The Lechaion Harbour Project made global news again in late December following the press release of their recent season conducting underwater investigations at Corinth’s northern harbor. We briefly covered the new work of the LHP last year at Corinthian Matters, and now we can happily report on the first fruits of their work there. As the press release from the University of Copenhagen notes, the most unexpected discovery was a series of wooden caissons of fifth century AD date, which were submerged to construct the mole (read the full press release here):
The research team has initiated full-scale excavations and a digital and geophysical survey of the seaward side of the harbour using various innovative technologies, including a newly-developed 3D parametric sub-bottom profiler. To date they have uncovered two monumental moles constructed of ashlar blocks, along with a smaller mole, two areas of wooden caissons, a breakwater, and an entrance canal that leads into Lechaion’s three inner harbour basins.
The 2015 excavations focused on two areas. The first is a unique, early Byzantine mole constructed of six well-preserved wooden caissons together stretching 57 meters in length. The second is the stone-lined entrance canal to the little-explored Inner Harbour of Lechaion….
The discovery of well-preserved wooden caissons, however, caught everyone off guard. The wooden caissons acted as single-mission barges, built for the express purpose of being sunk together with their concrete cargoes, all of which were designed to form a solid foundation to hold back the force of the sea along this highly exposed stretch of coast .
These findings are most welcome, although we must await the preliminary publication to learn more about the nature and quantity of the radiocarbon samples. Still it’s pretty exciting that the mole is fifth century AD in date, as its discovery adds yet another piece of support to the conclusions of archaeologists and historians of the last three decades that the fifth to early seventh centuries were one of the most vibrant eras of building activity and new investment in the history of the region (see, for the rural view, my summary of the “busy countryside” of Late Roman Corinth). Gone are the days when scholars could dismiss the late antique centuries as uneventful or declining. Rather, these centuries saw the Corinthia develop into an important borderland between eastern and western halves of the Roman empire, which increasingly had different trajectories in the fifth and sixth centuries. The enormous Christian basilica at Lechaion, for example, was, as Bill Caraher has argued, an important statement of Constantinoplitan authority and power in an area traditionally administered and claimed by Roman ecclesiastical authorities. And as I’ve argued in my forthcoming book on the Isthmus, the region’s prominence in this period reflects its important place at the boundary of east and west.
More generally, it is great that the harbor facilities at Lechaion are finally being subject to a systematic treatment. Only two decades ago, Richard Rothaus published his useful preliminary summary of the archaeological and textual evidence for Lechaion in Oxford Journal of Archaeology , which highlighted how little we know about the date of construction and development of the harbor, the date of the origins of the internal basins, the relationship between the archaic and classical harbor and its present form, the developmental relationship between internal basin and external harbor, and the final uses of the harbor in antiquity. In an article published in 1996, S. Stiros and collaborators suggested an archaic or classical construction date for the stone-lined channel connecting the exterior harbor to the inner one based on radiocarbon dates of marine shells attached tot he blocks. Yet, more than one Corinthian archaeologist has suspected later construction. Scholars have sometimes linked the construction of the internal basins to the time of foundation of the Roman colony (44 BC); C.K. Williams II suggested (in “Roman Corinth as a Commercial Center”) a date in the reign of Claudius (mid-first centry AD); and David Romano has proposed major construction during the reigns of Nero or Vespasian when the entire landscape was subject to new division and the emperors were interested in maritime development.
But what we have lacked is some kind of systematic excavation that could inform our knowledge of the development of the harbor. Excavation has been limited to the massive early Christian Lechaion basilica (dug by Dimitrios Pallas in the 1950s and 60s and published, mostly in Greek, in a series of preliminary reports), and Greek Archaeological Service excavations that have occasionally revealed Roman baths, the base of a statue or light house, late Roman private residences, and stoas of Hellenistic to Roman date in the vicinity.
Don’t expect the LHP to answer all of our questions about the harbor anytime soon. Archaeological investigation is slow and tedious, underwater archaeology seemingly more so, and publication takes years. Robert Scranton and his University of Chicago team expected to cover much more ground in their excavations at Kenchreai but were side-tracked and bogged down by their remarkable discovery of opus sectile glass panels of fourth century AD date (now housed at the Isthmia museum). Nonetheless, if future seasons of the LHP can reveal additional surprises like those found in the 2015 season, it should greatly improve our knowledge of the site. For the time, let’s hope for some efficient publication of these preliminary results, a broad systematic study of the underwater remains that can piece together the different parts, and some more happy discoveries.