Cruising the Canal, Damaging the Diolkos

One of the consequences of spending a summer morning talking with Sophia Loverdou was seeing the diolkos in a whole new light.  I had contacted Sophia following the recommendation of a reviewer (on a forthcoming diolkos article) that a woman had launched a crusade to save the diolkos of Corinth.  I had seen Sophia’s name before but had not read much about her campaign.  I wanted to hear her story and so I arranged a meeting at Poseidonia on the Corinthian Gulf.  As we walked along and visited different parts of the road, I kept looking for clues that might unlock the archaeology and history of the road.  Sophia, on the other hand, kept talking about the modern organizations that were responsible for the road’s utter destruction: the Corinth Canal Company and the Greek Ministry of Culture, among others. 

We stopped above the poorly preserved Sectors D and E and talked about how the road had come to look like this. 

 Sectors C and D

A few minutes later, one of those bulk freighters, the “EKO 3” was towed into the entrance of the canal.  I was surprised to see the dramatic change in the amount of water over the remains of the road. The first picture below shows the road as the EKO entered the canal.


The second image shows the displaced water as the EKO passed by.  Note the dark sediments and sand carried back into the canal from the banks.


In the half hour that we stood there talking, we watched three smaller vessels pass through and have a comparable effect on the road.  Meanwhile, Sophia kept talking about the webs of complicity and criminality responsible for damaging the road.  I was at least understanding the problem now.

The day ended and I went back to Ancient Corinth and downloaded the images.  I returned the following day to reexamine some blocks and take additional photographs.  As ships moved in and out of the western entrance to the canal, I decided to take a few videos documenting the damage.  Many of the vessels were like simple passenger carriers that had some minor effect on the road.

I was surprised, though, by the Catamaran Glass Bottom Boat, a vessel based in the Saronic that takes parties of tourists through the canal many times each day.  I myself had journeyed through the canal on this kind of boat only two years ago.  I was surprised that such a small vessel produced bow waves that easily reached and eroded the diolkos on the banks of the canal.

But the monster ship that day was the mega cruise ship “The Coral” discussed in yesterday’s post.  After I filmed it passing by the Nero relief, I jumped in my car and drove to the bridge about a kilometer to the west.  And here, the water that rushed back caught me by surprise.

According to the website of the Corinth Canal Company (A.E.D.I.K.), some 11,000 marine vessels of all kinds pass through the Corinth Canal every year: tiny fishing boats, large cargo vessels, cruise ships with waving passengers, private yachts bearing sleepy vacationers, and ugly cranes and barges.  I’m still not sure who or which organization(s) are to blame for the destruction of this unique monument of the ancient Mediterranean, but it’s clear that constant canal traffic has had a major force in eroding the road.  I can understand how an ancient limestone road cannot compete with a monumental canal, and I also get how no one wants to claim responsibility or blame for the deterioration of this monument, but should there not be some greater systematic effort to preserve the great trans-Isthmus road that has figured so prominently in discussions of the ancient Corinthia? 



A Cruise Ship in the Corinth Canal

In early June I had the chance to visit the Corinth Canal with Sophia Loverdou, the woman who has launched a campaign to save the ancient diolkos (more on that campaign later in the week).  As I wrote in this post in late June, she and I toured the part of the diolkos inside Military Engineers Camp.  We also drove along the dirt road on the Peloponnesian side of the canal (visible just above the cliff face in the image below) and viewed the canal from various perspectives. 


She showed me the old bridge posts marking the location of the so-called “Nero Relief,” an ancient carving presumably left behind by the builders of the ancient canal before they abandoned their enterprise in the late 60s AD.  Nikolaos Verdelis thought this relief had been left by the Emperor Nero, and James Wiseman suggested that the severely eroding man could represent Heracles holding a club.  It was great to know the location of the relief because I had only ever seen and photographed it from the canal itself on one of those “tour-the-canal” boat rides.  After Sophia left for Athens, I returned to the site, climbed down the embankment, and took some pictures. 


A comparison of these to Wiseman’s Land of the Ancient Corinthians, fig. 46, suggests that the stone has deteriorated significantly since he shot his photo in the 1960s.  And of course, the sprayed black tagging  shown on the rock face below is new. 


While I was driving along the dirt road, stopping and taking photographs, I caught site of one of those mega cruise ships, the kind you see in the postcards filling up the canal completely and being tugged between seas by a little tug boat called the Titon.  Postcards often show a doctored photo of blue water and skies.  What I saw was a cruise ship called the “Coral” having the roughest time in the journey, billowing out ugly dark smoke as it trudged along.  I drove my rental car from the center of the Isthmus to the Nero relief and waited. 


And waited…It took 45 minutes for the little Triton tug boat to reach the relief.  I considered just going home, but my curiosity got the best of me.


