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Finding Old Sikyon

Semper Ardens forskningsprojekt | 09/08/2016

Studying ancient civilisation leads us to the origins of our own culture, the roots of modern democracy, the meaning of art in different contexts, and thus may influence present-day society.

By PhD, Senior Researcher Silke Müth-Frederiksen, University of Berlin

Studying ancient civilisation leads us to the origins of our own culture, the roots of modern democracy, the meaning of art in different contexts, and thus may influence present-day society. Studying ancient urbanism means analysing the infrastructure of ancient civilisation. 

The ancient polis of Sikyon west of Corinth on the north-east coast of the Peloponnese (Fig. 1) as famous centre of arts and crafts – particularly sculpture and painting – from Archaic times to the end of the 3rd c. BC is particularly suited to yield rich results in these respects. Captured in 303 BC by the Macedonian general Demetrios Poliorcetes, who rebuilt it at a better defendable site close by, the old city was never covered by substantial later settlement. While the well-known Hellenistic site lies on a plateau between two rivers, the site of the Archaic and Classical city has not yet been clearly identified. 

It is supposed to lie in the plain north-east of the plateau, with an acropolis thereupon and a separate harbour in a distance of ca. three kilometres to the north-east (Figs. 2-3). In the summer of 2015, our project has been initiated with the aim to identify the site of the early city, to analyse the specific settlement structures and urban fabric, and to trace the famous arts and crafts activities of “Old Sikyon”. The discovered remains are to be presented to the public by way of creating an archaeological site and a permanent exhibition of finds.

Fig. 2: Location of Old Sikyon in relation to Hellenistic Sikyon (Google Earth/G. Giannakopoulos)


The ancient polis of Sikyon was located west of Corinth on the north-east coast of the Peloponnese (Fig. 1). It was a famous centre of arts and crafts, particularly of sculpture and painting, from Archaic times to the end of the 3rd c. BC. In 303 BC, the Macedonian general Demetrios Poliorcetes captured the city and rebuilt it close by. 

This new site on a plateau between the rivers Asopos and Helisson is well-known through the investigations of American and Greek scholars since the 19th century (Fig. 2), while the site of the Archaic and Classical city has never been clearly identified. It is supposed to lie in the plain between the two rivers, to the north-east of the plateau, whereupon according to literary sources its acropolis was, and had a separately fortified harbour (Figs. 2-3). In this plain, Classical remains have been found at various locations in the frame of rescue excavations, including houses and cemeteries, but these only provide sparse indications.

In the summer of 2015, a project has been initiated to identify the site of the pre-Hellenistic city and to analyse the specific settlement structures and urban fabric of “Old Sikyon”. The project is set up as a cooperation between the Ephorate of Antiquities of Corinth, the National Museum of Denmark, the Danish Institute at Athens and the Institute of Geosciences of the Christian Albrechts University at Kiel.

Fig. 3: Panorama of the plain of Old Sikyon (K. Winther-Jacobsen)

Research Methods and Aims

The research area of the project extends over the whole plain. The first phase of investigations (2015-2016) is dedicated primarily to non-invasive research methods: remote sensing, intensive survey, geophysics and augering.

This serves the purpose of locating the settlement, delimiting its extension and identifying special structures like city walls, the acropolis and the harbour, the street grid, major public or religious spaces and buildings, living quarters, and workshop areas. From 2017 to 2019, excavations are envisaged in order to investigate structures revealed by non-invasive research, to retrieve chronological information and to gain material evidence on the urban and cultural life.

The primary focus of the project is the identification of the precise location of Archaic and Classical Sikyon with its acropolis and harbour, to investigate its urban fabric and cultural remains, and to verify if life there in fact stopped in 303 BC. This, however, is intended to serve the greater purpose of answering general questions of ancient urbanism, as it is a rare case that a major Archaic and Classical polis was given up at a specified date and was never substantially overbuilt afterwards.

Moreover, it will allow to mirror the accounts of the written sources on Sikyon in seizable archaeological remains and thus to evaluate their reliability. Finally, it will inform us about the structure and organisation of a famous centre of art and culture in comparison with other such centres like Corinth and Athens.

Fig. 4: Side-by-side survey in summer 2015 (K. Winther-Jacobsen)

Research Campaigns and Preliminary Results

Summer Campaign 2015

During the 2015 campaign, a side-by-side survey, aerial photography and geophysical investigations were carried out. In the side-by-side survey, 578 units were surveyed covering an area of 0.79 square km (Fig. 4). 52,326 pottery fragments, 17 lithics as well as 85 architectural artefacts were collected and processed (Fig. 5), dating from the Late Neolithic-Early Bronze Age to the present day, with Classical material being predominant.

The distribution map of finds (Fig. 6) confirms existing theories on the location of the old city. Elevated densities are recorded predominantly on the second and third marine terraces close to the plateau, directly north of the river Asopos, where emergency excavations have revealed remains of houses. Additionally, graves line up along the edge of the second marine terrace, which cuts directly through the high-density area. This may indicate a later extension of the city beyond these graves.

The geophysical investigations comprised geomagnetic (Fig 7), resistivity, seismic (Figs. 8-9), and radar surveys (Figs. 10-11). Indications for the densest occupation are again mapped in the area immediately to the east of the southernmost spur of the plateau. A roughly rectangular street pattern may be indicated by several continuous linear structures, while two parallel linear anomalies in resistivity profiles point to a large building.

Further to the north, there is evidence for a street grid east and west of the National Road. In the eastern part of this area, a broad double magnetic maximum merging into one may indicate a wall, while south-east of this, a linear magnetic minimum and maximum next to each other may imply a ditch and/or a wall. On the edge of the second marine terrace close to the new train track, a trapezoidal structure might be connected with an ancient quarry.

