Tsunamis in the Gulf of Corinth

When the terrible tsunami hit the northeast coast of Japan six months ago, I couldn’t stop following the media coverage of the sheer destruction.  I was glued to the unfolding event all the more as I watched friends in Hawaii update their facebook statuses and followed the status of my brother-in-law, who had just started an engineering job in the city of Himeji. 

For classicists and ancient historians, modern tsunamis trigger memory flashes of ancient literary descriptions of tsunamis.  Rogueclassicism reminded readers of an earlier post on major earthquakes and ancient tsunamis in the eastern Mediterranean, while Adrian Murdoch at Bread and Circuses discussed the great Tsunami of AD 365 that hit the eastern Mediterranean, recorded by the historian Ammianus Marcellinus and discussed by Gavin Kelly in “Ammianus and the Great Tsunami,” JRS 94 (2004), 141-167.

The additional surge in interest in ancient Mediterranean tsunamis came exactly four months later when, on July 11, Dr Andreas Vött of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, announced that tsunamis had destroyed the site of ancient Olympia.  While many scholars had blamed the site’s destruction and burial on a great earthquake in the 6th century AD followed by flooding episodes of the River Kladeos, Vött suggested that Olympia was destroyed by tsunamis.  The thick layers of sand covering Olympia would be impossible to explain by processes of natural sedimentation alone.  The stratigraphic sequences when coupled with the evidence of marine fossils, geochemical evidence, and geomorphology could only point to catastophic floods of multiple tsunamis.  Remarkably, Vött and his colleagues announced, tsunamis rushed inland some 14 km following paths of least resistance and reached the site of Olympia some 33 meters above sea level. 

Rogueclassicism covered the news announcements in July in a post titled Olympia Hit by a Tsunami?, which linked to the original press release “Olympia hypothesis: Tsunamis buried the cult site on the Peloponnese” and re-presentations of the story (with photos) in Past Horizons (“The Tsunamis of Olympia”) and ScienceDaily (“Olympia Hypothesis: Tsunamis Buried the Cult Site On the Peloponnese”). 

A spate of new publications has followed on ancient tsunamis.  In following this research through Google Alerts and learning more about the frequency of tsunamis in the Mediterranean, I became curious about whether tsunamis ever hit the coasts of the Corinthia.  I knew of the good historical and archaeological evidence for the earthquake and tsunami that submerged ancient Helike in the Corinthian Gulf only about 90 km west of Corinth (See, recently, “Submergence and uplift of settlements in the area of Helike, Greece, from the Early Bronze Age to late antiquity.”), but I was surprised to learn of all the research carried out in the last two decades on tsunamis in the Gulf of Corinth. 

For example, a research group has recently published an article titled “Geological identification of historical tsunamis in the Gulf of Corinth, Central Greece,” which relates scientific evidence for tsunamis in the Gulf of Corinth at Aliki (ancient Helike) and Kirra / Itea, the ancient harbor of Delphi.  Building on an earlier catalogue of tsunamis by G.A. Papadopoulos, the article includes a survey of 17 tsunami events in the Corinthian Gulf between 373 BC and 1996 AD.  The authors show how geological and historical evidence together provide a full picture—not all recorded tsunamis are evident in the geology and not all tsunamis are recorded.  Interestingly, “tsunamicity” (a great word) decreases the further east one goes in the Corinthian Gulf, but the authors note the earthquake of 1887 that produced a small tsunami near Xilokastro and Sikia, only 24 km west of Lechaion! The sea reportedly came 20 meters inland.

Corinthian Gulf

I wanted to know whether there was any evidence for tsunamis in Corinthian territory itself.  So, I asked Richard Rothaus, a coastal archaeologist and Corinthian specialist who worked with the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey and my go-to person for questions concerning Corinthian coastal history and geoarchaeology.  The absence of evidence for tsunamis, Richard told me, is not conclusive since comparative studies on recent tsunamis such as the one in Indonesia have shown that erosion and bioturbation can erase tsunami deposits within a decade.  Richard pointed out the highly localized nature of tsunami evidence.  While his team found no evidence for tsunamis in cores at Lechaion, it does not necessarily make a strong case against one having occurred.  Even at Kenchreai, he said, the sand layers mentioned by excavators could in fact represent tsunamis – cores in Kenchreai Bay might produce some interesting results. 

This week, Andreas Vött is presenting his research on the Olympia thesis at the Second International Workshop on Active Tectonics, Earthquake Geology, Archaeology and Engineering 19th-24th September 2011 in the Corinthia.  The event, hosted at the plush Kalamaki Beach Hotel on the Saronic Gulf, will include sessions on both paleoseismology and paleotsunamis.  If you’re interested in reading his team’s paper on “Sedimentary burial of ancient Olympia (Peloponnese, Greece) by high-energy flood deposits – the Olympia Tsunami Hypothesis,” you can find a PDF version here

Since Paleioseismicity has been posting blog summaries of the workshop, we can expect some brief update about their presentation.  Perhaps they will touch on the question of tsunamis in the ancient Corinthia, an issue on which the historical record is so silent.  This abstract of an article by Andreas Vött and colleagues suggests new evidence for tsunamis in the Corinthia and Argolid. 

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Categories: Corinthian & Saronic Gulfs, Geology, Late Antiquity

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