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Athena Review, Vol.3, no.4

Searching for Prehistoric Aegean Harbors

 with GIS, Geomorphology, and Archaeology

Thomas F. Tartaron   Yale University

Richard M. Rothaus    St. Cloud State University

Daniel J. Pullen   Florida State University

There is rich evidence for seafaring and long-distance maritime contact among the great Bronze Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean. From Egypt alone, we have depictions of ships, along with their crews and cargoes, in many tomb paintings. In these tombs one also finds models of boats of various descriptions, which, along with their crews, are poised to transport and provision the deceased in the afterlife. A full-sized funerary boat of the Pharaoh Khufu was excavated from its burial chamber just south of Khufu’s pyramid at Giza. From the epigraphic record of Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets, we learn of the use of ships for trade, warfare, and piracy. The movement of ships around the eastern Mediterranean is implied in the distribution of trade goods along its shores, and spectacularly demonstrated by shipwrecks that have been carefully excavated in recent decades, such as the Late Bronze Age wrecks at Cape Gelidonya and Uluburun off the southwestern coast of Turkey (Bass 1987, 1991).

[Fig.1: View of the Bronze Age site of Aia Irini on the island of Kea. The promontory creates two landing areas adjacent to the site (photo: courtesy J.B. Rutter).]

We have less knowledge about seafaring in Aegean prehistory. The Aegean Sea and its archipelago separate the eastern coast of Greece from the west-facing coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). It was the crucible in which the Bronze Age civilizations of the Minoans on the island of Crete, the Cycladic islanders of the central Aegean, and the Mycenaeans of the Greek mainland were formed. With hundreds of islands and thousands of kilometers of shoreline, the Aegean dwellers (who spoke a form of Greek by Mycenaean times, if not earlier) took to the sea from early prehistory, and subsequent Greek history was shaped to a remarkable extent by the relationship of people to the Mediterranean Sea. Aegean coastlines are characteristically rugged, with few broad coastal plains, but many small, natural bays that are suitable for landing ships of modest size.

There is much historical and archaeological interest in long-distance maritime activity in the eastern Mediterranean, focused particularly on trade, in an effort to reconstruct the political economies of the great Bronze Age powers. Considerable attention has also been paid to the technologies of pilotage and navigation; and ship design, construction, and performance (Agouridis 1997; Wachsmann 1998; Broodbank 2000). It is rather surprising, therefore, that relatively little is known about the exact locations of the Bronze Age harbors, particularly the smaller ones, and about how these harbors were used. For the Aegean area, archaeological and geomorphic data lag well behind the speculation generated by iconographic representations. This predicament is probably best explained by the difficulty of exploring the rugged, dissected Greek coastline, and the scarcity of large, easily recognizable natural harbors. As a consequence, little systematic search has been undertaken.

Most of the evidence we possess for Bronze Age seamanship in the Aegean comes from iconographic representations. In the Early Bronze Age, most Cycladic islanders probably used small dugout canoes for intra-Cycladic sea travel, but some had access to large “longboats,” several of which are represented on ceramic “frying pans,” a familiar form whose function is not precisely known. These ships carried crews of 25 or more manning paddles, and may have served multiple purposes of warfare, raiding, and elite voyaging (Broodbank 2000: 100). It is unlikely that these narrow, crowded longboats were used for long-distance trading (Wachsmann 1998: 75), a task probably assumed by medium-sized canoes for which we have no direct evidence.

Almost a millennium later, Aegean ships of the early years of the Late Bronze Age were depicted in a miniature fresco at the West House at Akrotiri on the island of Thera (also known as Santorini). The so-called “Flotilla Fresco,” dated to about 1550 BC,1 consists of a series of scenes of large, medium-sized, and small manned ships passing by three coastal villages, showing the rocky coastal topography, as well as small harbors in which boats are moored or pulled up onto the beach (Shaw 1990; Televantou 1990; Wachsmann 1998: 86-99) (fig.2). These images provide a glimpse of the variety of vessels in simultaneous use in the Aegean, and show a major advance in ship technology over the Early Bronze Age longboats: the sail, apparently introduced from the Near East to Crete near the end of the Early Bronze Age. Cyprian Broodbank (2000: 345-348) has recently argued that the subsequent extension of Minoan Crete’s influence over the Cycladic islands was facilitated by the mastery of sail technology.

[Fig.2: A portion of the "Flotilla Fresco" from the West House at Akrotiri, showing ships moving past villages and small harbors (photo: D. Pullen).]

