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Excavating In Corinth, Greece

Published: October 15, 2015

Comparative World Literature and Classics’ Paul Scotton, an expert in classical archaeology and the classics, has been given a permit by the American School of Classical Studies (ASCSC) to begin excavations at Lechaion, the never-before-excavated major port of ancient Corinth.

“The port was one of the major trade and economic centers of the whole Mediterranean,” said Scotton, a member of the university since 2005. “This is really quite exciting.”

Scotton’s Corinthian excavation permit is one of only two issued for the ancient Greek city by the ASCSC, a consortium of nearly 200 U.S. colleges and universities across North America. “Corinth was an economic powerhouse in the ancient Mediterranean for centuries,” Scotton explained.

Work has been done underwater on Corinth’s outer port by the Danish Institute of Archaeology.

“They’ve done two years of work already out in the open water but my permit is for everything on land,” he said. “We will coordinate our efforts.” Also, a huge early Christian basilica has been cleared but the harbor itself remains untouched.

There is a confirmed Mycenaean settlement in Corinth that dates to around 1400 BCE. It’s also known that Corinth came to a sudden and dramatic end around 600 CE.

“There was a massive earthquake which leveled the place followed by a tsunami that buried it and filled the inner harbor,” he said. “You can go there today and still see the wash of the tsunami as much as three meters deep in some places. Because of the circumstances, it is very likely there are still sunken and buried ships in the inner harbor.”

Paul Scotton (l) with fellow researcher on recent site.
Paul Scotton (l) with a Greek student on the site of Lechaion.

The reason Scotton is so confident that the remnants of ancient ships will be found in the inner harbor is the port’s twin capacities. “If you were off-loading freight, you would go into the inner harbor,” he said. “Here comes the earthquake which levels everything followed by the tsunami which buries everything. Anything that was in the inner harbor at the time is there now.”

It’s that confirmed beginning and end that tantalizes Scotton. “This is the archaeologist’s dream,” he said. “We’ve got a known end date, it’s sealed and it’s never been explored.”

Corinth had an eastern port 13 miles away that led to the Aegean and Asia Minor. But the major port three miles away, Lechaion, has never been excavated. “The location of the port has never been in doubt but it has remained untouched,” Scotton said. “A significant part of the ancient port is owned by the state of Greece and is set aside as an archaeological park and as a wildlife refuge. That is why it has lain untouched.”

Aerial view of Lechaion, the major port of ancient Corinth and currently unexcavated.
Aerial view of Lechaion, the major port of ancient Corinth and currently unexcavated.

Scotton’s goal to study the harbor, its facilities and the settlement around it to test theories held by archaeologists, historians and economists concerning ancient trade, settlement development and responses to natural disasters, among others.

“In 2014, I received a permit to perform an aerial survey,” he said. “I spent two days on the site trailing a big balloon and a big kite that flew about 200 meters overhead to take thousands of pictures. Through a process called ‘photogrammetry’ that uses software to stitch together all the photos, you can build a 3-D map. This is extremely helpful in understanding site formation and the impact of topography to name just one aspect.”

What he found from his bird’s eye view were the remnants of more roads, noting that a colleague of his from the University of Arizona mapped out the Roman roads that revealed two different Roman road systems.

“Our survey found what appears to be evidence of two more road systems,” he said. “In addition, we found the outlines of several structures, three of which we will begin to excavate next summer. One looks to be a stoa, one a warehouse and nearby an ancient basilica. Next summer, I will test the theory that it is possible to extrapolate a rough chronology based upon the orientation of these structures and the road systems associated with them. Will the stoa (or great hall) be from the original Greek period? Will the warehouse be from the Roman period? Will the basilica be from the period after the Romans? These will be the hypotheses I will test.”

Scotton rejects the risk of damage from shoveling dirt to explore the forgotten harbor. Instead, he will use a process called “Geoperspection” or underground testing performed by magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar.

“Over a three-year period, a Greek colleague will search the entire park. First, he will map the area. Then we will incorporate the work of the Greek Archaeological Service who performed ”rescue excavations’ all around the site,” he said. “What they are finding is evidence of Byzantine and Roman occupations. We will stitch together the work done already by the Greek Archaeological Service with the work I will do and that of the ASCSA in the upper town of Corinth. It would be relatively easy to include the work that has been by the ASCSA excavation in the upper town of Corinth and stich all the work together to ‘see’ ancient Corinth from shore to mountain.”

Scotton’s goal is to discover why Corinth was surrendered to disaster. “This was not the first earthquake nor was it the first tsunami to hit this area in antiquity. But residents threw up their hands in 600 CE and said `enough is enough,’” Scotton said. “I want to know why, after 2,000 years, they abandoned it then. Was it financial? Political? Something happened to make them say, `we’re done.’”