A Brief History of Underwater Archaeology in Greece

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Κατσαμπής, Αλέξιος.

‘Chapter II: A Brief History of Underwater Archaeology in Greece’ B.A. Dissertation The Pursuit of Underwater Archaeology in Greece: Past, Present and Future. Πανεπιστήμιο του Birmingham, Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity, 2003.

The possibilities of underwater archaeology in Greece were appreciated rather
early by Greek archaeologists. In 1884 Keeper of Antiquities Christos Tsoudas, with
the help of sponge divers, concluded the first systematic underwater survey in the
strait between the island of Salamis and Attica1. Yet it was not archaeologists that
raised some of the Ancient World’s few surviving masterpieces; it was ordinary
fishermen and sponge divers. Some of these works of art include the Poseidon of
Kreusis found in the Gulf of Corinth (1889), the Boy or Ephebe of Marathon (1925)
extricated by Evangelos Leonidas from his fishing nets, the Poseidon (or Zeus) and
the Jockey of Cape Artemision (1928).2 Nevertheless, the field of underwater
archaeology continued to develop in Greece over the past century and finally reached
the stage in 1996 where Nikos Tsouchlos, then director of the Hellenic Institute of
Marine Archaeology (HIMA), could state that ‘in Greece underwater archaeology has
now finally established its place in the archaeological field.’3
In 1900, Symiote sponge divers returning from North Africa accidentally
discovered the Antikythera wreck, which dates back to about 80 BC.4 This was the
first cargo of an ancient ship for which a deliberate attempt was made to salvage the
objects, and the first time a government sponsored an underwater archaeological
expedition.5 The difficulties early archaeologists encountered, however, when dealing
with shipwreck sites made them turn to harbour surveys, which were easier to
complete. As a result, harbour studies such as the ones conducted by P. Negris (1903),
A. Georgiades (1907), J. Paris (1915-1916), and S. Marinatos, have been a small, but
consistently examined aspect of Greek archaeology ever since.6 7
It was not until World War II (1943) that the revolutionary invention of the
Aqualung by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emile Gagnan offered archaeologists the
1 Agouridis (1997), 181.
2 Agouridis (1997), 181; Chabert (1972), 169.
3 Tsouchlos (1995).
4 Agouridis (1997), 181.
5 Blot (1996), 31
6 Agouridis (1997), 181.
7 It is estimated that the sea level in Greek waters has risen approximately 3-4m since the Classical
Period. However, this must not be viewed as a uniform rise because other natural phenomena (such as
tectonics, sliding of the continental sea shelf, subsidence of land due to the weight of sedimentary
formations) can drastically modify this pattern. As a result, two decades ago, there were already nearly
300 known locations concealing underwater archaeological remains; Kριτζάς (1978), 416; Tzalas
(2002), 62.
opportunity to investigate sunken ships and submerged sites for themselves. Hence,
after the war, there was a significant increase in the number of expeditions undertaken
by Greek and foreign scientists. It was off Greek shores that diving started under the
auspices of the French School of Archaeology in Athens. 8 Its teams, taking advantage
of the new techniques that had been developed during the war, surveyed areas in the
Bay of Marathon where they raised anchors and ceramics. Around the same time, the
British School of Archaeology explored the sea of Chios (1954) and Crete (1958).
The port town of Knossos, Kaeratos, the Venetian port of Heraklio, and several other
sites were also surveyed. The next year, the first Greek archaeologist-diver, Nikos
Yalouris, explored the seabed of Katakolou where the remains of ancient Pheia are
located. 9
In the beginning of the 1960s an expedition set out to survey the Bay of
Navarino under the supervision of another pioneer of underwater archaeology,
Yiorgos Papathanasopoulos, working in cooperation with the Hellenic Association of
Underwater Activities and Edwin Link. Meanwhile, the American reporter-diver Peter
Throckmorton, already well-known for his work elsewhere, began working in Greece.