The Akrotiri fresco also sheds light on Bronze Age harbor settings. Between the second and third towns, a conspicuous promontory is enclosed by two separate, protected harbors. In the smaller harbor, three small, crescent-shaped canoes are pulled onto the shore. The larger harbor holds two larger sailing ships. This image suggests a differential use of harbors for canoes and sailing ships, for sailing vessels require sheltered anchorage and a deeper draft than canoes, which could simply be pulled up onto a sandy beach. This depiction also indicates a favored harbor topography, supported by previous archaeological discoveries (Shaw 1990; Raban 1991). This configuration, a promontory settlement between two natural harbors, is found at Ayia Irini on the island of Kea (fig.1), and at Vayia in the eastern Korinthia (see below). Other configurations include natural harbors formed by the connection of the mainland with offshore islands or reefs by means of causeways or narrow necks of land (Mochlos and Kommos on Crete), and settlements located on wide, natural bays at river deltas (Troy and Miletos in Asia Minor; Ephyra in southwestern Epirus).

The lack of empirical knowledge about Aegean harbors has resulted from a set of problems that are geomorphological, archaeological, and historical in nature. Geomorphology concerns the constantly changing surface of the earth, shaped by natural and cultural processes. The physical changes that occur in coastlines over time can be considerable, rendering once ideal harbors useless. Likewise, modern harbors are often poor indicators of suitable harbor locations some 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. Several long-term forces may be responsible for changes in the configuration of coastlines. Global (eustatic) sea level has been rising since the retreat of the continental ice sheets near the end of the Pleistocene geological epoch, ca. 14,000 years ago. Initially, the marine transgression was rapid and substantial (100 meters or more in some locations), but stabilized approximately 5,000 years ago - that is, at the beginning of the Aegean Bronze Age - with a further rise on the order of five meters or less to the present.

Other geomorphic processes are more significant in coastline change, because they have effects that are more localized and more rapid; thus they may be experienced on human temporal and spatial scales. The first of these is tectonism. Greece sits atop a subduction zone in which the African tectonic plate is moving north and sliding beneath the Eurasian plate. The predictable result is an arc of intense faulting, with attendant volcanism (the Aegean volcanic arc runs through the Cycladic islands and includes the famous island of Thera, much of which was obliterated in a volcanic cataclysm in the Late Bronze Age) and earthquake activity. This process is also responsible for building the mountains that form the spine of the Greek landmass. On a local scale, tectonic activity may take the form of localized subsidence or uplift events, causing a change in relative sea level. The effects of these events can be dramatic, completely submerging a coastline or raising a beach high and dry. A second process is the silting up of river mouths that once formed wide deltas or protected bays. Today, most of these former harbors are stranded kilometers inland - Troy and Miletos on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor are excellent examples. Human activities over long periods of time, such as clearing forests and stripping soil from slopes, increased the sediment load to river mouths, contributing to the loss of this class of harbor, which, according to archaeological and geomorphic evidence, was a common kind of major natural harbor in the Bronze Age (Raban 1991: 131).

The archaeological challenge centers on problems of visibility, as well as our own expectations of what the physical remains of a prehistoric harbor ought to be. What, indeed, are we looking for? Should we expect to find formal harbor facilities of stone, earth, and other durable materials, in the form of piers, moles, quays, and seawalls? And do we anticipate the discovery of attached harbor settlements - communities dedicated to, and perhaps dependent upon, the commerce and communication that the sea brought? Built harbors and year-round harbor settlements were certainly a common feature of the historical periods in Greece, when great harbors served the needs of military and commercial fleets. If, however, landing points in the Bronze Age lacked such structures, the harbors may be rendered nearly invisible to traditional archaeological detection. (In the tectonically active Korinthia, there were clear advantages to using natural harbors opportunistically rather than expending great effort on built harbor structures: the Korinthia’s two historical harbors - Kenchreai and Lechaion - were both destroyed, the former by a devastating earthquake that sank the harbor, the latter by uplift that made the water of the inner harbor too shallow for use.) Substantial coastline change, particularly subsidence events, would further conceal the physical remains. Few archaeological projects have systematically explored coastlines with the explicit aim of recovering ancient harbors that possessed few or no durable constructions.

