A muddy dig in the Corinthian coastal plain yields the remains of an ancient Greek city swallowed by the sea.
This article first appeared in a slightly different form in Archaeology, Volume 57, no. 1, January/February 2004.
It's 8:30 in the morning at Dora Katsonopoulou's house in Nikolaiika, Greece. Last night we made plans for me to follow her to the excavation site where the crew of her Helike Project is already at work. But when I knock on her door I find she has been on the phone all morning. “We're having some trouble,” she says.
A mile away, in a fifteen-foot deep pit, Project archaeologists have been uncovering an Early Bronze Age mansion. The pit is below the water table, and every night it floods with a foot and a half of water. But this morning the pump that empties it is stuck, and it couldn't have happened at a worse time. The Project's six-week excavation permits expire August 15, in just four days, and the team is poised to dig into a storeroom that, now underwater, is crowded with pots.
Katsonopoulou is a stylish woman with wavy red hair and the indomitable will of a general laying siege. For more than twenty years she has been in search of Helike, the lost Classical Greek city destroyed overnight by an earthquake and tidal wave in 373 BC. And in this campaign Katsonopoulou is both tactician and strategist, an archaeologist who digs in the dirt, lobbies for funds, and combs ancient texts for clues. Katsonopoulou has been eager to find Helike since she was a child, and where others have looked in vain, she and her partner Steven Soter, co-director of the Helike Project, have been closing in on its remains.
Yesterday, in what may be complex of third-century BC workshops, they found more than a dozen coins scattered across the pebbled floor, as if spilled by someone running in panic during the earthquake that brought down the building's roof.
Helike, lost to looters and archaeologists alike, has been called an undisturbed “time capsule” of daily life from the Golden Age of Greece, a hoard of temples, statues, and sanctuaries preserved in a layer of marine mud. Soter likens it to “a shipwreck the size of a city.”
Although the team has not yet found central Helike, they have unearthed not only Helike-era Classical ruins but much, much more. The Project has found that beneath the ground where Katsonopoulou and I are standing are at least four thousand years of ancient settlements, each in turn destroyed by earthquakes.
It is easy to see why this Peloponnesian shoreline twenty-six miles east of Patras has been prime real estate for so long. It's the largest river delta on the Gulf of Corinth, a flat, well-watered alluvial plain sheltered to the south by a wall of mountains and bordered to the north by the turquoise Gulf and its white, pebbled beach. The three small villages where the Project works - Eliki, Nikolaiika, and Rizomylos - are host to vineyards, olive groves, citrus orchards, and to thousands of Greeks who come to summer at the shore.
By the time I arrive at the pit the pump is working, and most of the pool that seeped overnight into the trench is gone. Nonetheless, the battle against the groundwater's constant trickle never ends. The crew slogs about in knee-high boots, soaking up the remaining water with sponges, scooping it up with their safety helmets, and hauling it to the surface in buckets. In the midst of the receding water are thick stone walls, the remains of the Bronze Age town that no one had suspected was here.
The pit is about thirty feet long and fifteen wide, cleanly scooped out alongside a vineyard by the huge orange backhoe that stands sentinel nearby. I scrounge up a pair of boots and gingerly let myself fifteen feet down the shaking ladder.
The fine grained mud is gray, thick, and sticky as cement. Stand still for too long and it grabs your feet in a grip strong enough pull your boots off when you step. The trick is to keep moving, to keep working, and never, ever fall.
In one corner, in a hollow beneath the high, tall wall, is a cache of ancient pots, a kitchen storeroom open to the air for the first time in four millennia. A huge amphora lies on its side among a crowd of smaller vessels like a mama sea turtle in a nest of babies. Maria Stephanopoulou is crouched down in front of them. Hatless, sharp-featured, natty in her orange hair, t-shirt, and lavender stretch pants, she is meticulously whittling away the mud from a pot the size and shape of a medicine ball. While she digs she talks on her cell phone, smokes, and directs the rest of the crew, putting her tools down only long enough to daub some white preservative on the pot. Beside her, an artist and an assistant measure the walls and draw them stone by stone, the workers shovel, scoop, and sponge, and, from time to time, Soter descends the ladder to keep an eye on things.
A stone's throw away is another trench, where Dimitris Paliaologos oversees the excavation of a swath of the coastal Roman road that Katsonopoulou and Soter have traced for more than a half a mile. Lending a hand are local residents and a handful of volunteers, mostly archaeology undergraduate students. About a dozen volunteers from the United States and Europe rotate through each summer; this week the talk in the trenches is a polyglot buzz of Greek, English, Portuguese, Italian, Albanian, and French.
