outskirts of the town and archaeological remains recently excavated under the present village. Beneath the waves, however, acoustic imaging performed by the University of Southampton has revealed Dunwich’s medieval buildings, up to 10 metres (32ft) below the surface of the sea, as well as the ruins of about four churches, a possible toll house and various shipwrecks.
Baiae was an ancient Roman town situated on the northwest shore of the Gulf of Naples, and now in the commune of Bacoli. It was a fashionable resort for centuries in antiquity, particularly towards the end of the Roman Republic, when it was reckoned as superior to Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Capri by the super-rich who built luxurious villas here. It was notorious for its hedonistic offerings and the attendant rumours of corruption and scandal.
Some of Baiae’s remains survive today in the Parco Archeologico delle Terme di Baia, but a majority of this ancient town sunk beneath the Bay of Naples due to massive coastal subsidence caused by volcanic activity. Underwater archaeologists have been discovering ornate statues, a network of roads, rich marble floors and mosaics and more recently a survey project has been mapping out a 3D plan of the town.
3 – Olous
Olous or Olus was an ancient settlement situated at the present town of Elounda in north-eastern Crete, Greece. Archaeologists discovered ancient texts within the ruins linking the town to the ancient cities of Knossos and the island of Rhodes.
Olous disappeared either because of a landslide or as a result of the large earthquake of 780 A.D. Mosaic floors excavated on the thin isthmus between Elounda and Kolokytha depict birds and fish, and are all that remains of two chapels associated with Olous still on dry land. Beneath the bay of Elounda are the scattered wall foundations that outline some of the houses and town planning of the ancient site.
4 – Heracleion
Heracleion, also known as Thonis was an ancient Egyptian city located near the Canopic Mouth of the Nile, about 32 km northeast of Alexandria. Its ruins are located in Abu Qir Bay, currently 2.5 km off the coast, under 10 m (30 ft) of water. The earliest mention of the site goes back as early as the 12th century BCE where it is mentioned by ancient Greek historians. Heracleion was originally built on some adjoining islands in the Nile Delta, and was intersected by canals. It had a number of harbours and anchorages and was the sister city of Naucratis until it was superseded by Alexandria.
The city sank in the 3rd or 2nd century CE, probably due to liquefaction of the silts on which it was built following localised earth tremors. The submerged remains were located in 1999 where finds have included incomplete statues of the god Serapis and the queen Arsinoe II and fragments of the Temple of Heracleion.
5 – Pavlopetri
Pavlopetri is an ancient submerged archaeological site that is located off the coast of southern Laconia in Peloponnese, Greece. Originally, the ruins were dated to the Mycenaean period, 1600–1100 BCE, but later studies have shown an older occupation date starting no later than 2800 BCE. The region suffered three large earthquakes around 1000BCE which is believed to have caused the town to sink beneath the sea.
Digital 3D surveying and sonar mapping has revealed at least 15 buildings submerged in 3 to 4 metres (9.8–13.1 ft) of water as well as the layout of the town plan. Archaeological remains include large pitharis pots (pottery jars) from Crete and textiles that indicate that Pavlopetri was a major trading port.
6 – Ravenser Odd
Ravenser Odd, also spelled Ravensrodd, was a port built on the sandbanks at the mouth of the Humber estuary in the East Riding of Yorkshire, England during the medieval period.
The name Ravenser comes from the Viking Hrafn’s Eyr or “Raven’s tongue” referring to the lost sandbank promontory, the modern successor of which is now known as Spurn Point. The town was founded by the Count of Aumale in the mid-thirteenth century, and had more than one hundred houses and a flourishing market by 1299 when it was granted a borough charter.
By the 13th century the town had reached its height and was represented in the Model Parliament of 1295, but as the sandbanks shifted the town was swept away. Storms over the winter of 1356–57 completely flooded the town, leading to its abandonment, and it was largely destroyed by the Grote Mandrenke storm of January 1362.
7 – Dolichiste / Kekova
Kekova is a small island on the southern side of Turkey near the Demre district of Antalya province. On the northern side of the island are the partly sunken ruins of Dolchiste/Dolikisthe, an ancient town which was destroyed by an earthquake during the 2nd century. Rebuilt and still flourishing during the Byzantine period, it was finally abandoned because of Arab incursions into Byzantine territories. Remains of the town include several houses, public buildings and a harbour.
8 – Atlit Yam
Atlit-Yam provides the earliest known evidence for an agro-pastoral-marine subsistence system on the Levantine coast. The site of Atlit Yam has been carbon-dated to be between 8900 and 8300 years old and belongs to the final Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period.
Today, it lies between 8-12m (25-40 ft) beneath sea level in the Mediterranean Sea, in the Bay of Atlit, at the mouth of the Oren river on the Carmel coast. It covers an area of ca. 40,000 square meters (10 acres). Underwater excavations have uncovered remains of rectangular houses and hearth-places have been found, along with a well, a stone semicircle and burials.
9 – Lake Atitlan – Sambaj & Chiutinamit
Lake Atitlán is a lake in Central America located in the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range of southwestern Guatemala. Atitlán is technically an endorheic lake, feeding into two nearby rivers rather than draining into the ocean and is shaped by deep surrounding escarpments. The lake basin is volcanic in origin, filling an enormous caldera formed by an eruption 84,000 years ago. The lake is surrounded by many villages in which Maya culture is still prevalent and traditional dress is worn. The Maya people of Atitlán are predominantly Tz’utujil and Kaqchikel. During the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the Kaqchikel initially allied themselves with the invaders to defeat their historic enemies, the Tz’utujil and K’iche’ Maya, but were themselves conquered and subdued when they refused to pay tribute to the Spanish.
Several Mayan archaeological sites have been found at the lake. Sambaj, located approximately 55 feet below the current lake level, appears to be from at least the pre-classic period. There are remains of multiple groups of buildings, including one particular group of large buildings that are believed to have been the city center.
A second site, Chiutinamit, where the remains of a city were found, was discovered by local fishermen who “noticed what appeared to be a city underwater”. During subsequent investigations, pottery shards were recovered from the site by divers, which enabled the dating of the site to the late pre-classic period (300 BCE – 300 CE.), more specifically 250 CE.
10 – Neapolis
Neapolis, which means ‘new city’ in Greek, is an ancient Roman city with remains scattered across the coastal Tunisian town of Nabeul.
Archaeologists in 2017 uncovered submerged streets, monuments and around 100 tanks used to produce garum (fish based condiment) just off the coast which supports historical accounts that the city was struck by a tsunami in 365CE and partially submerged.
Header Image Credit – Roberto Serani
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