These issues lead to a third problem of historical interpretation of the scale and nature of Bronze Age use of coastlines and seas. Discussion tends to focus on the use of the sea for long-distance trade and other forms of interregional interaction; the image of large trading ships plying the eastern Mediterranean and putting in at a series of major harbors is an alluring one. But it is important to put prehistoric seafaring in perspective. Aegean villages and towns, even the Minoan and Mycenaean palace centers, were small territorial polities with modest populations and resources. The frequency of long-distance voyages for trading, raiding, and gift-giving was likely rather small relative to local or intra-regional maritime connections. Bronze Age settlements on Aegean coastlines were not thick on the ground at any given moment in time, and in many areas they must have depended on short-distance connections for crucial resources. Relationships with nearby settlements may have been essential for maintaining kinship ties by which small communities could exchange mates and share food in times of resource failure. Finally, we must shed a modern (Western), land-based perception of travel. Today, if we wish to negotiate the rugged Greek landscape, we can do so safely and efficiently on modern paved roads. In the Bronze Age, travel from one coastal settlement to another was usually quicker and easier by sea than by land. Narrow, broken coastlines are typically constricted by mountainous interiors, with the result that traveling from one coastal town to another in plain view might take days overland, but mere hours by boat. This suggests that ties may have been stronger among coastal communities than between the coast and the interior, although we know that people did move through interior regions, perhaps most frequently during the winter months, when sailing was dangerous or impossible.

[Fig.3: Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey zone on the Saronic Gulf.]

Prehistoric Harbors in the Eastern Korinthia: In order to attack these problems, we chose as a test case the eastern Korinthia, and specifically the rough coast bordering the Saronic Gulf (fig.3).2 The Korinthia was located at the crossroads of a major sea and land route in the northern half of the eastern Mediterranean, and archaeological discoveries of more than a century document prehistoric settlement in the region. The Saronic Gulf was an important sphere of Bronze Age interaction, giving access by sea to Attica, the Korinthia, and the eastern shores of the Argolid. In the center of the Gulf, the island of Aegina with its main Bronze Age settlement at Kolonna was a major player in the development of Aegean Bronze Age society, apparently influencing the emergence of civilization at Mycenae itself (Rutter 1993: 774-781). Prehistoric exploitation of the Korinthia’s Saronic coast is virtually unknown, however, mainly because its rugged contours and relative isolation in modern times have discouraged intensive archaeological investigation. We were thus presented with a relatively pristine case study.

The strategy we adopted to discover and investigate Bronze Age harbors and landing points was relatively straightforward: we constructed a model for harbor location and use based on geomorphological analysis, available archaeological data, and a set of assumptions about cultural and environmental factors in human settlement. Then, we simply went out and searched, using systematic geomorphological and archaeological methods. To be more precise, our project involved the following activities:

1. Mapping regional topographic and other environmental factors that may have defined and influenced prehistoric land use;

2. Reconstructing the geomorphological history of landscape evolution, by identifying changes in coastal configuration:

· Measuring the amount and rates of land level and sea level change,

· Identifying sources of these changes,

· Constraining the timing and magnitude of these changes relative to pan-Mediterranean eustatic change, seismic uplift or subsidence, and/or local sedimentary processes, such as erosion or deposition by rivers;

3. Inducting the spatial and chronological information into a Geographic Information System database;

4. Creating a probabilistic model that could be used to guide archaeological investigations in the region;

5. Archaeological search using intensive surface survey methods.

In the end we were able to identify numerous small bays along the Saronic coast that could have been used opportunistically or continuously as harbors, and we incidentally came upon conclusive evidence for such usage.

Building a Harbors Model:  A Geographic Information System, or GIS, uses powerful computer software to store and manipulate data that have a spatial component. GIS is widely appreciated for its ability to store and display vast amounts of spatial data in discrete layers. For example, a project’s GIS might contain satellite images, topographic contour maps, site locations, and hydrological maps, all tied (“georeferenced”) to the same real-world coordinates. These layers can be displayed in any desired combination. Additionally, a GIS package contains many programs that analyze spatial data. For example, one can determine all of the sites that lie within a certain distance of a perennial water source, the most energy-efficient walking path across a landscape, or the viewshed showing all the territory vi was the problem of reconstituting the coastline of several thousand years ago, we turned to the power of GIS to define the parameters of the search.

