Managing Greece's Underwater Archaeological Heritage

Angeliki G. Simosi

Cite this as: Simosi, A.G. 2018 Managing Greece's Underwater Archaeological Heritage, Internet Archaeology 49.

1. Introduction

The Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities is a Special Regional Service of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, with jurisdiction all around Greece, aiming to protect and promote the Underwater Cultural Heritage of our country. Its mission is to locate, excavate, study and register settlements that are submerged due to tectonic phenomena or a rise in sea level, sunken ancient ports, which in many cases have been used as foundations of contemporary port constructions, ancient and more recent shipwrecks, and airplanes, 50 years after their sinking. The Greek seabed holds an enormous wealth of antiquities that make it the biggest underwater museum in the world. The Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities constantly organises surveys in order to ensure coverage and fufil its mission. The service's name (EUA) means that it surveys everything that lies in the sea area (αλς, αλοσ means sea in Greek). Since 1976, when it was founded, the Ephorate has undertaken rich excavations in all the areas of its activities, but not everything has been excavated, recorded, researched and archived with the same intensity.

2. Examples of underwater archaeological sites

a. The Antikythera shipwreck

This shipwreck was discovered in 1900 by sponge divers from Symi Island. The salvage of important marble and bronze statues continued in 1901. Today, these statues are housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Along with the statues, the famous mechanism of Antikythera also came to light, a unique artefact, still not fully understood. In 1976, research was continued by the French captain J-Y. Cousteau and the first excavation trench was opened at a depth of 55 metres, using some pioneering technical equipment of that time (the self-contained breathing apparatus and the famous submersible 'Soucoupe'). This research was a landmark for the history of Underwater Archaeology and continues today. Since 2013, underwater archaeological research has been conducted at the site of the shipwreck with the technological assistance of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution of Massachusetts. The entire site of the shipwreck was digitally mapped and excavation trenches were opened at a depth of 55 metres and a second shipwreck was discovered 250 metres away from the first one. Some recent discoveries such as e.g. a spear belonging to a marble or bronze statue, are similar to the older findings, while the human skeleton found in 2016 on Antikythera was characterised as one of the most important findings for that year.

b. Fournoi

For the past two years the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities has conducted underwater archaeological research at the Fournoi Islands in the East Aegean Sea with the support of the RPM Nautical Foundation. To date, archaeologists have discovered 45 shipwrecks. The purpose of this research is to locate, register, document and study the ancient and medieval shipwrecks on the cluster of islands of Fournoi, which make the archipelago bearing the same name (Fournoi) a 'crossroad' of history. Two reasons lie at the base of this research. First its geographical position and morphology with numerous lee harbours making the islands very popular with ancient seafarers. Secondly, the archipelago lies in a crucial position on the north-south route from Rhodes to Lesvos and from Syropalaisitni to the Black Sea.

c. Delos

The island of Delos at the centre of the Aegean Sea played a significant role in antiquity as a trading centre. This is why the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, in collaboration with the French School in Athens, has carried out projects to locate the ancient harbours of the island and its shipwrecks. The purpose of this survey was to redefine and map the remains lying on the north-eastern side of Delos, specifically in the marine area of the 'Stadium quarter'. This research on Delos Island confirmed the use of a commercial harbour at the 'Stadium quarter' and the location of seven shipwrecks dating to different periods in the area.

d. Lechaion

Lechaion was one of the two harbours of ancient Corinth which faced west to the Corinthian Gulf while Cenchreae faced the Saronic Gulf. Lechaion is located about 3 kilometres away from the ancient city. It was undoubtedly the most significant centre of development during the different peak phases of Corinth. The purpose of this research is to study and promote this ancient harbour, which had a key role in the long historical development of the ancient city. The Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities has collaborated with the Danish Institute at Athens on the Lechaion Harbour Project for the past four years. The harbour, which had both a commercial and a naval role, was entirely artificial. Stone piers, jetties, breakwaters and ramps of a total length of 7 kilometres were constructed. Moreover, a large number of storage rooms and other port facilities were created to serve the trade to and from the colonies of Corinth. On the southwest side there was a huge number of shipbuilding facilities where triremes (a type of galley) were built. In this way, Corinth was the first naval war industry. The harbour of Lechaion was in constant use from the 7th century B.C. until 1955.

e. Franchthi — Khilada Bay, Argolic Gulf

Franchthi cave on the north shore of Khilada Bay and very close to the sea has a length of about 150 metres. It was inhabited from the end of the Palaeolithic until the end of the Neolithic period, at which point the residents of this cave moved to the north and inhabited today's area called 'Lampagiannas'. Underwater research, with the collaboration of the Swiss School of Archaeology in Greece, focused on Lampagiannas beach where a sunken settlement of more than 20,000 square feet was discovered, lying at a depth of one to three metres. It is a fortified prehistoric settlement of the 3rd millennium BC, located along the shore. Archaeologists have located a wall and at least two horse-shoe shaped foundations, similar to the site of Lerna. The pottery dates the settlements to Proto-Helladic II period. The purpose of this excavation is to add this settlement to the large inventory of settlements of the 3rd millennium BC observed in this particular area of the Argolic Gulf.

f. Mentor

The ship Mentor that Lord Elgin used to transfer the marbles from the Parthenon, sailed southwest of Kythera Island. Its destination was Malta and from there, the precious cargo would be transported to England. The ship encountered strong winds, hit the rocks and sank at Kythera. The immeasurable treasure of the Acropolis with the Parthenon sculptures ended on the bottom of the sea. Recent research, organised by the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, has taken place in the last few years, looking for any remaining marbles but these appear to have all been lifted. What we understand from these discoveries is that alongside the sculptures, other antiquities were on also on board, which may also have been collected by the crew of Lord Elgin.