The general picture points to a city centre close to the south-eastern spur of the plateau, and suburbs and peripheral structures in the extended area of the second marine terrace. The different candidates for larger walls might mirror parts of the town’s defences in its different phases.

April Campaign 2016

In April 2016, manual augerings were combined with a resistivity survey in order to reconstruct landscape formation processes and layer dimensions in this area. The gentle slopes of the plain consist of a series of gradual steps. These marine terraces were originally formed as shallow-water deposits in a river delta and uplifted by different tectonic movements. The result is a complex landscape of different soils, affected by erosion along the terrace slopes, soil accumulation at the terrace bases, and sediment transport through the rivers.

The augerings (Figs. 12-13) were conducted along the same transects as the electrical resistivity measurements, but also at geophysical anomalies (Fig. 13-15). The results show different soil types and sediment thicknesses (Fig. 16). Archaeological strata to depths of more than three metres were mapped on the upper terrace, including pottery related to the settlement phase of Sikyon. Moreover, indications were found of an ancient lake associated with prehistoric artefacts. At the centre of the plain, however, very shallow and strongly eroded soils were mapped without traces of human activity. The lower terraces again yielded deeper soils with indications of human presence.

Furthermore, a first attempt at locating the ancient harbour was made. Three augerings along a transect towards the modern coastline yielded indications of a small, shallow marine inlet, the centre one showing fine marine sediments at 280 cm depth. Further work is needed to confirm the presence of a natural bay or man-made harbour, but the results of this campaign are encouraging.

Summer Campaign 2016

In the 2016 summer campaign, the side-by-side survey, the geophysical investigations and the aerial photography were continued. Moreover, a systematic documentation of architectural structures in the fields was carried out.

In the archaeological survey (Fig. 17), 18 Danish and Greek students divided into three teams carried out the field-work and the daily processing of the finds. Gaps remaining from the 2015 season were closed, and at the end of the campaign, a total of approximately 10% of the whole research area was covered by the survey. The overall distribution pattern reveals a strong spatial logic (Fig. 18). 

Finds date from the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age to Pre-modern period, but the Classical period is strongly represented particularly in the south-western corner of the survey area, which is also where the high densities are consistently located. Apart from the field work, the preparations for the coming publication were started.

Geophysical investigation again comprised geomagnetic (Fig. 19), electrical resistivity, seismic and georadar surveys (Fig. 20). The geomagnetic survey was intensified in the area of 2015 and moreover extended to the areas south and directly east of the plateau as well as to the northern area of the plain (Fig. 21). In this way, the limits of the settled area of Old Sikyon could be defined in the north-west, north, south and south-west and more indications for the street grid could be gathered. 

In the north-western area, the location and extent of a necropolis was established and a 2-3 m wide wall running through it was found, which might have been part of the city’s defences in one of its phases. South of the plateau, an industrial area may have been located, as also suggested by other indications in the fields and the closeness of the river.

The resistivity, seismic and radar surveys (Fig. 20) on geomagnetic anomalies found in 2015 indicated a major public or cultic building in the area east of the southernmost spur of the plateau and a structure with five parallel walls a bit further north. 

Close to the northern limit of the settled area, two different regular settlement patterns with clear building structures were discovered and an anomaly in between, which probably represents a foundation trench of a fortification wall that was torn down when the city was extended beyond, while close to the southern border of the city, a complex structure was detected, which might also be related to a part of the city wall with attached buildings. Seismic investigations in the assumed harbour area await long-term processing.

As for architectural structures, the most interesting find was a pile of ancient blocks, which originally belonged to at least two different monuments and were reused as spolia, to the south of the plateau. The size of some of these blocks, like e.g. a huge triglyphon (Fig. 22), indicate a very large building, most probably of cultic origin.

The continued intensive, multi-disciplinary research in 2016 represents a huge step forward in our knowledge about the topography and geomorphology of Old Sikyon. We are now able to trace the limits of the settled area, we have an idea about the function of certain extra-urban areas and have plenty of indications about the infrastructure of the city in the form of street grids, several parts of the city-wall, major buildings and in one case also about the development of settlement structures in successive phases.

Summer Campaign 2017

In 2017, fieldwork in Sikyon was carried out in late June and July and was primarily consecrated to excavations. It also included again geophysical investigations (by W. Rabbel, K. Rusch and H. Stümpel/Institute of Geosciences, Christian-Albrechts University of Kiel), a geoarchaeological survey (by Chris Hayward/University of Edinburgh) and the study of architectural blocks. Read more here.

Silke Müth-Frederiksen about the Grant from the Carlsberg Foundation

"After working at the Free University of Berlin for many years with teaching, administration, directing research networks and conducting field projects in Greece and Turkey, I worked on a research project at the German Archaeological Institute at Athens for three years and at the Humboldt University of Berlin for another half year, with only little fieldwork in between on the city wall of ancient Kalydon in the Kalydon project of the Danish Institute at Athens.  The grant from the Carlsberg Foundation now allows me to take up extensive field work again at an extremely interesting site, to be included as a senior researcher in the National Museum of Denmark, and thus to establish a great network of contacts in Denmark and all the countries included in the project, which enables me to broaden my professional horizon further and will raise my chances for future jobs immensely."


Fig. 9: Resistivity and seismic measurements in summer 2015: data recording (R. Frederiksen)


Fig. 10: Radar measurements in summer 2015 (R. Frederiksen)


Fig. 11: Results of geophysical investigations 2015 (CAU Kiel, Institute of Geosciences/Eastern Atlas, Berlin, based on Google Earth)

Fig. 12: Augering in April 2016 (N. Walther)