Lechaion (Grèce): Underwater excavations at the ancient harbour of Corinth, provide insight into engineering by the Roman Empire
Peter B Campbell
Underwater archaeologist Matej Školc carefully excavates the foundations of an ancient harbour structure. Photograph: Vassilis Tsiairis/Lechaion Harbour Project
New archaeological excavations at the ancient port of Corinth have uncovered evidence of large-scale Roman engineering. Named Lechaion, the port was one of a pair that connected the city of ancient Corinth to Mediterranean trade networks. Lechaion is located on the Gulf of Corinth, while Kenchreai is positioned across the narrow Isthmus of Corinth on the Aegean Sea. These two strategic harbours made Corinth a classical period power, but the Romans destroyed the city in 146 BC when conquering Greece. Julius Caesar rebuilt the city and its harbours in 44 BC, ushering in several centuries of prosperity. Recent excavations by the Lechaion Harbour Project have revealed the impressive engineering of the Roman Empire.
Caesar’s Corinthian colony developed into one of the most important ports in the eastern Mediterranean. Ships filled Lechaion with international goods and Corinth became so well known for luxury and vice that a Greek proverb stated, “not everyone can afford to go to Corinth.” However, while ancient coins depict a formidable harbour with a large lighthouse, visible remains of Lechaion are scarce. Visitors to the coastline today can see the foundations of two large structures forming the outer harbour, but otherwise the remains are buried under centuries of sediment. The excavations are beginning to reveal the secrets of this largely forgotten port.
Underwater archaeologists Matej Školc and Alex Tourtas excavate in the Outer Harbour. Photograph: Spyros Kokkinakis & Bjørn Lovén/Lechaion Harbour Project
The team has found a complex harbour that changed over time. In the 1st century AD, Lechaion had a large outer harbour of 40,000 square meters and an inner harbour of 24,500 square meters. The basins, as well as the approach to the harbour, were delineated by large moles and quays constructed of stone blocks weighing five tons each, including one mole that is 45 metres in length and 18 metres wide. A number of monumental buildings once graced Lechaion, such as a lighthouse that is depicted on coins and a monumental structure on an island in the middle of the inner basin. The island monument remains a mystery, but archaeologists speculate that it could be a religious sanctuary, the base of a large statue, or a customs office. However, the island was used for only a brief period. “The island monument was destroyed by an earthquake between 50 and 125 AD. It may well be the first evidence of the earthquake of circa AD 70 under the emperor Vespasian mentioned in ancient literary sources,” says Guy Sanders, who previously directed excavations at Corinth. By the 6th century AD, a new basin measuring approximately 40,000 square metres had to be constructed to service Byzantine Corinth. Sediment had filled areas of the earlier basins and a huge earthquake lifted the area around Lechaion by over a metre.
A pristinely preserved two-thousand-year-old wooden post. Photograph: Angeliki Zisi/Lechaion Harbour Project
The stone block structures are impressive feats of engineering, but the project is revealing information about the process of harbour construction through wooden caissons and pilings used as foundations. Wooden elements rarely survive the centuries, but buried underwater deposits are one of the few places where organic materials can be preserved. “For almost two decades I have been hunting for the perfect archaeological context where all the organic material normally not found on land is preserved” says director Bjørn Lovén. While much can be inferred from the stone remains, the discovery of wooden elements provides more insight into the ancient engineering process. Wood is the holy grail for archaeologists and some of the artifacts discovered at Lechaion are so well preserved that they appear as though they were cut yesterday. Lovén says, “I was joking that I would rather find a wooden spoon than a statue, and we did find archaeological layers where almost everything is preserved.” Besides wooden infrastructure, the team excavated delicate organics finds including seeds, bones, part of a wooden pulley, and carved pieces of wood.
The archaeologists are also finding evidence of everyday life in ancient Corinth. They have found ceramics that transported trade goods that originate from Italy, Tunisia, and Turkey. Maritime items like anchors and fish hooks tell of life along the seaside.
The work at Lechaion is located in shallow water, but it presents several significant challenges. It is a highly active marine environment, which causes the excavation trenches to fill quickly with sediment from wave action. Overnight several tons of sand can build up in the excavation areas. The team is also pushing boundaries with the latest methods scientific methods. Geoarchaeologists used core drilling and drone surveys to map the coastal changes in the area, resulting in the surprising discovery of a new harbour basin. The sediment study is showing how the harbour silted over time and which areas would have been accessible in different periods. The project is using DNA analysis to understand the “genetic landscape” of the trees, plants, and animals that inhabited the region 2,000 years ago. The information from these different scientific methods may one day allow for a reconstruction of Lechaion in each time period.
The project is a cooperation between the Danish Institute at Athens, University of Copenhagen, and the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities. It is directed by Dr Bjørn Lovén and Dr Dimitris Kourkoumelis, as well as assistant directors Paraskevi Micha and Panagiotis Athanasopoulos. The excavation is funded by Her Majesty the Queen Margrethe II’s Archaeological Foundation, Augustinus Foundation, and Carlsberg Foundation. The excavation will continue next year and it is expected to reveal more information about ancient engineering. “The potential for more unique discoveries is mind blowing” says Lovén.