The harbors probability model was embedded in a broader probability model for the types of environmental settings that prehistoric inhabitants of the eastern Korinthia exploited. Models are simplified constructions of more complex phenomena, and all begin with assumptions that are thought to be important factors influencing the interaction of dynamic variables to produce a final outcome or result. Certain kinds of variables, such as environmental processes, are easier to model because they obey natural laws and are thus, to some extent, predictable. Human behavior and human choice, on the other hand, are difficult to model, because they often cannot be predicted given the logic of an observer removed some three or more millennia in time. When human choice is introduced, many different outcomes are possible. Furthermore, because the information on prehistoric settlements in the eastern Korinthia remains woefully incomplete, there is little predictive value in our findings, in the sense that we cannot have high confidence, a priori, that a specific location meeting the criteria for suitability was in fact utilized. Rather, the purpose of the model is to assess the probability that specific kinds of locations and environments were favored by Bronze Age people in the eastern Korinthia.

Because models succeed or fail on the strength of their parameters, they must be made explicit. We began with two crucial assumptions about long-term environments. The first parameter, based on detailed fieldwork, is that the environment, on a regional scale, has been relatively stable over the last 10,000 years. Since the beginning of the Bronze Age, there has been a minor global sea level rise on the order of 3-5 meters, but the amount of change within the Mediterranean basin has been so sufficiently small as to be insignificant for our purposes. Climate data from Greece indicate that wind, current, and weather patterns have not changed substantially during that time, suggesting that in spite of numerous environmental “hiccups,” a dynamic state of equilibrium has prevailed. From a long-term, regional perspective, the environment tends to adapt to changes wrought by forces of climate, tectonics, and human interference.

A second parameter is derived from the assertion that prehistoric humans were constrained by certain environmental conditions - that is, they could not prosper at all locations on the landscape. Many obvious constraints come to mind: for example, humans cannot survive without access to perennial fresh water; farmers cannot prosper without arable land, or farm on precipitous slopes. We can develop reasonable probability models to depict a range of suitable environments in which humans could have prospered. But at present, we cannot predict within that range the exact locations humans chose to inhabit and exploit, because we cannot control for a host of cultural choices and preferences from among the available options. We expect the most significant variation, that perceptible to humans, to reside mainly at the local level. At this fine spatial and temporal resolution, the dynamic between environment and culture becomes complex, and only explicable through detailed field study. The real utility of the model is not as a magical “site-finding” tool; rather, it is the potential to explain the variability in landscape use that is of true value.

On the basis of these parameters, we made three sets of further propositions: environmental determinants, cultural determinants, and harbor determinants. These were used to create spatial models of hypothetically preferred areas for human exploitation.

Environmental determinants:

1. Usable slope. The range of usable slope suitable for agricultural purposes is defined as 0-12 degrees. A similar figure is used for establishing slope limits for successful agriculture throughout the Mediterranean, although major terraforming projects, such as terracing, may act to change the slope artificially.

2. Contiguous area of usable slope greater than 500 m2. Reasonably level and spacious plots of land are needed for settlements to be successful; that is, people need sufficient space to live. This parameter is based on modern and ethnographic data and is conservative, in that much larger living spaces would be preferred.

3. Proximity to faults. This is a proxy measure of access to fresh water, since faults provide access to groundwater in the karstic environment that characterizes the eastern Korinthia. In this semi-arid region, annual needs for water among the inhabitants would have exceeded stream yield and rainwater storage capacity. Faults also help define slope and topography.

Cultural determinants:

1. Proximity to areas of high relief (change greater than 10 degrees within 50 meters). This is an empirical observation, based on decades of survey and excavation in the eastern Korinthia, that many prehistoric sites are found on high, flattish areas defined by steep dropping slopes. These settings were presumably favored for defense and visibility.

2. Proximity to the coast. This parameter recognizes a strong predilection toward sea communication and travel in Mediterranean near-coastal areas.

3. Proximity to wetlands. Wetlands provide copious plant and animal resources, and were once common in coastal areas of the Mediterranean, though most have been drained and infilled since the 20th century. Wetlands also furnish quiet, sheltered environments for beaching small ships. This parameter is largely hypothetical; it is intriguing, but has not yet proven to be archaeologically significant.

4. Location in proximity to continuous tracts of land (greater than 5000 m2) of usable slope. This preference is also inferred from archaeological data, and is seemingly linked to a desire for expansive parcels of agricultural land.

These factors define our basic model of prehistoric landscape utilization. In practice, the model works rather well in that the correlation is high between suitable locations identified by the model, and actual prehistoric sites as determined by past and recent surveys of the eastern Korinthia. Based on this success, we added three further considerations to specifically target locations suitable for prehistoric harbors.

Harbor determinants:

1. Location on the coast. Only a computer would need to be told this! This is a requirement, rather than a preference, as in the cultural determinants above.

[Fig.4: Model for fetch, an example of a harbor determinant.] 

2. Fetch (fig.4). Fetch refers to the maximum distance that wind may travel unhindered along a coastline. In the variable and constantly changing weather conditions of the Mediterranean, a viable harbor must be protected from wind. Any cove exposed to sizable fetch cannot be a good harbor without extensive modification; not only would ships be battered by high winds, but even in moderate winds, moving in and out of the harbor would be difficult. Note that changes in the configuration of the coastline over time may affect fetch. Our model uses modern information that may require modification based on geomorphological findings.

3. Bathymetry. No embayment with shallow reefs and other navigational hazards is appropriate as a harbor. Bathymetric data help to identify suitable deep-water approaches, subject also to geomorphological findings of changes in the topography of the seabed over time.

The harbors model identified areas with high and low potential for harbors, large and small, on the Saronic coastline (fig.5). The next step was to go out and investigate these locations to test the model. Since a good test incorporates the null hypothesis, we searched low- as well as high-potential locations. In this the model was also successful, but negative results make for less than compelling reading, so here we focus on our discoveries.

[Fig.5: Model for suitable prehistoric locations. Note the locations of Vayia and Cape Trelli, discussed below.]

Fieldwork: As we anticipated, coastal configurations in the eastern Korinthia have been affected by localized, short- and long-term geomorphic changes. Because the nature of the changes may be specific to a locality, there was no substitute for careful, detailed examination. We employed an interdisciplinary approach combining geomorphology and archaeological survey to assess the potential of several dozen candidates.

Geomorphology: Our geomorphological assessment of a potential harbor area might include some or all of the following:

1. Observation of indicators of tectonic activity, including faults and fault patterns, coastline shape, mountain slopes, and bathymetry;

2. Examination of soils for indication of high rates of sedimentation, uplift or subsidence, and former wetlands;

3. Examination of relative indicators of coastline age, including pebble and sand size and shape, and erosion of limestone;

4. Identification of subsidence and/or uplift events through submerged tidal notches, uplifted platforms, and submerged or uplifted beachrock;

5. Coring of former and current marsh areas to examine sedimentation, with use of foraminifera as proxy data (fig.6).

While we have concluded that regionally the landscape is stable, certain areas of the coastline have undergone episodic dramatic change. Thus, any attempt to understand coastal archaeology must incorporate a study of the previous shapes of the coastline. Close examination using a variety of methods allowed us to identify causes and effects of coastline change or stability. Some approaches are relatively simple: coastlines that are being controlled by seismic faults have characteristic shapes, as do the mountain slopes and bathymetry associated with them. Even the material on the beach, for example fine-grained sand versus large rough stone cobbles, can indicate its age.

[Fig.6: Sinking a geological core in a wetland near the village of Korphos (photo: R. Rothaus).]

But these are rough indicators that do not always provide the fine chronology required by archaeologists. An innovative technique used by our project was the use of foraminifera as proxy-data for environmental change (Reinhardt et al. 1996, in press). Foraminifera are microscopic shelled creatures that live in marine environments, each species occupying a preferred habitat. Some thrive in very saline water; others favor only slightly saline water. Over time, the shells of these creatures accumulate in bottom sediments. By taking cores in former or current marshes and identifying the species found in certain sediment layers, changing conditions of water depth and salinity over time can be determined. By comparing the species in different sediment layers, coastline change can be detected. A sudden species change can, for example, indicate a subsidence event. An additional advantage to this technique is that foraminifera can be radiocarbon-dated, providing important evidence for the timing of events, as well as confirmation of dates obtained by traditional archaeological methods. For the Cape Trelli site, described below, the data obtained from analysis of foraminifera recovered in cores gave us our first indication of how the coastline had changed.

Archaeological Survey: We initiated archaeological investigations at several sites under the umbrella of the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS). Our techniques included systematic surface reconnaissance in survey units superimposed on the site, from which we recovered artifacts and noted features such as architecture. At one site (Vayia; see below), we created a detailed map of the architectural remains using an Electronic Total Station. Artifacts and features were described in the field, and documented by measurements, drawings, and photographs. On other occasions, observations made during geomorphological work (see Cape Trelli, below), while not technically part of our archaeological work, nonetheless yielded crucial information.

Preliminary Results: In addition to several small inlets that may have served as minor harbors in the Bronze Age, our search led us to the discovery of two major Bronze Age settlements situated adjacent to ideal harbors.