I shot several videos.  The one below captures the moment of passing. 

The whole thing drew my own attention to connections between the past and present.  Here I was witnessing the modern realization of Nero’s crazy idea to canalize the Isthmus to bring ships through it.  But in this case, the purpose of the journey of the mega-ton Coral was not so much to pass through but to see one of the great engineering feats of the 19th century.  Imagine if Nero had accomplished the endeavor of making a canal of the Isthmus in the days before dynamite and heavy equipment: it would certainly have been one of the greatest tourist sites of the Roman Mediterranean. 


Odds, ends, miscellany and fun:

Histories of Peirene

There are no monuments of ancient Corinth more famous and iconic than the Fountain of Peirene.  Any modern visitor who has wandered among the ruins will likely have shot a photo like the one below of the Roman spring facade and court.  And anyone who walks into a tourist shop will have seen plenty of postcard images of the arcade and courtyard.  Indeed, the fountain ranks as one of the greatest discoveries of the American School of Classical Studies Excavations at Corinth.

bartleyvisit 365

In recent years, a rope around the courtyard has kept tourists a stones throw away from the arcade but only 10-15 years ago, the visitor could walk directly on the pavements.  This seeming accessibility to the monument in former days, however, was itself nothing more than a facade, for the court and arches and columns represent but the start of an intricate underground water system stretching hundreds of meters beneath the Roman forum, and the architecture preserved today marks a visual fragment of numerous phases of construction, use, additions, and renovations.   The publication of Betsey Robinson’s Histories of Peirene: A Corinthian Fountain in Three Millennia (The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton 2011) is a major milestone in Corinthian studies because it makes accessible the complex histories of a monument that was always central to the life of the ancient city.

Arkadia_June 4 017 

Histories of Peirene has much to say about contexts and histories.  The first part of the book (Chs. 1-4) places the fountain into its various landscapes: the physical subterranean landscape of topography, springs, and underground tunnels (Ch. 1), the imaginative conceptions of well-watered Corinth promoted through ancient visual images and literature (Ch. 2), and the history of archaeological investigations of the American School’s Excavations (Ch. 3), including especially the work of the excavator Bert Hodge Hill (Ch. 4) whose life was dedicated to documenting and publishing the fountain.  The second part of the book (Chs. 5-11) offers a “biography of the fountain” from the Geometric era through post-antique periods.  Two chapters explore the Geometric-Hellenistic developments (Ch. 5 and 6), three are dedicated to Early Roman phases (Ch. 7-9), and one each to the 4th and 5th century (still visible today) and post-antique phases.  

An outline:

1. Peirene Today and Yesterday: Anatomy and Physiology

2. The Storied Spring: Peirene in Pictures and Poetry

3. Great and Fearful Days: the Rediscovery of Peirene

4. A Corinthian Hydra: the Labors of Bert Hodge Hill

5. Beginnings: Hellenic and Hellenistic Peirene

6. Corinthian Grotesque: The Cyclopean Fountain

7. The Genius of Place and Master: Romanizing Peirene

8. High Roman Style: the Marble Court

9. A Pendant for Peirene: The Scylla of Corinth

10. Palace for the People: The Triconch Court

11. The Ruin of a Beautiful Thing

In a certain sense, this study is written for scholars and archaeologists, the sorts of people who would feel at home reading through the stratigraphic descriptions of a field report in the journal Hesperia or trudging through a final archaeological report in the Corinth series.  One finds in Histories many interpretive essays, arguments, and hypotheses based on detailed and comparative discussions of art and architecture, block dimensions, walls, faces, phases, and dating.  Robinson arrives at many original conclusions along the way.  To name a few, the enigmatic and grotto-like Cyclopean Fountain is actually a 6th century BC creation and designed to represent a natural grotto, the dark home of the famous nymph Peirene; the memory and monument of Peirene was appropriated early in the life of the new Roman colony because the mythology surrounding the nymph, Pegasos, and Bellerophon was historically meaningful and generally known; and the triconch court, still visible today, is later 4th (not 2nd) Century AD.

But the work is also accessible and relevant to a wider readership including, for example, anyone interested in New Testament studies or Greek and Roman archaeology.  Allow me to explain why.

1. This book is not simply a study of a fountain, but a study of the most famous fountain in Greece and a monument that was central to the city’s ancient image.  Peirene is the only Corinthian fountain to have held widespread and enduring literary fame in antiquity.  As such, it is, like the Isthmus and Acrocorinth and the harbors, a major orienting point in the landscape for understanding Corinthian history and ancient conceptions of the city.  Peirene was so identified with Corinth, in fact, that it became another name for the city. The nymph and her associates-associations such as the hero Bellerophon, Pegasos the horse, the grotto and fountain, and Acrocorinth appear on a wide range of media (protocorinthian pottery, red-figure vases, wall painting, stone reliefs, sarcophagi, coins, glass phiales, and silver cups) across a wide span of space (Patras, Pompeii, Rome, S. Italy, Algiers, Tyre) over a long period of time (7th century BC to 4th century AD).  The Corinthian myth of Peirene and the importance of her fountain would have been common knowledge for any educated child in antiquity.