He performed surveys in Methoni and in Porto-Luogo Bay of the neighbouring island
Sapienza. Towards the end of the 1960s an American expedition headed by Robert
Scranton successfully surveyed the Corinthian port of Kehrai10, while J. Show studied
a structure in the internal part of the other Corinthian port of Lehraion. During the
same decade, British archaeologists explored the sunken remains of a prehistoric
settlement at Pavlopetri in Lakonia. Finally, the University of Pennsylvania began a
large-scale survey at Porto Cheli of Ermionida, exploring the remains of the ancient
city Halieis and a temple dedicated of Apollo belonging to it.11
The 1970s marked a very important turning point in the development of Greek
underwater archaeology. The Archaeological Service, under the pressure of extensive
illicit trade in antiquities, began to regard underwater archaeological research more
seriously. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Nikos Yalouris, then General
8 Chabert (1972), 169.
9 Kριτζάς (1978), 418.
10 Apart from numerous structures and a temple dedicated to Isis, the expedition proceeded in
uncovering a plethora of ancient treasures, including about three hundred stained glass paintings;
Kριτζάς (1978), 420
11 Kριτζάς (1978), 419-421.
Director of Antiquities, personally encouraged young archaeologists to learn how to
dive and work underwater.12 In 1970 ceramics looted from a Byzantine shipwreck in
the Bay of St. Peter near the island of Pelagonisi appeared in foreign museums. This
prompted the first systematic rescue excavation of a shipwreck in Greece13 under the
supervision of Peter Thockmorton and Katerina Romiopoulou, (who was later
replaced by Charalambos Kritzas)14. In 1971 two investigative sonar surveys were
conducted on the seafloor near Aegio in an effort to locate the ancient city of Eliki
(which was engulfed by the sea after an earthquake in 373BC). In both cases the
efforts did not bring substantial results.15
One of the most important developments however, came a few years later,
when the first specialised institution dealing with underwater archaeology was
founded; in August 1973 the Hellenic Institute of Marine Archaeology (HIMA) was
established as a non-profitable, scientific and technical body. It was rapidly flanked
by amateur divers and members of other specialities, and Y. Papathanasopoulos was
elected president. Subsidized by the Ministry of Culture and Science, its stated
purpose was the development of underwater archaeological research in Greece with
the assistance of the Greek Archaeological Service, with which it cooperated
closely.16 According to Nikos Tsouchlos, until recently the director of HIMA, perhaps
the most important contribution of the Institute was the impetus its establishment
provided for the creation of an Ephorate dealing with underwater archaeology.
Indeed, only a few years later in October 1976, the Ephorate of Underwater
Antiquities was founded.17 Consequently, the Archaeological Service acquired for the
first time a medium for the planning and co-ordination of underwater research.18
Almost at the same time, in November 1975, the most important and
influential figure in underwater exploration, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, came to Greece
at the invitation of the Greek National Tourism Organization (EOT). Under the coordination
of Y. Papathanasopoulos, Cousteau’s team and a team of young Greek
12 Agouridis (1997), 181.
13 Agouridis (1997), 181.
14 Kριτζάς (1978), 421.
15 Vichos (1993), 9.
16 Κριτζάς (1978), 423.
17 The Ephorate’s first Ephore was Y.Papathanasopoulos.
18 Κριτζάς (1978), 424.
archaeologists participated in numerous projects of varying scale and importance. An
effort was made to locate the position of the Artemision wreck. In the straits between
Kea and Makronissos the wreck of the Britannic, a hospital ship torpedoed during
WWI (and also the largest wreck in the world), was located and examined. A
systematic survey was conducted in Navarino Bay where in addition to a Hellenistic
ship, many wrecks of the homonymous battle were located. The programme included
a brief expedition aimed at locating Eliki but the survey only confirmed earlier
negative results. With the use of a bathescope, the caldera of the volcano of Santorini
was explored, along with the area of the sea in front of Marinatos’ Akrotiri
excavation, but no archaeological remains were found. A systematic survey of the
majority of the Cretan coastline was undertaken and an immense number of
underwater antiquities and ancient shipwrecks were located. Finally, there was a
highly successful systematic survey conducted at the site of the Antikythera wreck, as
with the aid of the bathescope archaeologists were able to reach the depth of the
wreck (62m.).19
During the same pivotal decade, underwater archaeology expanded past the
limits of the sea. Exploration spread to lakes, with Marinatos exploring the Lake of
Kastoria and Spyropoulos exploring Paralimni, as well as caves, with
Papathanasopoulos exploring the the prehistoric cave of Diros in Mani, discovering
stalagmites at the bottom thus proving that the lakes were once dry.20
Since the 1980s the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities has been engaged in
many surveys and excavations. Ancient harbours such as those of Samos, Naxos,
Thasos, Toroni, and Phalasarna have been investigated, some as collaborative projects
with foreign institutions. Highlights of the period include the excavations by
Delaporta and Spondylis of the Early Bronze Age settlement of Platygiali in Western
Greece, the wreck of Louis XIV’s flagship La Thérèse (Lianos 1989), and the post-
Byzantine wreck found off the island of Zakynthos (Delaporta and Bound 1997).21
Perhaps the most important discovery to date is a 425-400 BC large merchant vessel
19 There was a detailed examination of the surrounding seabed and among the various artefacts
collected (ex. pottery, pieces of bronze and marble statues, woodplanks), there were two very fine
bronze figurines and the head of a third one, fine gold jewellery with precious stones, as well as a series
of scientifically important silver coins of Pergamos, which confirmed the dating of the wreck to
approx. 80 BC and provided a clue as to the origin of the ship; Kριτζάς (1978), 424-427.
