Earthquakes at Lechaion

Corinth’s northern harbor at Lechaion has seen something of a renaissance in scholarly study in recent years. Back in 2011, for example, a research group publicized new work (now published here and here) on the evidence for multiple tsunami landfalls at Lechaion, which Richard Rothaus reviewed in a thoughtul piece here at CM.  Last year, a group of Danish and Greek scholars launched the Lechaion Harbour Project to survey, excavate, and study submerged remains at the harbor—and this project, according to their Facebook page, has just been awarded a second major funding package. I also saw via the Corinthian Studies Facebook group a notice about a conference in Athens last April devoted to the study of the early Christian basilica at the site, with papers on the history of Pallas’ excavation, the baths, floors, ceramics, coins, and glass from those excavations. And we can all say “it’s about time.”AncientLechaion

And now, this new article (in press) at Tectonophysics  promises a real scientific study of the evidence for earthquakes at the site. Here’s the metadata:

Minos – Minopoulos, Despina, Kosmas Pavlopoulos, George Apostolopoulos, Efthymis Lekkas, and Dale Dominey – Howes. “Liquefaction Features at an Archaeological Site: Investigations of Past Earthquake Events at the Early Christian Basilica, Ancient Lechaion Harbour, Corinth, Greece.” Tectonophysics. Accessed August 6, 2015. doi:10.1016/j.tecto.2015.07.010.

And the abstract:

A synthesis of investigations carried out at the archaeological site of the Early Christian Basilica, located in the ancient harbour of Lechaion, Corinth, Greece in order to study the origin and triggering mechanism of deformation structures observed on the temple floor, is presented. These surface structures are indicative of earthquake induced ground liquefaction and their relationship with the subsurface soil stratigraphy and structure is presented. Investigations of stratigraphic data from archaeological excavations conducted from 1956 to 1965 provide indications of artificial fill deposits overlying a sandy – gravelly substratum. Geophysical survey of EM, GPR and ERT provided further information regarding the substratum properties/stratigraphy of the site indicating subsurface fissures and lateral spreading trends that are in agreement with the surface deformation structures. Lithostratigraphic data obtained from four vibracores drilled in the southern aisle of the temple, suggest estuarine deposits of coarse sand to fine gravel with grain size properties indicative of layers with high liquefaction potential. The results of the study, suggest at least three seismic events that induced ground liquefaction at the site. The first event pre-dates the construction of the Basilica, when Lechaion harbour was in operation. The second event post-dates the construction of the Basilica potentially corresponding to the regionally damaging A.D. 524 earthquake, followed by the third event, that commensurate with the A.D. 551 earthquake and the destruction of the temple.

While the article is currently behind a pay wall, it looks like it should add an interesting new layer to our understanding of ancient Lechaion and the earthquakes that affected it in the sixth century CE (although we’ll need to see how securely the authors relate the geomorphological observations with both the archaeological evidence for dating and ambiguous data from geophysics). But this will certainly be a step toward addressing concerns (outlined a few years ago by Dr. Rothaus) that archaeologists should be much more critical in ascribing building destructions in the Corinthia to historical earthquakes.

Thirty New Roman Sites on the Corinthian Isthmus

I recently finished editing proofs of a chapter for the forthcoming book, “The Bridge of the Untiring Sea”: The Corinthian Isthmus from Prehistory to Late Antiquity”. The piece, which grew out of a paper I delivered in Athens in 2007, offers a new synthesis of settlement patterns on the Isthmus during the Early Roman (44 BC-250 AD) and Late Roman (AD 250-700) periods. The synthesis pays special attention to the findings of the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey carried out in the eastern territory of Corinth between 1997 and 2003 and produces a series of maps of new Roman villas, farmsteads, communities, and towns. In the chapter, I challenge the old idea—popularized by Donald Engels’ book on Roman Corinth (1990)—that the Corinthians of the Roman period did not cultivate or inhabit their territory because their town was oriented solely to commerce (an idea that has been undermined by David Romano’s study of centuriation in the region). On the contrary, I argue that a semi-continuous suburbia (what Penelope Goodman has called “urban periphery”) develops in the course of the later first and second centuries AD that extends settlement from the town center to the harbors. The documentation of 30 distinct Roman-era sites in an area of only a few square kilometers shows that the eastern hinterland of Corinth was much more densely inhabited than scholars have previously estimated.

The figure below shows 26 high-density sites of the Late Roman period.


Here’s a taste of the piece from the introduction. When I receive a final PDF copy of the published article, I’ll post a full version to Academia or Research Gate.

Since Thucydides wrote his famous account of the growth of Corinthian naval power (1.13.5), the Isthmus has been central to historical interpretations of the ancient city. In the Roman era, for example, every educated person knew that a narrow neck of land had shaped the rise and fall of the Greek city and the birth of the Roman colony. Writers like Strabo claimed that the city grew wealthy due to its position on a bridge linking the maritime worlds of Asia and Italy. Others linked Corinthian geography to the city’s port-town reputation, sexual immorality and general loose living—so the proverb ran “It is not for every man to go to Corinth.” In pinning Corinthian myth, image, and fortune on the city’s eastern landscape, writers of the Roman era followed earlier Greek writers in finding historical consequences in a connecting Isthmus.