Vayia: An Early Bronze Age Fortified Site: A north-facing promontory known as Vayia was identified as particularly promising for prehistoric activity. It possessed many desirable attributes, including proximity to a point of high relief and proximity to wetlands, and most importantly, was situated just above two usable harbors, making it ideal for opportunistic usage practices. Paths connecting the site to both coves are visible in aerial photography and may represent ancient routes. The western harbor, known as Lychnari, once possessed an extensive wetland at the terminus of a stream valley emptying into the harbor. The harbor is well protected from winds and has a deep-water approach to a gently sloped beach. The eastern harbor also has a deep-water approach and formerly a wetland, but being more linear, it is much more vulnerable to wind and storms. Volcanic stone of the type typically used to make millstones in the prehistoric period was noted at both harbors, but it is likely that the eastern harbor was always secondary. On the promontory, we discovered a previously unknown Early Bronze Age site in a remarkable state of preservation. The site consists of numerous rubble-walled structures enclosed by perhaps two lines of substantial walls. Notable among the features is a series of massive rock piles five meters or more in diameter; some of these are partially collapsed bastions belonging to the enclosure wall (fig.14), though the function of others that appear to lie outside the wall is not yet known. The hilltop site spreads over two hectares, and is littered with pottery sherds, mainly of the final Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Classical periods. Archaeological mapping, surface survey, and geomorphological observation at the site in 2002 revealed that the fortified settlement belongs to Early Helladic II (2600-2200 BC). The main architectural features are associated with Early Helladic II pottery, particularly fragments of heavy, utilitarian vessels. This pottery can be associated with the stone architecture because: 1) it is found on top of and inside the stone features, to the near exclusion of sherds of all other periods; and 2) it is, like the stones of the walls themselves, encrusted with a calcium carbonate (CaCO3) concretion. We believe this carbonate crust formed from the percolation of water through the interior of the structures over a long period of time, dissolving the limestone, carrying CaCO3 in solution, and subsequently precipitating it on the surface of the sherds. The concretion is found on the surfaces and breaks of the pottery, and matches similar concretions on the rock itself. It may be that the wall builders found sherds from broken storage vessels to be suitable filling material. Such concretions are not found on the pottery of historical periods.

Vayia joins a small number of known Early Bronze Age fortified sites on the Greek mainland and Aegean islands. One clue to its location (it is removed from good farming land by several hundred meters), other than the sheltered bay of Lychnari, may be its viewshed - that is, the area visible from the site (fig.16). The only significant area in the Saronic Gulf not visible from Vayia, and a factor that may play a role in its placement and significance, is the island of Aegina, where Kolonna ranked as probably the most important settlement in the immediate region at this time. Likewise the western end of the Saronic Gulf is not visible from Kolonna, yet Vayia commands all of it. Vayia’s placement on the western coast of the Saronic Gulf may have taken advantage of the natural defenses of the steep mountains to the south, while at the same time controlling the few passes around and over these mountains. The areas to the west and the north (the Korinthian heartland) were perhaps under the control of other centers located on the mainland, with which Kolonna was in competition. Thus, one central question about Vayia concerns its role in interconnections among these areas.

Korphos-Cape Trelli: A Mycenaean Harbor Town: The second major harbor settlement we located, near the small fishing village of Korphos, provides the best illustration of the utility of the model (fig.7). Visual inspection of maps of the area suggested reasonably high potential for harbors - and the harbor at Korphos itself seems the most likely location - but there were no visible remains to verify a prehistoric presence. In this case, we discovered a Mycenaean harbor and its attached town because, together, the harbors model and geomorphological fieldwork unlocked the secrets of a millennia-old natural harbor that has long since disappeared under the sea.

We had some interest in the Korphos area because of its wetlands and potentially usable harbors at small inlets in a mostly rough and vertical coastline. Accordingly, we began to take geological cores from wetlands close to Korphos village in 1998 to study long-term changes in the coastal environment. Yet the harbors model persistently pointed us toward a small (and in our minds rather unpromising) southward-projecting promontory called Cape Trelli (meaning something like “Cape Madness”). Although the promontory has a small wetland at its neck, the adjacent coastline is linear and open to the sea. It was with some skepticism, then, that we visited the cape the following year to carry out a geomorphological study.

[Fig.7: Overview of the location of the Cape Trelli archaeological area (photo: T. Tartaron).]

Tectonic faults in the Korphos area have produced localized, episodic co-seismic subsidence in the past. This subsidence has been detected and is being studied using three different indicators: submerged tidal notches, proxy indicators of subsidence events recorded in wetland cores, and a series of submerged platforms and beachrock formations. All of these indicators point to change greater than that accounted for by eustatic or isostatic sea-level change and instead evidence co-seismic subsidence events.

The nature of the indicators can be briefly explained. A minimum of three submerged tidal notches have been documented at Korphos. The tidal notches are formed by bioerosion and dissolution processes and are excellent indicators of rapid sea-level change. Gradual sea-level change obliterates notch evidence; sharply preserved submerged notches are a definitive indicator of sea-level events. Sedimentological and paleontological examination of wetland cores recovered from Korphos’ bay provides excellent proxy indicators for subsidence events. Identification of the various microfossils in their sedimentological context has indicated changing water salinity and energy levels, which in turn can indicate the results of subsidence events. Through correlation with radiocarbon dates from associated organic material, a detailed sequence of events and dates has been recovered.

But the real breakthrough awaited us at Cape Trelli, where we identified three sections of submerged beachrock at depths of -1.2 m, -3.3 m, and -5.9 m (Wells n.d.). Beachrock can form in as little as a year when fresh and salt water mix in an intertidal zone, causing cementation by calcium carbonate. All three levels of beachrock were riddled with an astonishing amount of ceramics that must have been cemented in place while the surface was at sea level The beachrock not only verifies subsidence events that must be episodic rather than gradual sea-level change, but through the fortuitous inclusion of ceramic material provides a solid terminus post quem for subsidence events. Many of the sherds from the deepest beachrock were easily recognized Mycenaean types, including fragments of kylikes (a standard drinking vessel of the Mycenaean palatial period), stirrup jars (used to transport luxury liquids), and Late Bronze Age coarseware. These sherds established a chronological range between 1425 and 1065 BC, which was corroborated by evidence in the geological cores for a tectonic event in that time frame.

Examination of all of these indicators revealed a sequence of at least four subsidence events at Korphos since 1425 BC. Most relevant to the issue of harbors is the indication that a usable harbor existed at Cape Trelli, in the area of the submerged beachrock. Because the number of subsidence events and their provisional chronology are known (albeit imperfectly) through the geomorphological studies, it is possible to restore the coastline as it existed in the prehistoric period . This restoration is essential to the application of the model, and led directly to a major discovery, both by allowing for an adjustment of the model to reveal an area of high potential, and because an understanding of the coastline change led us to visit a location that currently is remarkably inhospitable and unattractive as a habitation or as a harbor and usage area.

Our final discovery allowed us to put all the evidence together. Adjoining and adjacent to the subsided coast there exists a large complex of architectural remains covering perhaps as much as 30,000 m2, as indicated by aerial photography. The architecture of the complex is clearly in the “cyclopean” masonry style of the Mycenaean palatial period (fig.8). These incidental discoveries, combined with the incredible abundance of Bronze Age material in the water, embedded in the beachrock and strewn over the beach, confirms that we have discovered a major, previously unknown and unsuspected Mycenaean harbor. All archaeological finds were reported immediately to officials of the Greek Archaeological Service. In the years ahead, we hope to return to the site to initiate an archaeological investigation.

[Fig.8: Mycenaean walls at Cape Trelli, exemplifying the "cyclopean" masonry technique (photo: T. Tartaron).]

Conclusions: It is our belief that most Bronze Age Aegean harbors lacked durable constructions (but see Shaw 1990 for rock cuttings, putative ship sheds, and other enhancements that are hypothetically associated with Minoan harbors); rather, natural embayments were utilized opportunistically to allow coastal communities to engage the outside world.

The Early Helladic fortifications at Vayia and the architectural complex at Cape Trelli are manifestations of specific time periods - Early Helladic II and Late Helladic III - that witnessed the emergence of complex societies characterized by frequent regional and interregional interaction by sea and land. Control of these harbors in periods of complexity may have been in the hands of polities that controlled regional systems. In the case of Vayia’s fortified settlement and harbor, that polity may have been Kolonna on Aegina, the nearest important Early Helladic II center. Kolonna may have had an interest in Vayia as an outpost on the Saronic shore along a travel route to the Korinthian Isthmus.

