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Race is on to preserve “oldest submerged town”

May 14, 2009
Courtesy University of Nottingham
and World Science staff

A site that archaeologists call the world’s old­est sub­merged town may be about to give up its se­crets — with the help of equip­ment that could rev­o­lu­tion­ize un­der­wa­ter ar­chae­o­lo­gy, re­search­ers say.

The an­cient town of Pavlopetri lies in three to four me­tres (yards) of wa­ter just off the coast of south­ern La­co­nia in Greece. The ru­ins date from at least 2800 B.C. to about 1180 B.C., re­search­ers say. 

The lat­ter part of this era forms part of a Bronze Age phase that was the set­ting for much An­cient Greek lite­rature and myth, in­clud­ing Homer’s sagas re­count­ing tales from a le­gend­ary age of he­roes.

Under­wa­ter ar­chae­o­lo­g­ist Jon Hen­der­son of The Uni­ver­s­ity of Not­ting­ham, U.K., is to be the first ar­chae­o­lo­g­ist to have of­fi­cial ac­cess to the site in 40 years. De­spite its po­ten­tial in­terna­t­ional im­por­tance no work has been car­ried out at the site since it was first mapped in 1968, said Hen­der­son, who ob­tained spe­cial per­mis­sion from the Greek gov­ern­ment to study the site.

The town was part of My­ce­nae­an Greece, an ar­ea of Greek civ­il­iz­a­tion tak­ing its name from the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site and city of My­ce­nae. Al­though My­ce­nae­an pow­er was largely based on con­trol of the sea, lit­tle is known about the work­ings of the har­bour towns of the per­i­od as ar­chae­o­lo­gy to date has fo­cused on the bet­ter known in­land palaces and citadels, ac­cord­ing to Hen­der­son. 

Pavlopetri was pre­sumably once a thriv­ing har­bour town where the in­hab­i­tants con­ducted lo­cal and long dis­tance trade through­out the Med­i­ter­ra­nean — its sandy and well-pro­tect­ed bay would have been ide­al for beach­ing Bronze Age ships. As such the site of­fers ma­jor new in­sights in­to the work­ings of My­ce­nae­an so­ci­e­ty, Hen­der­son said.

His proj­ect aims to dis­cov­er the his­to­ry and de­vel­op­ment of Pavlo­petri, find out when it was oc­cu­pied, what it was used for and through a sys­tem­at­ic study to es­tab­lish why the town van­ished un­der the sea. “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,” said Hen­der­son.

The sub­merged structures lie just off a sandy stretch of beach close to an ar­ea pop­u­lar with hol­i­day mak­ers and campers. Un­der threat from tour­ism and in­dus­try the re­mains are be­ing dam­aged by boats drag­ging their an­chors, in­quis­i­tive snorkel­ers on the hunt for sou­venirs and the growth of ma­rine or­gan­isms which are al­so tak­ing their toll, de­grad­ing the frag­ile 3,500 year old walls.

Hen­derson and his team plan four an­nu­al study sea­sons. This May and June the team will car­ry out a full un­der­wa­ter sur­vey. Be­tween 2010 and 2012 un­der­wa­ter ex­cava­t­ions are sched­uled, and find­ings are to be pub­lished in 2014.

The sur­vey, in col­la­bora­t­ion with Elias Spondylis of the Eph­or­ate of Un­der­wa­ter An­ti­qu­i­ties of the Hel­len­ic Min­is­try of Cul­ture, will be car­ried out us­ing equip­ment orig­i­nally de­vel­oped for the mil­i­tary and off­shore oil­field mar­ket but that re­search­ers say could trans­form un­der­wa­ter ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sur­vey and re­cord­ing.

Hen­der­son and his team in­tend to car­ry out a sur­vey us­ing an acous­tic scan­ner that pro­duces photo-realistic, three-di­men­sion­al dig­it­al sur­veys of seabed fea­tures and un­der­wa­ter struc­tures to sub-millimetre ac­cu­ra­cy in min­utes.


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The oldest submerged town in the world is about to give up its secrets — with the help of equipment that could revolutionise underwater archaeology, researchers say. The ancient town of Pavlopetri lies in three to four metres (yards) of water just off the coast of southern Laconia in Greece. The ruins date from at least 2800 B.C. to about 1180 B.C., researchers say. The latter part of this era forms part of a Bronze Age phase that was the setting for much Ancient Greek literature and myth, including Homer’s sagas. Underwater archaeologist Jon Henderson of The University of Nottingham, U.K., is to be the first archaeologist to have official access to the site in 40 years. Despite its potential international importance no work has been carried out at the site since it was first mapped in 1968, said Henderson, who obtained special permission from the Greek government to study the site. The town was part of Mycenaean Greece, an area of Greek civilization taking its name from the archaeological site and city of Mycenae. Although Mycenaean power was largely based on control of the sea, little is known about the workings of the harbour towns of the period as archaeology to date has focused on the better known inland palaces and citadels, according to Henderson. Pavlopetri was presumably once a thriving harbour town where the inhabitants conducted local and long distance trade throughout the Mediterranean — its sandy and well-protected bay would have been ideal for beaching Bronze Age ships. As such the site offers major new insights into the workings of Mycenaean society, Henderson said. His project aims to discover the history and development of Pavlopetri, find out when it was occupied, what it was used for and through a systematic study to establish why the town vanished under the sea. “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,” said Henderson. The submerged buildings, courtyards, streets, tombs and graves, lie just off a sandy stretch of beach close to an area popular with holiday makers and campers. Under threat from tourism and industry the remains are being damaged by boats dragging their anchors, inquisitive snorkelers on the hunt for souvenirs and the growth of marine organisms which are also taking their toll degrading the fragile 3,500 year old walls. Henderon and his team plan four annual fieldwork seasons are planned. This May and June the team will carry out a full underwater survey. Between 2010 and 2012 there will be three seasons of underwater excavations, and findings are to be published in 2014. The survey, in collaboration with Elias Spondylis of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, will be carried out using equipment originally developed for the military and offshore oilfield market but that researchers say could transform underwater archaeological survey and recording. Henderson and his team intend to carry out a detailed millimeter accurate digital underwater survey of the site using an acoustic scanner that produces photo-realistic, three dimensional digital surveys of seabed features and underwater structures to sub-millimetre accuracy in minutes.