By 9:30 the sun is murderously hot, and Katsonopoulou has taken up her position on a camp chair at the deep pit's edge, watching, calling down commands and questions. And through the day a steady stream of visitors drops by: townspeople, farmers, visiting archaeologists, workers from the Project's conservation lab who come to stare down into the pit like bettors at a sporting match.
Helike was an economic powerhouse that flourished for centuries. It was the seat of the Dodekapolis, the original twelve cities of the Achaean League, and, in the Iliad, Homer sang of its ships besieging Troy under Agamemnon's command. Its citizens built colonies at Sybaris in southern Italy and Priene on the Asia Minor coast, spreading the city's distinctive cult of Poseidon, god of earthquakes and the sea, to the frontiers of the Greek world.
It was only natural that Helike would be the center of a Poseidon cult, for this is one of the most active earthquake zones in Europe. The Gulf of Corinth's water fills a million-year old rift in the earth's crust, an east-west valley that grows wider by about half an inch a year. The rift's southern margin tilts and fractures into blocks that are pushed up and southward to build the Mountains of Achaea. The mountains form a near-continuous wall on the Gulf's southern shore, save where they are slashed by the Selinous, Kerynites, and Vouraikos rivers. The rivers carry silt and mountain rubble down to the gulf and dump it at the mountains' feet, building the fertile coastal plain that was once the ancient city's site. There are earthquake faults galore, chief among them the Helike Fault, which forms a visible crack between the mountain wall and the coastal plain. In 1993 Soter was out in the field when earthquakes set the trees swaying, and in 1995, in the middle of the digging season, a quake killed ten in the nearby town of Aigion, and leveled an Eliki hotel, killing sixteen. In 1861, eight miles of coastline dropped about six feet, and a two hundred yard wide coastal strip sank beneath the sea. The rivers' supply of stones and silt renews the vanishing delta: a house built on the beach in 1890s is now 1000 feet inland.
For five days, during the winter of 373 BC, wrote 3rd century Roman teacher Aelian, Helike citizens watched in amazement as beetles, snakes, mice, and “every other creature of that kind” fled the coastal city for higher ground. On the fifth night the earthquake struck, the coastal plain sank, and as the city crumbled the sea rushed in, and a towering wave struck, killing all. At dawn the next day two thousand men from neighboring cities rushed to the rescue, but found only the tips of the trees in Poseidon's sacred grove poking above the waves.
Over the following centuries chroniclers and poets including Pausanias and Ovid described the awful night and the haunting ruins still visible beneath the sea. Helike's fate is said to have inspired Plato's legend of Atlantis. And the Greek geographer Strabo described Eratosthenes' reports of the local ferrymen, who said the sacred bronze statue of Poseidon stood erect on the seafloor, holding in one hand a hippocamp - a beast half horse, half fish - that snared the nets of fishermen at work in the strait.
In time, the ruined city disappeared into the murk, but the story endured. “It's something that goes with the area,” says Katsonopoulou, who grew up in Aigion, a small town five miles to the west, where her parents farmed olive groves and vineyards. “It goes for generations, from father to daughter.” Her own father had an intense interest in local history, and “he was a source of inspiration, introducing me to the world of the ancients and its magic.” Entranced with the lost city's legend, Katsonopoulou studied archaeology at the University of Athens, established the Helike Society in 1982, and in 1985 enrolled in the classics department at Cornell University to pursue her doctorate.
Katsonopoulou's fluency in ancient Greek and her encyclopedic knowledge of the Classics astounded her professors, and her reputation reached the ear of Steven Soter, then a solar system researcher in Cornell's Department of Astronomy. Soter was already a devout Helike-phile: while investigating the link between earthquakes and the venting of subterranean gas, he had come across Aelian's report of Helike's animal exodus. He read more about Helike and was hooked.
“It was an improbable meeting of the two people in the world most obsessed by Helike,” says astronomer Soter, now 60. “It was too good to be true.” Soter is a tall, gentle, grey-haired man with a soft voice and a deliberate manner, and he, too, was someone of note. He had partnered with Carl Sagan as a co-writer and research chief of the landmark PBS series Cosmos, and when studying the planets and stars had gained a knowledge of physics and geology that Katsonopoulou needed. “We took our meeting as a good omen. She said `This means it's ready to be found.'”