Cape Trelli also had early ties with the island of Aegina. A “Saronic” pottery fabric of Final Neolithic and Early Helladic I found at Vayia, Trelli, and elsewhere contains volcanic temper that must have come from stone brought from Aegina and Methana. There is abundant evidence, in the form of volcanic stone characteristic of Aeginetan geology, that Trelli’s inhabitants were importing this raw material for the manufacture of ground stone objects, such as querns. In the Late Bronze Age, Cape Trelli was well placed to serve as a regular commercial stopover for Mycenaean vessels sailing from the Argolid to the Korinthia and Attica and back. Although Trelli is situated almost due east of Mycenae, the intervening territory is rugged, and so the overland route was probably never a practical means of travel between the settlements. On the other hand, we believe that the harbor at Cape Trelli was valued as one of the few good landfalls on a heavily traveled sea lane skirting the Saronic coast during Mycenaean palatial times. In our future research, we hope to explore Cape Trelli’s role in the economy and politics of the Mycenaean world.

But at these sites and others we discovered on the Saronic coast, there is evidence for activity during times when high complexity and an “international spirit” did not prevail. Bronze Age Aegean harbors during these periods may often have lacked attached settlements, perhaps reflecting a strategy of simultaneously using multiple small, natural harbors. In the 19th-century Korinthia, inland producers of currants and other crops routinely checked the wind and then took their products to the appropriate harbor for that particular day. For many such harbors, a primary function must have been to ensure the connectivity of small communities to essential local and regional social and economic networks. It is unlikely, in any case, that more than a few harbors in a given region could have been supported primarily by trade. For mariners engaged in regional and long-distance voyaging, small landing points along the rugged Greek coasts offered life-saving shelter from storms and opportunities to take on water and other supplies. Already in the Bronze Age, skills in pilotage (using landmarks and seamarks) and navigation (using the sun and stars) were quite advanced (Agouridis 1997). These skills, along with detailed information on Aegean coasts and seas, formed a voyaging “template” shared and passed down among generations of seamen.

The harbors model, founded on geoarchaeological and landscape approaches to understanding prehistoric coastal adaptations in the Korinthia, proved quite successful in its aim to facilitate the discovery and investigation of prehistoric harbors. Notably, the model was able to identify and quantify parameters that appear to moderate the choices of prehistoric people in utilizing the landscape. In a semi-arid environment, these are to a considerable extent delimited by topographic and environmental considerations. Yet the model also proposes that cultural preferences generated inductively from available archaeological data - defensible position, proximity to wetlands, and proximity to contiguous land of usable slope - may help refine the search. Naturally, a host of other cultural choices, most of which cannot be modeled using current data sets, and many of which will never be known, shaped human landscape use in the Aegean Bronze Age. Only through intensive fieldwork may we expect to illuminate some of them.

The discovery of the harbors at Vayia and Cape Trelli, as well as smaller coves that may have been used as harbors, holds important implications for understanding the use of coastlines in the Aegean and elsewhere. The case of Cape Trelli demonstrates the value of a localized approach to geomorphological change that may reveal other lost harbors in this, or any, tectonically active part of the world. By restoring the configuration of the coastlines through time, we can begin to reconstitute the coastal worlds of the Aegean Bronze Age.


1 The chronology of the volcanic eruption that buried Akrotiri remains a complicated topic of debate among archaeologists and earth scientists. This situation is mainly the result of conflicting dates from two sources: radiocarbon dating of ice cores and archaeological layers containing ash disseminated by the eruption; and dating of ceramics and other materials in the affected layers according to traditional correlations with Egyptian pharaonic chronology. A range of plausible dates within each of these categories has confounded efforts, with the result that a rather wide range persists.

2 Funding for our work was provided by the Foundation for Exploration and Research on Cultural Origins, St. Cloud State University, McMaster University, and Oregon State University. Sedimentological and geomorphological studies were directed by Eduard Reinhardt and Jay Noller, respectively; we could not have succeeded without their fundamental contributions. We gratefully acknowledge our colleagues at the Institute for Geological and Minerals Exploration (IGME) in Athens for a series of permits from 1997 to 2001. The archaeological work took place in cooperation with the Eastern Korinthia Archaeology Survey (EKAS), co-directed by Timothy Gregory and Daniel Pullen. Lee Anderson provided invaluable assistance and untold hours in developing the GIS model.

3 The following is a simplified description of the model, the fieldwork, and our discoveries. For a more detailed account, see Rothaus et al. in press. The GIS model and all GIS images were generated using ArcView 3.2, © Environmental Research Systems, Inc.


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