Given the frequent mentions of territory in ancient discussions of Corinth, it seems paradoxical that textual sources provide so little information about actual land use and settlement in the Greek or Roman era. Ancient writers discussed Corinthian territory frequently enough, but their interests lay in a few places like Isthmia, Kenchreai, and Lechaion that were famous by association with historical events and people. For example, when Pausanias described the route from Isthmia and Kenchreai to Corinth in the mid-2nd century a.d. (2.1.6–2.2.3), he noted nothing in-between except for Helen’s Bath and a few noteworthy tombs. No writer of the Roman period gave serious attention to patterns of land use or habitation in Corinthian territory.

Scholars who have read such sources literally have interpreted Corinth as a commercial town, lacking agricultural orientation and rural dwellings. Most scholars, however, have highlighted the biases of ancient sources and developed alternative views based on the study of the territory’s natural resources and archaeological remains. In his survey of the Archaic and Classical city, for example, Salmon argued that literary sources mislead: arable land, rather than commerce, was the fundamental economic resource base for the Hellenic city. Studies of centuriation patterns have shown the Roman colony’s agricultural orientation from its foundation, despite the near absence of written testimony. Other recent scholarship has pointed to the array of natural resources in the territory, such as timber, limestone, clay, honey, and marine resources. None of these resources appear prominently in the ancient textual tradition but each was an important component of the local economy.

The archaeological investigation of regions has contributed to this discussion by producing independent and localized evidence for settlement and land use. Archaeological investigations in the Corinthia in the last half century have filled out the territory with towns, villas, farms, sanctuaries, churches, graves, baths, and fortification walls (Fig. 14.1). The investigations that brought these sites to light have included rescue excavations by the Greek Archaeological Service, official excavations by the Archaeological Service and Ministry of Culture, the American School of Classical Studies’s excavations at Kenchreai and the Isthmian Sanctuary of Poseidon, extensive topographic surveys by Sakellariou and Faraklas and Wiseman, and intensive surveys directed by Gregory, Kardulias, and Pullen. Yet, despite all this work and its implications for interpreting the social, economic, and cultural character of Roman Corinth, there have been few attempts to synthesize the findings.

My purpose in this study is to fill a gap in modern scholarship by offering a summary description and interpretation of Roman settlement patterns on the Isthmus. The substance of this chapter is a discussion of the results of the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS) as they relate to patterns in (a) the chronology of land use during the Roman period; (b) the concentration and spatial distribution of settlement; and (c) the types of settlement (ephemeral occupations and farmsteads, villas, communities, and towns). In the final section, I argue that the patterns of settlement documented for the Isthmus—the intensive habitation and cultivation, numerous elite buildings, variety of habitation, and continuous built environment—are not “nucleated” or “dispersed” as scholars have often suggested, but rather, “urban periphery.” This study, then, introduces a new body of evidence relevant to age-old assessments of Corinth’s economy and establishes a building block for subsequent historical discussions and interpretations of the Roman city in its territory.

Corinthiaka at the AIA Meeting: New Orleans, January 2015

One of the small benefits of not attending the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America next month is that I will not have to spend Christmas break frantically working on a paper that I was unable to complete during a busy semester. On the other hand, New Orleans in January should be fantastic, with pleasant weather that contrasts with the nightmare AIA in the Snow of Chicago 2014.

The conference website notes 150 archaeology sessions and 800 speakers—which doesn’t include papers of the parallel meeting of the Society for Classical Studies (formerly APA). As in years past, I’ll post the smattering of paper titles on Corinthiaka subjects, but first, I couldn’t resist another word cloud image of the AIA 2015 after playing around with SBL titles last month. This Wordle image is based on all the AIA paper titles stripped (or mostly stripped) of presenter titles, affiliations, institutions, and meaningless keywords. 


The hit subjects this year are Mediterranean, the Roman period, and the State (I should probably have stripped Ancient and Age which are too generic to be useful). Conference attendees will hear much about – gasp – the traditional places of classical archaeology: Italy, Greece, Crete, Athens, Rome, and the Etruscans (Cyprus, Sicily, Turkey, Spain, and Israel remain secondary). The Roman period is most frequent, but Bronze Age and Classical topics follow close behind (note the smaller Hellenistic period – remarkable given its vast geographic scope – and the tiny Byzantine period that must appear in only a handful of papers). I am glad to see that the “public” makes a modest show and that “evidence” and “analysis” are so important, but the tiny “digital” is surprising given its prominence in the humanities disciplines.

The Corinthiaka papers from the Program include:

  • “Tombs, Burials, and Commemoration in Corinth’s Northern Cemetery”
    (Kathleen Warner Slane, University of Missouri)
  • “Isotopic Investigation of Late Antique Human Population Movement in
    Cemeteries from Corinth, Greece” (Larkin Kennedy, Texas A&M University)
  • “Reliefs from Early Roman Corinth” (Mary C. Sturgeon, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)
  • “Corinth’s Economic Basis in the Eastern Adriatic during the Fifth – Second
    Century B.C.E.” (Jeffrey Royal, RPM Nautical Foundation/East Carolina University)
  • “The Ancient Corinth-South Stoa Roof Project: Previous Restoration and Conservation Treatments-New Approaches” (David Scahill, American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and Nicol Anastassatou, Corinth Excavations)
  • “Tegulae Mammatae in the Roman Baths at Isthmia” (Jon M. Frey, Michigan State University, and Timothy E. Gregory, Ohio State University)
  • “A Sixth Century Church in Corinth” (Paul D. Scotton, California State University, Long Beach)

See also: