Uncovering Athens’ Ancient Harbour: The Zea Harbour Project Interview

The Zea Harbour Project (ZHP) is a combined land and underwater archaeological investigation of the ancient harbours of Zea and Mounichia in the Piraeus (Athens’ harbour city) in Greece. Launched in 2002 under the auspices of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, the 26th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities (until 2009) and the Danish Institute at Athens, ZHP’s mission is to survey, excavate, and publish the archaeological remains of the ancient naval bases of the Piraeus. The Carlsberg Foundation has funded the project since 2004.

In this interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks with Dr. Bjørn Lovén, Associate Fellow in Maritime Archaeology at the University of Southern Denmark, and director of the ZHP.

JW: Dear Dr. Lovén, on behalf of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me about the Zea Harbour Project. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to learn more about this incredibly unique venture in archaeology. I wanted to begin by asking you as to how you became associated with the ZHP and inquire as to how the ZHP was established.

BL: Back in 2000, when I was working on my MA thesis on ship sheds in the Mediterranean, my Greek friend Mr. Konstantin Kitsais translated I.C. Dragátsis’ important 1885 report on the rescue excavations of ship sheds in Zea Harbour. When Mr. Kitsais read out a part of it: “…in order to complete the entire inquiry, it would have been desirable to investigate the lines continuing far into the sea, which can be seen early in the morning, especially when the waters are calm, since the light at that time of day is helpful, while I was staring at those very submerged ship shed structures in the sea that appear on Wilhelm Dörpfeld’s accompanying plan and sections.” It was one of those rare moments when you know exactly what you have to do.

Knowing that the ship sheds had not been fully explored underwater, I had to determine to what extent these structures were still preserved in the sea. So for the next two years, with a permit from the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, my team and I conducted preliminary underwater surveys in the immediate area of Dragátsis and Dörpfeld’s 1885 excavations. We found more than we could have dreamed of. And in 2002, I formally launched the Zea Harbour Project and carried out first excavations.

JW: Greece is intimately connected with the sea—it has 13.676 kilometres of coastline—and during the Classical Period (c. 480-323 BCE), Athens became a thalassocracy due to the might of its famous triremes. I was curious why the harbours of Zea and Mounichia were chosen as the focus of this project as opposed to others, which might have been easier to investigate?

BL: I was guided to Zea Harbour by Dragátsis and Dörpfeld’s 1885 work, so you can say that the site chose me rather than the other way around. Of course I was aware of the immense importance of the Athenian naval bases. The fleet was the backbone of the Athenian democracy, and I knew that finding the submerged remains of the ship sheds in the largest naval base at Zea would be a major discovery. Later in 2005, we began work in ancient Athens’ smallest naval harbour at Mounichia (modern “Mikrolimano”). Our primary aim was to investigate the harbour fortifications that guarded the area against a seaward attack, which are in a much better state of preservation compared to Zea.

JW: It’s very interesting to come across an archaeological project, which surveys the land and the sea in tandem. Why has the ZHP taken this approach and what advantages has it given you in terms of excavation? Conversely, what specific difficulties have you faced on land and at sea at these sites?

BL: The nature of the site determined the methods we would use. Three of the ship sheds excavated by Dragátsis and Dörpfeld are preserved in the basement of an apartment complex, and substantial parts of the very same structures are preserved in the sea. So we combined land and underwater archaeology in order to obtain a full picture of these and other ship sheds. Also, parts of the fortified moles and fortification towers in Zea and Mounichia that protected the harbours from seaward attacks are partially submerged.

The largest difficulty we face in excavating on land is the fact that the ancient harbours of the Piraeus have been almost completely built over by the modern city, and we can only investigate a few small areas, or ‘windows,’ such as the ship sheds preserved in the basement.

Most modern harbours are very polluted, and the harbours at Zea and Mounichia are no exception. The greatest difficulties that we face underwater are modern debris on the seabed and chemical and organic pollution – we have to dive in equipment designed specifically for diving in contaminated water. The extensive logistics of our diving operations slow the excavation process to a much greater extent than working at a clean, shallow site. Even under ideal conditions, excavating underwater is MUCH slower compared to on land.

JW: What technologies have assisted you in your exploration of the harbours and what, in your opinion, has been the most remarkable discovery as of late?

BL: We use the survey system developed by Mr. Nigel Fradgley of English Heritage, which employs both a total station and CAD (Computer Aided Design) software. The digital survey system produces three-dimensional wire-frame models with a very high level of detail. The digital plan produced with Fradgley’s system is essentially a 1:1, three-dimensional model of the surveyed area. Naturally, the potential of this system for the study of ancient buildings is enormous. By adding the third dimension, and by improving the accuracy significantly, it has a tremendous advantage over traditional manual surveying techniques.

Our resent most important discovery is the Group 1 ship sheds in Mounichia Harbour. Based on pottery excavated in the fill of one of the colonnades, these ship sheds are preliminarily dated (terminus post quem) to 500‒480 BCE. These are the earliest structure found in the Piraean naval bases so far. It is a fascinating thought that some of the Athenian triremes that fought the Persians at Salamis in 480 BCE, and the warships of the Delian League, may have been housed in these ship sheds.

JW: It’s important to note that 2012 marks the tenth anniversary for the ZHP. What can we expect to see from the ZHP in the next couple of years?

BL: 2012 is our last excavation campaign, at least for a while. We plan to publish the results in two volumes in 2013 and early 2014.

JW: Thank you for speaking with me Dr. Lovén! I wish you and the ZHP all the best. I look forward to reading and accessing future publications from the ZHP in due time and I wish you many happy adventures in archaeology!

BL: You are very welcome – thank you so much for the opportunity!

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