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Underwater Archaeology: Lechaion Harbour Project

Greek and Danish archaeologists connect the Inner and Outer Harbours at Lechaion, the main harbour town of ancient Corinth – delineating for the first time one of Antiquity’s most important trade centres

Researchers from the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports and the University of Copenhagen are continuing to make important discoveries at Lechaion. Among them, structures that join the Inner and Outer Harbours, and a unique wooden bulwark that made up part of a mole flanking the entrance to the Inner Harbour.

Fig 1. View of the Inner Harbour of Lechaion with Acrocorinth towering in the background. Ancient Corinth lies at the foot of Acrocorinth. (Photo: Vassilis Tsiairis 2016)

Lechaion, ancient Corinth’s main harbour town, continues to yield archaeological surprises. Located on the isthmus connecting the Peloponnese and the rest of mainland Greece, Corinth and Lechaion served as a perennial nexus of land and sea routes. From an early date Lechaion’s wharves swelled with trading goods, helping Corinth to become fabulously wealthy. 

Ancient authors comment that transhipping goods at Lechaion was far preferable to sailing around the bottom of the Peloponnese, a kind of mini Cape Horn. One of them, the first-century BC author Strabo, quoted a timeworn proverb: “If you see Cape Malea [at the southeast tip of the Peloponnese], forget your home” 

Fig. 2 Greece, comparing the shortcut across the Corinthian Isthmus with the seaway south of the Peloponnese. (base map by ASCSA CC BY-SA 2015)

Throughout antiquity, Lechaion played a crucial role in supporting Corinth's function as a cultural metropolis. Beginning in the 8th century BC her waterfront saw Corinthian colonists set out for Corfu and Sicily and elsewhere as they sowed the seeds of Hellenism to the rest of southern Europe. In addition, by the Late Roman period Lechaion, while still linked with Corinth, had developed her own identity as a town and religious centre. In the 6th century AD the town showcased one of the largest Christian churches of the time, the 180-m-long Leonidas Basilica.

Greek and Danish archaeologists investigating Lechaion’s harbour areas are finding that the town appears to have been much more important than previously thought. In the course of three seasons they have delineated major offshore structures, a monumental entrance canal and several inland canals connecting at least four harbour basins. In total, the area is greater than 500.000 m2 – bringing it on par with other major harbour towns of the age, such as Athens’ harbours in the Piraeus and Roman Portus. 

The archaeological site, however, has always been very difficult to grasp in its entirety. Most obvious to the first-time visitor are its massive mounds made up of spoil from ancient harbour dredging, thus creating a man-made barrier, as it were, between the town proper and the sea. Swampy, reed-lined canals snake between and behind the mounds and open into silty wetland harbour basins. Part of the archaeological problem is that the basins themselves, instead of being dredged according to a plan, are organically shaped because they were carved out of the several lagoons that made up an ancient river delta in this area. (see video above). 

On the seaward side, off the wave-beaten beach, monumental architecture extends offshore as far as 80 metres, all submerged. What remains most puzzling to the archaeologists is the specific manner in which ships and shipping would have passed between the dynamic offshore zones and the zone of protected inner basins.

This year, however, topographical and geophysical surveys have successfully delineated the canal zone between the inner and outer harbours. In the process the team discovered that the entrance canal connecting the Inner and Outer Harbours was up to 30 m wide in the 4th and 3rd century BC, then grew narrower in later centuries. The precise reason why remains to be discovered.  

The team, working in the clear but shallow waters offshore, have continued to map the now submerged quays and moles that made up Lechaion’s critical maritime infrastructure. The previous season revealed very well preserved wooden caissons, or single-mission barges filled with rock and Roman concrete that were sunk in Late Antiquity to create moles and harbourfronts as part of a massive construction project. 

This season the team discovered and documented a large wooden bulwark making up part of the mole flanking the western side of the entrance canal. A total of 40 vertical posts were found in the excavated area shoring up rubble foundations on the seaward side. This is the first bulwark of its kind found in Greece with timbers in situ. The team conserved the bulwark in situ using only green materials unharmful to the environment. 

Fig 3. Conservator Angeliki Zisi carefully cleans and conducts a condition assessment of the bulwark’s wooden posts. (Photo: Vassilis Tsiairis 2016)

“The extremely rare wooden structures we’ve found in the early stages at Lechaion give us hope that we’ll find other organic materials, such as wooden tools, furniture, wooden parts of buildings and shipwrecks – the potential is immense and it is important to stress that we almost never find organic material on land in the central Mediterranean region”, says co-director Bjørn Lovén.

Fig 4. An artist’s reconstruction of the wooden bulwark and mole flanking the western side of the entrance canal. (Artist: Yiannis Nakas 2016)

The team mapped the full extent of the mole flanking the eastern side of the entrance canal as far as 46 meters offshore in 1–3 meters of water. Working carefully and methodically for 35 days, divers defined the eastern side of the canal. At the harbour entrance, and interconnected with this mole, they discovered strong stone foundations, perhaps for a tower that would protect the entrance. Nearby were found two column drums. Their precise purpose remains unknown, but such drums found at other excavated Roman harbours supported porticoes on the harbour front. Future exploration promise more discoveries.  

Fig 5. Archaeologist and illustrator Yiannis Nakas draws a dislodged block from the harbour front area. Note that the metal clamps that once held the block in place are preserved. (Photo: Vassilis Tsiairis 2016)

Fig 6. Archaeologists Konstantina Vafeiadou and Matej Školc removes a column drum from the harbour front area. (Photo: Vassilis Tsiairis 2016)

The Lechaion Harbour Project was initiated in 2013 by the Danish Institute at Athens in cooperation with the University of Copenhagen and the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities. The project is under the direction of Dr. Bjørn Lovén and Dr. Dimitris Kourkoumelis, and is aided by assistant directors Paraskevi Micha and Panagiotis Athanasopoulos. The work in 2013 was financed by Her Majesty the Queen Margrethe II’s Archaeological Foundation. The Augustinus Foundation and the Carlsberg Foundation have committed to funding the project for the duration of its five-year permit (2014-2018).

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