PHILADELPHIA –- Along an isolated stretch of the eastern shoreline of Greece, a University of Pennsylvania classics professor and his colleagues are unlocking the secrets of a partially submerged “lost” harbor town believed to have been built by the Mycenaeans 3,500 years ago.
The settlement, referred to as Korphos-Kalamianos by Thomas Tartaron, professor in the Department of Classical Studies at Penn, and Daniel J. Pullen, chairman of Florida State University’s Department of Classics, rests on the shores of the Saronic Gulf in the western Aegean Sea about 60 miles southwest of Athens.
Tartaron and Pullen are members of the Saronic Harbors Archaeological Research Project, or SHARP, an interdisciplinary team under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and operating with permission of Greece’s Ministry of Culture. The project promises to shed new light on a wide range of questions about how Mycenaean influence in the region spread so quickly and what forces caused so many Mycenaean centers, probably including this port town, to be abruptly abandoned just a century later.
Mycenaean Greece is a region known as the center of Homer’s epic tales, including the Trojan War, yet much about the rise and fall of this sophisticated civilization, with its rich warrior aristocracy and wide-ranging trade routes, remains poorly understood.
The site was discovered by the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey project in 2001 using computer modeling and a careful search of hundreds of miles of coastline. This most recent fieldwork provided evidence of the site’s origin and purpose.
With a shoreline susceptible to erosion, hovering precariously above two of the earth’s major tectonic plates, the African and the Eurasian, the team of Tartaron, Pullen and their colleague, Richard Rothaus of St. Cloud State University, expected to encounter difficulties finding archaeological evidence on an ever-shifting terrain.
“What we discovered in 2001 was not only a probable Mycenaean port town but an unusual opportunity for archaeologists,” Tartaron said. “Kalamianos as a site is unique. Soil erosion and tectonic activity actually helped to reveal the site to us because much of the soil had already been stripped from the site. Architectural remains of about 20 acres of closely built structures were plainly visible.”
Here was that rarity of rarities: a large, newly discovered archaeological site that would require relatively little digging.
The structures’ grid-like pattern suggests that the entire community was planned and built rather than pieced together. To researchers, this indicated that the settlement was built with purpose, perhaps as a military or naval outpost.
Directly across the gulf, the ancient city-state of Kolonna on the island of Aegina was likely a rival of the emerging city-state of Mycenae, which sits about 40 miles inland to the west, during the period between 1400 and 1200 B.C. when Korphos-Kalamianos was built.
“Heavy fortification walls with gates, identified on the inland side of the port town, point to its role as a fortress, possibly protecting the harbor,” Tartaron said. “Additional Mycenaean architectural complexes, probably hamlets and fortified enclosures, as well as isolated concentrations of pottery shards we found on the surface in the site’s hinterland, indicate that the Mycenaean presence at that time was on a regional scale.”
Pullen and Tartaron conducted a systematic study of the architectural remains at Korphos-Kalamianos and produced an accurate map of their location using satellite positioning.
“We don’t know exactly why, but some portion of the settlement is now submerged in the Saronic Gulf,” Tartaron said. “We can say that in the Bronze Age the configuration of the coastline at Kalamianos was very different from that of today. Future research with Greece’s department of underwater antiquities should clarify aspects of the this Bronze Age coastline.”
This spring, the team returns to document the architecture and other remains at Kalamianos. Special emphasis will be placed on geological work that will reconstruct the contours of the Bronze Age shoreline. In 2009, excavation will begin at selected locations in the port town as the team seeks to learn about the daily lives of the people of Mycenaean Kalamianos.
The SHARP team includes archaeologists specializing in architecture, pottery and stone artifacts; geologists and geomorphologists studying the history of landforms, soils and sediments, hydrology and long-term coastal change; surveyors and mappers; anthropologists collecting oral and archival information about traditional ways of life in the Saronic Gulf; and experts in computer applications and relational databases.
SHARP has received financial support from the Institute for Aegean Prehistory, the Loeb Classical Library Foundation, the Stavros S. Niarchos Foundation, Florida State University and the University of Pennsylvania.