20 Kριτζάς (1978), 423.
21 Agouridis (1997), 181.
found northeast of the island of Alonnesos. The site began to be excavated under the
direction of Dr Elpida Hatzidaki in August 1992. It was the largest underwater project
the Ephorate had conducted in its history and it was also the first wreck of the
Classical Period to be excavated in Greece. Yet what may be most noteworthy is that
it is the largest known ship of its period in the world that is being scientifically
studied. The find overturns several theories concerning ancient shipbuilding and the
economic history of the 5th century BC. Another classical wreck has also been under
excavation by the Ephorate in nearby waters since 1994.22
Meanwhile, over the same time period, HIMA has also undertaken several
significant projects. Among them, the most important are the ones at Dokos (1988-
1992), at Cape Iria (1991-1994), and at Kythira (1993-1997).23 The Early Helladic
shipwreck of Dokos, sometimes cited as the earliest known wreck, was the first
systematic full-scale investigation of an ancient shipwreck to be conducted in
Greece.24 The rich ceramic finds (raised among 10,000 objects) dating to the Early
Helladic II period are judged to be particularly important both for their large size and
type variety, and also in that they constitute the largest closed group of Early Helladic
ceramic ware found to date in the Aegean.25 Two years later in 1990, HIMA, under
the direction of archaeologist Haralambos Pennas, began exploring a site previously
noted by Haralambos Kritzas, Nikos Tsouchlos, and Peter Throckmorton. The
relatively small wreck at Cape Iria appears to have been carrying a mixed cargo of
Cypriot and Mycenaean vessels dating to about 1200 BC. Finally, the Kythira
excavation, or what should more properly be called the Antidragonera excavation
(which is a small islet off the southern coast of Kythera), began in 1993 and has since
recovered numerous finds amongst which are nine wedge shaped stone anchors
almost identical in form, the first time such a number have been found in situ at a
single location. Available information suggests that the sunken vessel was part of a
4th century BC convoy, the other members of which managed to escape during a
sudden storm which forced them to cut their anchors and set sail.26
22 Agouridis (1997), 182.
23 Agouridis (1997), 182.
24 Vichos (1993), 11.
25 Vichos (1993), 25.
26 Kourkoumelis (1998).
From this brief and hence limited history of the development of underwater
archaeology in Greece, the cultural wealth lying within the Greek seas can be easily
ascertained. The first government sponsored underwater archaeology survey and
expedition, very early use of the aqualung for archaeological purposes, as well as
possibly the oldest known shipwreck in the world, are notable highlights in the story
of the field. However, despite its noteworthy accomplishments, developments in this
sector of archaeology have been slow and erratic. As will be examined in the
following chapters, even today several issues hinder the advancement of the field.
Nevertheless, if the current difficulties are overcome, and eventually they will be, the
future looks promising. As demonstrated by the new law on cultural heritage
discussed in the next section, underwater archaeology has now firmly established its
position in the country.
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James P. Delgado (Ed.), British Museum Press, London, 1997.
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Chabert, Jean. ‘The Archéonaute’ in Underwater Archaeology: A Nascent Discipline,
UNESCO, Paris, 1972.
Kourkoumelis, D., ‘4rth century B.C. Shipwreck near Cythera Island’
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Tzallas H. during his presentation ‘Hellenic Institute for the Preservation of the
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Greece’ B.A. Dissertation The Pursuit of Underwater Archaeology in Greece: Past,
Present and Future. University of Birmingham, Institute for Archaeology and
Antiquity, 2003.