Skip to comments.Scientists Unearth Urban Center More Ancient Than Plato
Posted on 12/01/2003 9:25:02 PM PST by sarcasm
igging on a coastal plain at the Gulf of Corinth three years ago, archaeologists came upon some ruins of Helike, a Greek city destroyed by earthquake in Plato's time. A search for the rest of Helike has now turned up something even more ancient, rare and inviting.
The archaeologists say they have uncovered the stone foundations, cobbled streets and pottery of a well-preserved 4,500-year-old urban center, one of the few Early Bronze Age communities ever found on the Greek mainland.
Preliminary investigation at the prehistoric site, the researchers say, reveals that this was a prosperous town at the time pre-Homeric Troy enjoyed one of its richest periods. The new-found ruins yielded a tall cylindrical cup in the style of graceful cups known from Troy, suggesting a wider Trojan influence than previously established.
The discovery of the ancient town, name unknown and its existence unsuspected, was described in recent interviews with members of the excavating team that came upon its traces in 2001. Further explorations last summer confirmed their assessment of what they had found.
The ruins were uncovered a few hundred feet from the earlier discovery among vineyards and orchards 26 miles east of the modern port city of Patras. The ceramics enabled archaeologists to date the Bronze Age site there at 2600 to 2300 B.C.
Dr. Dora Katsonopoulou, an archaeologist and co-director of the Helike excavation, said last week that "it was clear from the very beginning that we had made a significant discovery."
In interviews by e-mail and telephone from Athens, Dr. Katsonopoulou said the remains were undisturbed by later occupations of the site and "so offers the great and rare opportunity to us to study and reconstruct everyday life and economy of one of the most important periods of the Early Bronze Age."
In 2000, after 12 years of searching, Dr. Katsonopoulou announced the discovery of buried ruins of Helike (pronounced huh-LEE-kee) known to Homer, Plato and other writers in antiquity. The city was destroyed in 373 B.C. by an earthquake followed by a towering tidal wave. Its disappearance beneath the sea is said to have inspired Plato's story of the legendary Atlantis.
It was while looking for the center of Helike, as yet undiscovered, that archaeologists drilled holes elsewhere on the coastal plain and reached deposits of bone, shell, charcoal and pottery. They dug trenches and in 2001 happened on evidence of the earlier town.
"We were looking for a Classical Pompeii and we found a Bronze Age Pompeii," said Dr. Steven Soter of the American Museum of Natural History, the other excavation leader.
The trenches exposed stone walls of buildings flanking paved streets. Pottery, mostly intact, lay all around. There were clay jars, cooking pots, tankards and kraters, wide bowls used for mixing wine and water. Their distinctive styles were the big surprise.
Dr. Soter, a planetary scientist drawn to Helike research by his interest in earthquakes, recalled standing at the top of the deep trench where Dr. Katsonopoulou was working.
"Dora looked up and said, `These pots are prehistoric, more than 2,000 years older than the city we had been excavating,' " Dr. Soter said. "She was amazed. All of us were amazed."
Dr. Katsonopoulou submitted a formal report on the findings to the Greek Ministry of Culture yesterday. An article on excavations at both the Classical and prehistoric sites at Helike is scheduled for publication in the January issue of Archaeology, the magazine of the Archaeological Institute of America.
As the digging continued, archaeologists found luxury items like gold and silver clothing ornaments and the "depas" cup in the Trojan style. Heinrich Schliemann, excavating the ruins of Troy in the 19th century, was the first to describe such cups and associate them with nobility.
Although one of the two loop handles on the Helike cup is missing, the vessel's cylindrical shape and remaining handle are almost identical to that of a Trojan depas drinking cup displayed at the recent exhibition "Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. From the Mediterranean to the Indus" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The excavators have circulated a picture of the cup to what they say is a limited number of recipients, but Dr. Katsonopoulou refused to release the picture for publication now, pending a more formal announcement in a professional journal.
At its height, the Bronze Age town at Helike was a contemporary of an ascendant Troy, as revealed in its ruins from the third millennium B.C., known to archaeologists as Troy II and III.
Schliemann recovered substantial treasures of gold and bronze from these layers and mistakenly concluded that these were remains of the later Troy of the 13th century B.C., the city of Priam and Hector, besieged by the Greek forces of Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles in a war memorialized in "The Iliad" of Homer.
Dr. John E. Coleman, an archaeologist and professor of classics at Cornell, called the new site an exciting find.
"It's not just a little farmstead," Dr. Coleman, who has visited the ruins twice, said in a telephone interview. "It has the look of a settlement that may be planned, with buildings aligned to a system of streets, which is pretty rare for that period. And the depas cup is very important because it suggests international contacts."
Dr. Helmut Brückner, a geologist and geographer at the University of Marburg in Germany who has inspected the dig, said the excavators have "indeed found a site with many excellent artifacts and well-preserved Bronze Age walls."
In an interview by e-mail, Dr. Brückner said that the age and artifacts of the Bronze Age Helike suggested possible trading relations with Troy, though "this is not yet established." The geology of the site, he said, indicated that it was a coastal town and "at the time had a strategic importance" in shipping.
The size and population of the Bronze Age town cannot be estimated until more extensive exploration is conducted, the discoverers said. It could have been a town of a few hundred or more people, and might have extended over an area of as much as 10 acres. So far, no human skeletal remains have been found.
Next year, the research team plans an extensive seismic survey of the plain using techniques from oil exploration. Seismic signals reflected off solid buried objects should produce a map of the city wall, building foundations and other structures of the entire city.
Dr. Katsonopoulou believes the town was probably a well-organized regional center of some wealth, judging by the excavated luxury goods. It probably controlled sea trade in the area and was run by a ruler in a hierarchy-based society.
In any case, other researchers say, the site could lead to important insights about a period in Greece that is little known to archaeologists.
An examination of the stone walls and the sediments covering the Bronze Age ruins, Dr. Soter said, showed that the early town had met the same fate as its Classical successor. Abrupt dips in some walls indicated destruction by earthquake. And the presence of sea urchin spines and other marine organisms in the clay, he said, strongly suggested that after the earthquake and land subsidence, the town ruins sank into a lagoon or the sea itself.
With subsequent changes in the shoreline, the town ruins now lie buried about a half-mile inland, on a river delta that is increasingly being developed by builders of vacation homes. The World Monuments Fund recently included Helike on its 2004 list of the 100 most endangered cultural sites.
Nah, Plato was inspired by the tales that Solon brought back from the Egyptian priests.
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Gee, another Atlantis? How many does that make now? Seems every ancient urban area unearthed lately is a candidate. I suppose it adds to the mystique???
Note: this topic is from 12/01/2003. Thanks sarcasm.
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Very cool. We continue to underestimate the technological prowess of our ancestors, I think.
Like with the pyramids... They used cranes. I’m sure of it.
4,500 years from now they’ll be digging out your city, Bubba! Your BluRay DVDs and iPads3 will be unreadable, worse fate than Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Sandhill or whooping?
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