2. This is a visual work.  While the text of the work is lengthy (nearly 400 pages with notes and references), one finds nearly 200 figures, some in color, some black and white, including photos of architecture, wall paintings, coins, statues, elevations, aerial photos, and architectural plans.  The photos take us into Corinth’s watery underland and back in time to the first excavations at the site in the late 19th century.  Collectively the images are instructive and interesting and demonstrate how art historical evidence can inform our understandings of material contexts.  

3. The book provides an excellent introduction to the water systems of ancient Corinth.  The Roman facade and arcade are only the beginning of the fountain.  The spring facade gives way to chambers, drawbasins, reservoirs, and tunnels through the marl of Corinth’s plateau.  We learn how Corinthian geography naturally channels water, how the fountain flows at a rate of 7-12 cu. meters / hour, how ancient engineers created a vast underland of tunnels, and how the water of Peirene is salty, hard, and easily contaminated.  We also meet some inhabitants of the underland including bats, crabs, freshwater shrimp, and early 20th century archaeologists. 

4. The third and fourth chapters are a riveting case study in the history of classical archaeology in the early to mid-20th century through quotations from field notebooks and correspondence.  We learn of the discovery of the monument at the start of American School excavations at Corinth and how it provided the key to unlocking the entire urban plan.  We discover quite a bit about early methods of excavation: 500 railroad carts of earth were removed per day.  We hear about the difficult, miserable, and heroic process of clearing earth and mud from the entire tunnel system in the first three decades of the 20th century, and the ensuing results: desertion of workers, broken bones, bouts of malaria and typhoid, and even deaths of directors.  We find Bert Hodge Hill, the principal excavator of the site, giving site tours to German soldiers during World War II and unable to complete the work after the war due to his perfectionist personality and ethnical obligations to the villagers to sanitize the water.  

5. The study provides an up-to-date chronological discussion of the complex history of Peirene.  The visitor to Corinth peers on a marble facade of the 2nd to 4th centuries AD, and thinks she is beholding the ancient fountain.  But the fountain is (like most archaeological sites) actually a complex palimpsest of development, aggregation, revision, and transformation that stretches centuries of time from the 8th century BC to the 20th century.  Robinson makes these histories accessible and gives readers the diachronic overview of one of the social focal points of Corinth at many points in its history.  In making accessible the chronological phases of the fountain, Robinson also contextualizes the developments in terms of the broader urban development of Corinth—we, consequently, learn a good deal about the history and archaeology of Corinth.  People who study or dabble in New Testament studies will find in Ch. 7 a valuable overview of current debates about Romanization and Hellenization.  Writers of historical fiction will find plenty of text and visual material for creative retellings. 

6. Finally, Robinson’s overall approach is not a technical archaeological report so much as a contextual study of text and material culture.  There’s a creative flow that makes it interesting reading.  From the book jacket, we appreciate the basic idea of this flow:

“Peirene developed from a nameless spring to a renowned source of inspiration, from a busy landmark in Classical Corinth to a quiet churchyard and cemetery in the Byzantine ear, and finally from free-flowing Ottoman fountains back to the streams of the source within a living ruin.  These histories of Peirene as a spring and as a fountain, and of its water imagery, form a rich cultural narrative whose interrelations and meanings are best appreciated when studied together.”

Such webs of meaning bring otherwise dry archaeological evidence to life through association with ancient poetry, modern stories, and visual media.  In short, this text should be of interest to many different kinds of readers interested in Corinth. 

For further review, see:

  • Andrew Reinhard’s overview at the ASCSA webpage including a preview (PDF) of front matter and Chapter 1 and 3.
  • Bill Caraher’s review at The New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

Lolos on Ancient Greek Sikyon

Knoxville’s Daily Beacon has a short little piece, “Lecturer Gives Details on Ancient Greek City-State” on Yannis Lolos’ recent lecture at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.  The Sikyon Survey Project has been conducting an urban large-site survey at Sikyon since 2004 and has produced a significant corpus of  material from gridded survey collection.  Indeed, this project represents one of the new kinds of hyper-intensive surveys where investigators are investing greater resources in smaller areas but producing higher-resolution data.

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. 

Were the First Christians Rich or Poor?