The underwater archaeological sites that were chosen to be investigated by our Ephorate recently and presented here, provide good examples of how decisions are made in the Service and how we prioritise our choices, depending on the historical importance of finds.

3. Conservation

The conservation of underwater finds differs from those on land and requires different laboratory infrastructure. Conservation is a necessary procedure, although often time-consuming and expensive. Without it, valuable archaeological material would be totally lost and all the information that it carries would perish. The purpose of these applied interventions is to protect an object, to avoid further damage by slowing down or stopping factors and mechanisms that cause decay and to preserve the original material as much as possible.

Due to the sensitive nature of underwater artefacts, the application of the correct conservation procedures from the first moment of their salvage is of primary importance. This conservation work requires particular knowledge, attention to detail and a lot of patience. The objects need to be kept wet from the time of discovery until they enter the desalination tanks. Desalination is one of the most important and at the same time one of the most time-consuming procedures applied to underwater finds. This stage takes at least a year. Usually some cleaning is carried out at the same time. However, the time they will remain in these tanks depends on the material, the size and the type of accretion.

4. Communication and funding

The Department of Archaeological Work, Documentation, Publication and Archive has made large efforts to digitise the underwater antiquities, in order to protect and preserve this valuable archival material and to offer information to the larger public, through modern means of communication. However, financially speaking the Ministry of Culture and Sports cannot strongly support our Service. Underwater archaeological research is particularly time- and financially-consuming. That is why huge efforts are made in order to be funded by other sources. The cost is balanced when the Ephorate collaborates with foreign archaeological Schools and foreign and Greek Universities. Nevertheless the Ephorate's participation is amplified by the spirit of its specialised staff and the existence of specialised diving and mechanical equipment and vessels.

The Ephorate often accepts financial support from Greek and foreign sponsors, who are interested in the promotion of Underwater Archaeological Heritage. The construction of the New Conservation Laboratories of the Ephorate, completed with the kind support of the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, is a prime example. In addition, two conferences by our Ephorate took place in the Acropolis Museum during 2014 and 2016 thanks to the support of respectively the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation and the Costa Nanarino Company. Nevertheless, the biggest support is given for carrying out underwater archaeological research of the world-renowned shipwreck at Antikythera Island. This research is funded by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and is supported by Hublot, Swordspoint Foundation, Autodesk and by other Woods Hole's sponsors, by Costa Navarino, OTE-COSMOTE and by the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation. For the past three years the archaeological excavation has focused on a depth of 55 metres. At this depth, the diving conditions are different since technical diving is required ensuring thus that the diver can stay longer at the bottom of the sea and under safe circumstances. Moreover, technical diving requires specialised training and so given these factors, the overall cost is very high.

In addition to the training of Greek divers and the use of the underwater robot Exosuit at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, this Institution's contribution was also important as it provided through the Hublot company AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicles) advanced machines for scanning the seabed in order to locate and register shipwrecks. The assistance of Foreign Archaeological Schools in Greece was also valuable.

5. Transparency of choices

The transparency of our choices is ensured by the consultation with the executive members of the Ministry of Culture and Sports for conducting research, until the Minister gives the final approval. In addition, a cooperation protocol is signed by both institutions for each research, i.e. between the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, which always maintains the right to direct the project, and the other institution. After the underwater projects have been completed, scientific reports are drawn up, signed by both sides, and are submitted to the competent committees of the Ministry of Culture and Sports, in order to examine the results and to approve (or not) the continuance of the research for the next year. At the end of each survey, a press release is sent to the Ministry, containing the results of the mission. It is approved in order to be uploaded to our Ministry's website and published on internet and in the press.

The selection of the investigation areas depends exclusively on the records of shipwrecks, buildings and ancient harbours that have been created since the foundation of the Ephorate. However, quite often, citizens, mostly old sponge men or fishermen, who have scoured the Greek seas, are aware of underwater sites and they want to report them. Finally the experience of the people of our Ephorate, especially the older ones, is highly important. The latter have, in the past, conducted a plethora of underwater surveys all around Greece in order to grant permission or not for the construction of modern ports and other underwater facilities. For example, on Skiathos Island, a part of the modern harbour was built on top of the ancient harbour, before the establishment of the Ephorate. This information became known via an older survey and this is why today an underwater excavation is being carried out in cooperation with Oxford University.

6. Conclusion

The dissemination of knowledge of the underwater cultural heritage of our country is the primary goal of the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities. For this reason, the numerous finds, which are stored in our facilities, should be exhibited at a National Museum of Underwater Antiquities, whose foundation is in progress. At the same time, accessible underwater archaeological sites, the so-called underwater museums, must continue to operate. Efforts have already started in some sea areas of Greece, which contain important underwater antiquities. These areas have been excavated and the results of this research has already been published.

The long-term consequences of all these actions can only be positive and will rank us in a high position among the other countries of Europe managing underwater cultural heritage. Although Greece has still not validated the Unesco Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, the principles governing this convention have been applied in our country and a working group, set up to validate this Convention for Greece, has decided that all the conditions for the validation of the Convention are fulfilled.


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