Mention a sunken city of Ancient Greece and you’d be forgiven for automatically thinking of the legendary civilisation of Atlantis described by Plato. It’s the irresistibly fascinating tale of a great city destroyed in a single day and disappearing without trace. The possible sites of Atlantis have caused much controversy and debate and to this day it has not been identified.
But what many don’t know is that Atlantis is far from an isolated case. There are quite a few greek cities lying beneath the waves. Some were destroyed in a matter of minutes, others were submerged centimetre by centimetre over a period of years.
Helike and Boura
Helike was a city founded in the Bronze Age on the northwestern coast of the Peloponnese. Homer describes the city as contributing one ship to the Trojan war effort in the Illiad.
Helike was the leader of the first Achaean League, a group of the 12 neighbouring cities of Achaea including Boura, further inland. Helike was well on its way to become one of the great cities of Greece, rivalling Athens, Sparta and Corinth. It was large and successful enough to spawn two colonies, Sybaris in southern Italy and Priene is Asia Minor. Helike had a sanctuary and temple dedicated to Poseidon and as a religious centre was second only to Delphi. Poseidon appeared on the coins of Helike and was held in high regard by the citizens, but unfortunately Poseidon apparently got a tadge annoyed with the town.
Their colonists wrote to the mother city asking for a beautiful statue of Poseidon to adorn the new colony, but the Helikeans proved to be rather selfish and kept the statue for themselves. Some even claim that the Ionian delegation were murdered.
Soon afterwards, in winter 373BC the animals of the city started to flee the city and ‘immense columns of fire’ sprang up. Five days after the animal exodus, in the middle of the night, the earth began to shake and Helike and Boura sank into the ground. A tsunami, sparked off by the earthquake, promptly submerging the two cities and drowning any inhabitants who had managed to survive the initial quake. Ten Spartan ships anchored in the harbour were dragged beneath the swell. In the aftermath, thousands of people attempted to help recover the bodies, all in vain.
“Great earthquakes occurred in the Peloponnesos accompanied by floods which engulfed the open country and cities in a manner past belief . . . The blow came at night, so that . . . the majority who were caught in the ruined houses were annihilated, and when day came some dashed from the ruins and, when they thought they had escaped the danger, met with a greater and still more incredible disaster. For the sea and the wave rose to a vast height, and as a result all the inhabitants together with their land were inundated and disappeared. Two cities in Achaea bore the brunt of this disaster, Helike and Boura. Before the earthquake Helike was first among the cities of Achaea.” Diodorus of Sicily
The remains of some of the taller buildings of Helike jutted out from the waves, and 150 years after the disaster a philosopher named Eratosthenes reports that fishing nets were in danger of getting snagged on a bronze statue of Poseidon. The lagoon eventually became a popular tourist attraction. Pausanius visited in the 170s AD and writes that the walls are still clearly visible, but that salt had corroded some of the architecture. Other illustrious visitors include Strabo and Ovid.
Eventually the submerged streets and buildings were swallowed up in silt. The site became harder to find and soon became forgotten, until a coin was found over two thousand years are the disaster. Archaeologists began to search in earnest.
Eventually, after searching for nearly a decade, Dora Katsonopoulou and her Helike Project team find signs of a building in 1994 using magnometer. The building turned out to be Roman, but the team were on the right track. After also finding remains of a prehistoric settlement, the team hit jackpot in 2001.
Excavations have continued every summer since, uncovering buildings, roads and a cemetery. As it turns out the city did not fall into the sea. Rather, the quake created an inland lagoon which gradually silted up. Helike has the potential to be the Pompei of Greece, destroyed in a day and no salvage attempts are reported to have taken place. It will be really exciting to watch the archaeological excavations unfold there to see what we can learn about life is Classical Greece.
Before Helike and Boura, another town of the Peloponnese was consumed by water. Pavlopetri is a submerged city at the other end of the Peloponnese and is about 5 millennia old and flourished for a long period before sinking into the sea about three thousand years ago. That means that Pavlopetri was a vibrant town at around the same time as the legendary Trojan Wars, but was wiped out only a couple of centuries later. Pavlopetri is a modern name (meaning Paul’s Stone or Paul’s and Peter’s) and as yet historians haven’t been able to rediscover the ancient name of the sunken city.
As with Helike and Boura, it is probably an earthquake that sounded the death knell for Pavlopetri, and no further earthquakes have ever pushed the buildings and streets back up to the surface. Unlike Helike, the site never silted over and dried up, and is lying in about 4 metres of water, a stone’s throw from the beach. The site was rediscovered in the 1960s and is currently being excavated.
Pavlopetri is the oldest submerged town so far found and is a wonderful time capsule for Mycenean life. Even the ancient greeks of the classical era didn’t know much about their Mycenean ancestors. They even believed that the city of Mycenae itself must surely have been the capital city of a race of giants, because the blocks of stone used to construct the city walls were so colossal.
Pavlopetri was perfectly situated for a Bronze Age/Mycenean town. Ships at this time weren’t moored to jetties, instead they were dragged up onto the beach. The flat sandy beaches at Pavlopetri were protected in a convenient bay and were the ideal choice to build a trading town. In the excavations of the last few years marine archaeologists have found evidence that shows that the merchants of Pavlopetri didn’t just trade with nearby towns but had trade routes from much farther afield.
It is wonderfully exciting to learn about a town that flourished in the period of the Greek legendary heroes. I hope that one day historians will be able to match a name to the place so that we can learn more about the city from any mentions in myths and tales.
Modern technology is now being used to uncover more and more of the ancient city. The prehistoric streets and buildings can now even be reconstructed, if only through CGI wizardry. Here’s a brilliant video featuring Dr Jon Henderson, the British Director of the Pavlopetri Underwater Archaeology Project.
Jon is also a fascinating tweeter when he’s not discovering and analysing amazing ancient things (no idea how he finds the time) and is very lovely to chat to. He answers all of my silly questions with grace and patience and is admirably enthusiastic about sharing his extensive knowledge of the site. So thank you, Jon, if you’re reading this clumsy love letter to your work, for inspiring my curiosity. For everyone else, you simply MUST follow him on Twitter. Find him at @DrJonCHenderson. Also, the Pavlopetri website is an engrossing read with some excellent photos and videos (such as the one above) http://nottingham.ac.uk/pavlopetri/index.aspx