It’s the question that Greg Carey of neighboring Lancaster Theological Seminary asks in an essay in yesterday’s Huffington Post.  Carey follows up on an essay last month titled “Imagining the First Christians,”  and promises a third one on the “contribution of women” to early Christian communities.  This essay on the question of rich and poor favors a mixture thesis which sees early Christian communities generally as reflecting the population at large: a few very rich people, some prosperous artisans and traders, and the poor masses.  Carey suggests,

“People used to assume that Christianity flourished only among the poor. First Corinthians 1:26 — “not many among you were wise according to the flesh, not many powerful, not many well-born” — still influences how many imagine the first Christians.” 

He goes on to note,

“The churches in Paul’s circle of influence almost surely included some persons of means. For one thing, Paul depends upon “patrons” like Phoebe (Romans 16:1) and potential donors in Rome to send him along in his journeys. And what about Chloe, who had “people” who could communicate with Paul on her behalf (1 Corinthians 1:11), or Erastus, the city treasurer of Corinth (Romans 16:23)?”

As I’ve noted in this discussion of Erastus, this question of rich and poor is a major point of friction in Early Christian scholarship today.  If an early generation of scholars represented Christian communities as predominately poor, scholars since the 1970s have tended to highlight the socially mobile and wealthy component of the first urban Christians, people like Erastus and Chloe and Phoebe.  But there has likewise been a recent push back to the picture of poor Christians.   In the midst of the debate are Paul’s Corinthian letters, with all their talk of rich and poor, wise and foolish.  How would the situation appear if Corinth were left out of the picture?

Corinthian Sites in Google Earth and Map

Yesterday I discussed a number of resources for viewing Corinthian territory from the air.  Some of the same resources also provide incredible views of the archaeological sites of the Corinthia.  This can be especially valuable if you want to view a site from a bird’s eye perspective.  It is possible to capture a photo of Corinth from an oblique angle from the lower slopes of Acrocorinth:


But contrast these views with Google Earth (via Google Map, in the case below). 


The same tools enable excellent views of the northern harbor Lechaion.


And likewise, images of the site of Isthmia otherwise impossible to capture. 


Compare with the best I could do from the nearby Rachi Ridge.


If you have Google Earth on your computer, you can download the useful .kmz file of 500 Ancient Greek Places with archaeological remains visible from the air.  And if you turn on the images layer in Google Earth, you can view photos that various users have associated with the particular sites.  Hundreds of images have been linked to different sites of the Corinthia.

The Corinthia from the Air

If you hadn’t noticed, views of the Corinthia from the air are increasingly available on the web.  When I first started teaching years ago and wanted to project an image of the Isthmus for a class, I relied on my grainy slide photos taken on flights out of Athens.  But over the last decade, camera resolution has increased, and organizations and people are posting aerial photos and satellite images online.  For example, Philos2000 recently posted the image below on the Isthmus of Corinth Wikipedia article.



Anyone can produce images of the Corinthia for teaching purposes through the wonderful tool Google Earth.  The three images below, for instance, show how Google Earth allows you to zoom in and out, tilt, rotate, etc.. at decent resolution.  And because Google Maps accesses Google Earth, you can display satellite layers over maps of the Corinthia. 

Isthmus (6 miles)_tilt

Isthmus (30 miles)_tilt

Isthmus (10 miles)

NASA has also released numerous satellite images of the Isthmus freely available for educational purposes from the NASA Earth Observatory website.  This satellite image was taken on May 9, 2005.  See this Earth Observatory page for the details and explanation. If you really love them, you can set them as your wallpaper.


Same image – labeled by NASA Earth Observatory.



And this is the tip of the iceberg.  Some additional NASA images of the Corinthia include:


Such resources have made it easy and fun to project the territory that was so central to the life of this ancient city. 

More Extreme Sports at the Isthmus

There is something fitting about staging extreme sports at the Isthmus today.  Perhaps it has something to do with ancient attempts to canalize the Isthmus, or drag ships over it, or build big fortification walls across it—all heroic and incredible feats.  Or perhaps it has something to do with the associations with the Pan-Hellenic festival at Isthmia and the landscape’s association with contest.  Or maybe the Corinth Canal is simply a good tourist attraction, gathering point, and natural place for exhibitions and crazy stunts.  Whatever the case, this popular experience of the Corinthia stands alongside all those St. Paul pilgrimage tours, and historical tours of sites of the ancient Corinthia.

In a previous post, I  noted the madness of bungee jumping from the canal bridge.  I had one friend who, when she saw that post appear on Facebook, claimed to have done the jump herself, and soon ended up pregnant with twins (I told you it was dangerous).

The Australian Robbie Maddison’s motorcycle leap through the air tops the bungee.  I discovered these videos about a year ago but they continue to remain popular on the web.  This is an image you don’t see every day (reposted from

Two short videos of the jump.  Some nice footage of the canal.  Kids, don’t try this at home.  (And stay away from the Red Bull, which inevitably leads to such behaviors)