Monday, 11 May 2009

Pavlopetri: the preservation of the oldest submerged town in the world

by Kathryn Hadley

Pavlopetri lies three to four metres beneath the sea off the coast of southern Laconia in Greece. With parts of its ruins dating back to at least 2800BC, it is considered the oldest submerged town in the world. Some of the town’s buildings, courtyards, streets, chamber tombs and some 37 cist graves, from the later Mycenaean period (c.1680-1180 BC), have been preserved almost intact. The site is, nevertheless, in need of active efforts to preserve and document what remains of this period of Greek history. The coast of southern Laconia is a popular tourist destination and boats dragging anchors, snorkelers and the growth of marine life are a constant threat to the 3,500 year old walls.

The University of Nottingham announced, today, May 11th, the beginning of a project led by Dr Jon Henderson, from the Underwater Archaeology Research Centre (UARC) in its Department of Archaeology, to undertake a full underwater survey of the site. No work has been carried out on the site since it was first mapped using hand tapes, in 1968, by a team from the University of Cambridge. Dr Henderson is the first archaeologist to have official access to the site in 40 years.

Dr Henderson described one of the aims of the project:

‘This site is of rare international archaeological importance. It is imperative
that the fragile remains of this town are accurately recorded and preserved
before they are lost forever. A fundamental aim of the project is to raise
awareness of the importance of the site and ensure that it is ethically managed
and presented to the public in a way which is sustainable and of benefit to both
the development of tourism and the local community.’

The power of the Mycenaean civilisation was largely based on their control of the sea. However, archaeological studies have, to this date, mostly focused on better known inland palaces and citadels and their remains a lack of knowledge about the workings of harbour towns during the period. It is believed that Pavlopetri, in particular, with its sandy and well-protected bay, was an important harbour where local and long-distance trade was conducted throughout the Mediterranean.

The current project will research the history and development of the harbour, when it was occupied and what it was used for. A study of the geomorphology of the area will also seek to provide an insight into why the town disappeared under the sea. The first detailed digital underwater survey of the site will be carried out this month and in June, using an acoustic scanner which can produce three-dimensional digital surveys. There will be three further sessions of underwater excavations between 2010 and 2012. A study session is planned for 2013 and the results of the research are due to be published in 2014. Dr Nicholas Flemming, who first discovered the town in 1967, is also involved in the current project.

The Mycenaean civilisation was the first Greek-speaking civilisation, named after Mycenae, its most important site, in the Peloponnese of southern Greece. The population was ruled by a number of independent rulers, who each had their own stronghold. They notably conquered Crete in approximately 1450 BC, where they adapted the Linear A script to write their own language (Linear B). The Mycenaean period is also referred to as the Bronze Age period in Greek history and notably provided the historical setting for a considerable part of Ancient Greek literature and myth, including Homer’s Age of Heroes.
Pictures: above: outline of a building;
middle picture: one of the 37 cist graves
(University of Nottingham)


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