Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Naval Base of Classical Athens

For 11 years, ending in 2012, Danish archaeologists investigated the Naval bases of classical Athens. Much of what remains is under water in the harbors of Mounichia and Zea, parts of the port of Piraeus. (Sea levels have risen a lot in the Mediterranean because of something called "isostatic rebound": the glaciers of the last Ice Age pushed the northern Europe down, tilting the whole continent and lifting up the southern edge; since the ice melted the north has been slowly rising, and the south sinking. There are also local effects due to earthquakes etc.)

Map of classical Piraeus showing the two fortified harbors of Zea and Mounichia.

Within the harbor of Mounichia, the archaeologists excavated six massive, well-preserved ship house foundations, and found traces of at least a dozen more. (See reconstruction at the top of the post.) The foundation walls were 1.4 meters thick (4.6 feet) and made of massive stones. The ship houses are nearly 50 meters long. The total area of the ship houses at Zea was around 55,000 square meters, or 13 acres. This was a massive operation; ancient Athens made war on a grand scale, at least at sea.

The Danes think the first slipways at Mounichia were built around 490 BCE, when Themistocles persuaded his fellow Athenians to invest the windfall of silver from the Laurion mines in a powerful fleet. The ship houses were built up gradually over the second half of the century.

In the Zea harbour the Danes mapped six platforms cut into the rock. These slope down to the sea and the archaeologists think they are uncovered slipways for warships. They are bigger than the early classical ship houses (8 meters wide or 26 feet) and they may be for the larger penteres (Latin quinqueremes) of the Hellenistic period. (Above, view of the divers at work in the busy, polluted modern harbor, where visibility was often only a few inches.)

I would love to read more about this, but in the archaic way of classical archaeologists these Danes are publishing their findings in fat books that cost $100 each, and their web site has next to nothing in the way of scholarly information. Grrrr. When I run the world, all archaeological publishing will be done on the web.

1 comment:

Dallas said...

The potential for exploitation of the scholarly process via the internet is the subject of an article in the most recent issue of "The New Yorker" on paleontologist Lee Berger. I am curious about any reaction you may have.