They weren't the first to look for Helike. Famed Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos, who discovered the town of Akrotiri buried in volcanic ash on the Greek island of Santorini, spent more than twenty years searching the seafloor and adjacent shore, enlisting the aid first of Jacques Cousteau in the 1950s, and then MIT's Harold Edgerton, the inventor of the strobe light, ultra-high speed cameras, and seafloor-penetrating sonar.
In 1988, with Edgerton's guidance, Katsonopoulou, Soter, and oceanographer Paul Kronfield spent two weeks using sonar to probe the Gulf of Corinth's mud. “We decided to try once and for all to determine whether it was in the sea or not by doing a thorough survey,” Soter says. They examined three square miles of the ocean bottom. They discovered an earthquake fault, signs of an ancient harbor breakwater, and what may be the hulks of ten Spartan ships that foundered off Helike that fateful night. But they found no sign of the ancient city.
Soter and Katsonopoulou returned to the ancient texts for clues. “It's one thing to read the ancient sources in translation and another to be able to interpret them,” says Katsonopoulou. “If you cannot read ancient sources, you can't be a good archaeologist.” Pausanias, the second century Greek traveler, described the underwater Helike as 40 stadia (about 4 miles) from the town of Aigion, and 30 stadia, or 3 miles, from the Cave of the Oracle of Heracles, which looks out from a cliff face over the coastal plain. And Strabo said the city was twelve stadia from the sea, which suggests that the city may now be buried deep under dry land.
In 1991, the team began drilling boreholes and examined the extracted four-inch diameter cores. Fully half their holes hit pay dirt. Among the coastal strata they found layers containing bits of pottery, glass, chunks of tile, charcoal, and mortar-encrusted cobbles from ancient walls. These were occupation horizons of Byzantine, Roman, Hellenistic, Classical, Bronze Age, and Neolithic settlements. Over the next ten years they bored nearly a hundred holes in a square mile between the rivers. Soter raided his savings to pay for them.
In 1994 the Helike Project and geophysicists from the University of Patras made a magnetic survey near the present day town of Eliki. Buried objects disturb the earth's magnetic field, and in an olive grove their instruments detected a rectilinear outline beneath the ground. Shallow auger holes revealed Roman potsherds covering the tops of walls, four and a half feet down.
They dug the following summer and found a large Roman building. It had been occupied for generations, for within its six-foot high walls they found five distinct layers containing bones and olive pits, pottery, flooring, and eight bronze coins dating from the 3rd to the early 5th century AD. Atop them was a chilling layer of fallen stones, chunks of plaster, roof tiles, and bricks: earthquake debris. Above that, the occupation horizons end.
This was the first ancient structure ever unearthed in the Helike Delta, but, surprisingly, the Greek Archaeological Service would not give the Helike Project a permit to dig again for another five years.
But as they waited for the bureaucracy to act, the team kept drilling. They were surprised to find not only that the delta has been intermittently occupied for thousands of years, but that all but the most ancient settlements were above the present sea level. The coastline sinks repeatedly but is eventually pushed up again. Overall, Soter discovered, the delta is slowly rising. The Classical horizon, the strata of their long-sought city, was only six to twelve feet down.
In 1995, Katsonopoulou made another advance. She discerned that Strabo's description of the Poseidon statue had been misinterpreted. The ferrymen who reported the statue had not been transporting passengers between populous shorelines on the Gulf, but must have been crossing a large lagoon on the sparsely populated, earthquake-ravaged delta. The sanctuary may have succumbed to the sea, but when found, she predicted, it would lie under the mud of a vanished lagoon.
In 2000, their permit finally in hand, they launched three successive seasons of discovery. With a series of trenches spaced over half a mile, they unveiled the principal Roman coastal road. Remarkably well-preserved, the twenty-foot wide way runs straight as an arrow northwest to southeast; the team is almost certain that Pausanias traveled this road in the 2nd century AD when he viewed the submerged city. They also excavated part of a large 4th century AD Roman compound. This, too, was an earthquake ruin, its walls collapsed, its roof fallen, its rubble burying a crushed human skeleton atop the skull of a large horned animal.
In 2001 they found evidence of Classical Helike at last. Not far from the Roman road, twelve feet deep, was an outlying enclave of the city - a stone building, its walls collapsed shoreward as if leveled by a giant wave sloshing back toward the sea. The trench yielded black-glazed cups, a small painted terracotta head, and a mint silver coin from Sikyon, a neighboring town, cast, experts say, no more than a few decades before the 373 BC earthquake. The ruins were smothered in a thick layer of fine dark clay; analyses of the microscopic organisms preserved in the layer proved it was indeed deposited in brackish water - the ruins had been drowned in a lagoon, just as Katsonopoulou had predicted.
In 1998, a boring in a vineyard in the town of Rizomylos had brought up a core with a layer from ten to twenty feet below ground stuffed with pottery fragments and bones, some charred by fire. In 2000 they dug a trench nearby and found massive, collapsed walls and more scorched sherds, but without complete pots. Based on the walls' depth and appearance, they suspected the site dated from the pre-Classical Archaic period. But without complete pots, they could not be sure. “We didn't know what it was,” Soter says. “We only had plain fragments, and we couldn't recognize them.”
In 2001 they sank more trenches and discovered structures flanking a cobbled street. Inside, intact, were clay storage jars, footed cups, and kraters. “I walked over to the trench and looked down at Dora and she looked up at me and said `Steven, these pots are prehistoric.' She was completely amazed. We were all amazed.”
The ceramics dated the findings to the Early Bronze Age, about 2600-2300 BC, the Early Helladic II-IIIA period, to be precise. Undisturbed by subsequent building or excavations, it is, Soter says, one of the most important prehistoric sites in the Peloponnesus. “We know very little about this period. We're not even sure that these people spoke Greek.”
Katsonopoulou is convinced it was a regional center, for it was home to wealthy, if not royal owners. The team found gold and silver clothing ornaments, as well as a distinctive two-handled depas amphikypellon cup,the first of its kind found on the Peloponnesus and of a type that Heinrich Schliemann first unearthed at Troy and associated with Trojan nobility. And, as befits the Helike Delta, catastrophe is evident: the long walls of one building dip toward the sea and take a sudden jog, as if they slid out of line atop an earthquake fault.
The Project, however, quickly became a victim of its own success. The landowner, seeing the rich haul, refused the team permission to dig in 2002. In response, Soter and some friends organized the Helike Foundation, based in New York, and raised funds from private individuals to buy the narrow third-of-an-acre strip where work is now taking place. The US-based Institute for Aegean Prehistory also contributed funds for the 2003 excavation season.
In mid-afternoon Maria puts down her knife - the ancient pot is free. Still filled with heavy mud, it is hustled to the backhoe's scoop, hoisted to the surface, then sits in the sun as Katsonopoulou examines it, beaming. For a few minutes work in both trenches comes to a stop as the elated crews drop their tools and gather to inspect the trophy. Then Katsonopoulou slips it into protective plastic and chauffeurs it to the conservation lab in her SUV.
In the last three years the Helike Project has dug nearly seventy trenches and has made astonishing discoveries. Still, the project faces intense challenges.
The Greek Railways Organization intends to lay new track right through the excavation area, and as more and more Athenians buy homes along the coast, development devours the open fields where the Project hopes to dig. Katsonopoulou has petitioned the Greek Ministry of Culture to declare the area an archaeological zone off-limits to new construction, but such a move, if it comes at all, may be far in the future. Meanwhile, the World Monuments Fund has included Helike in its “List of 100 Most Endangered Sites.”
Katsonopoulou and Soter are energetic advocates for their cause. In the off season, they spread the word at conferences and lectures. In Greece, Katsonopoulou's work in the coastal towns has made her a local celebrity: at the beach taverna where Soter and I ate at the end of the day, people who heard us speaking English would turn from their tables to ask if we were part of her team.
And Katsonopoulou works hard to win the support of the establishment. The Eliki village president, Yiannis Asimakopoulos, is an enthusiastic supporter, and he lets the Project use the village community center as a conservation laboratory and mini-museum. A few hours after the pot has been removed, I join the Project team there. Tonight a senator and the provincial governor are visiting, each with an entourage of aides, and Katsonopoulou is passionately describing Helike's important place in the local heritage.
The new trophy is sitting unnoticed in a bucket under a table, but there are plenty of other treasures on display: coins, jewelry, pottery, skulls. As the sun sets, we caravan to the excavation sites, then move to the Eliki village central square where Katsonopoulou, Soter, and their crew schmooze the pols over ouzo and souvlaki. The moon rises, the clock ticks toward midnight, and most of the crew and politicians take their leave. But as Dimitri and Maria struggle to stay awake, Soter and Katsonopoulou soldier on with the president.
I soon depart myself. As I climb exhausted into the car, I'm amazed at their stamina, but then I remember Katsonopoulou's joyful words that afternoon when, still riding high on the adrenaline of discovery, she returned to the trench after taking the pot to the lab: “This is an amazing day.”
Copyright © 2004 Tom Gidwitz