Plumbing the depths of ancient city

WETSUIT securely zipped to the neck, snorkel firmly fixed in his mouth, Jon Henderson stepped out and plunged into the clear blue water – of Infirmary Street swimming pool.

By Gina Davidson
Thursday, 6th October 2011, 4:27 pm

Twenty-one years later and he’s swapped the tiles of Edinburgh’s long-gone swimming pool for the ancient pottery of a long-dead Greek culture.

Now an underwater archaeologist, he’s been leading a team of experts in an attempt to uncover the secrets of the world’s oldest submerged city, lying deep below the azure waters of the Mediterranean. A city which could have inspired the Atlantis myth.

This Sunday, a BBC documentary will see the former Edinburgh University archaeology student and his team use underwater technology to investigate the site of Pavlopetri, a city which thrived for 2000 years before it sank beneath the waves off the southern coast of Greece.

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With the help of computer-generated imagery (CGI) they will also raise it once more from the seabed, revealing for the first time in 3500 years how it would once have looked.

Pavlopetri’s stone buildings and complex layout of streets lies less than five metres below the surface of the sea, and although it was originally discovered in 1967, it has taken until now to be excavated properly.

“It is incredibly exciting,” says Jon, now an associate professor at Nottingham University’s department of archaeology. “And it’s a long way away from Infirmary Street swimming pool.

“There is now no doubt that this is the oldest submerged town in the world. It is from the Mycenaean period but we have now discovered pottery going back to 3500BC, so the beginnings of the settlement are 5000 years old – long before the glory days of classical Greece.

“We can see that Pavlopetri has gone from being a farming society to an urban one based on trade and linking up with different cities in the Mediterranean. It is fascinating.”

He adds: “When I was a boy I had a book about submerged cities and Pavlopetri was in it. I used to dream about swimming above it and looking down on it. Now I’m down there, among its streets. It is a dream come true.”

Jon’s excitement at being involved in the project is palpable, especially as the majority of his work usually involves being in the cold waters of Scottish lochs rather than the warmth of Greece’s coastal seas.

He remembers clearly that first dive in the Edinburgh municipal pool. “I got involved in diving and underwater archaeology when I was in my first year at Edinburgh University and attended a lecture to hear about Scottish crannogs, ancient submerged loch dwellings.

“Few have heard of them, but so far 500 have been found and there are almost 31,000 lochs in Scotland, so there’s still much to be discovered.

“It’s believed that people created these islands artificially using rocks, logs and other organic materials, and then built on them. They existed from the Neolithic era to the 18th century. When I heard about them in that lecture, that was it for me – I had to learn to dive.”

He joined the university’s sub aqua club and training started at the Infirmary Baths, which he recalls as being “a lovely old building”, before going on to the murky waters of the east coast, in particular the Forth near Dunbar.

Since then, though, he’s gone on to dive in much more pleasant surroundings, including Malaysia and Peru.

“The east coast waters can be quite dark because of the type of seabed; the diving is better on the west coast. In fact, the best dive I’ve ever done was the Western Isles. It was beautiful and so clear. Mind you, the last time I was diving in Scotland I was in Loch Awe and had an epiphany. I said, ‘that’s it, the next dive is going to be in the Med’ and that’s what happened.”

For Jon, the move to underwater archaeology, rather than land digs, was obvious once he realised that remains which are sunken tend to survive longer than those which are buried.

“On land if you’re working on a settlement site you might find a hole where a post had once stood. Under the water, you’ll find the post and likely whatever was attached to it. You get loads more organic material surviving so you’re able to build a better picture of what life was like.”

It appears that Pavlopetri is offering up riches to the excavating team because it is submerged in a protected bay and in shifting sands which have slowly been eroded by the waves.

“I got interested in Pavlopetri when a colleague at Nottingham was working with pottery found there back in 1968. It dawned on me that there had been no work done on this site since then. I thought, ‘let’s see if we can put a project together and get out there and excavate’. It was a bit of a punt, but it paid off.

“It is one of the best archaeological sites in the world and never for a moment did I think we would be this successful. Because I’ve been working on laser surveying techniques, it means we can do the work in 3D, rather than with rulers as the original team did.

“We did our first work there in 2009 and we were lucky to discover more of the town because of erosion, so there were new things to discover. That was such a major moment for me.”

He adds: “I feel very lucky every time I swim there. When I tell people I’m working on a sunken city, they don’t believe me. There’s an idea that such places don’t exist – like Atlantis. But they do and it’s generally because of earthquakes that they have ended up submerged.”

Jon is leading the project with a team from the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Nic Flemming, the man whose hunch led to the intriguing discovery of Pavlopetri in 1967. Also working alongside the archaeologists are a team from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, who aim to take underwater archaeology into the 21st century.

The team scour the sea floor for any artefacts and the site is littered with thousands of fragments, each providing valuable clues to the everyday lives of the people of Pavlopetri.

“What really took us by surprise was the discovery of a possible megaron, a monumental structure with a large rectangular hall, which suggests that the town had been used by an elite, and automatically raised the status of the settlement,” he says.

It was also Jon who convinced television bosses that the dig – and the CGI – would make a great documentary. He says: “It’s exciting to tell new stories and I went round discussing the idea with various television companies, but I thought the BBC were probably the best people to work with.”

So have the warm waters of the Med spoiled him, or do the Scottish crannogs still hold an attraction? “I am back in Edinburgh a lot, it still feels like home even though I’ve lived in England ever since I went to Oxford to do my PhD and, yes, crannogs are still fascinating. I’ve got my work cut out trying to convince others about their importance.

“If I’ve learned one thing, it’s far easier to raise interest and funding for a project in the Mediterranean than Scotland.”

* Pavlopetri – The City Beneath The Waves will be on BBC2 this Sunday at 8pm.

The Myths of time

THE secrets of the lost city which may have inspired one of the world’s most enduring myths – the fable of Atlantis – date back some 5000 years to the time of Homer’s heroes.

Indeed, it is the first Greek sunken city found to predate the time that Plato wrote his allegorical tale of the sunken continent of Atlantis.

The site, which was initially thought to cover 30,000 square metres of ocean, has now been discovered to be 80,000sq m – the equivalent of eight football pitches.

It is believed to have begun sinking around 1000BC, taking until 1060AD before it was completely submerged.

Thanks to shifting sands and protection in a bay, the exploration revealed a world of buildings, courtyards, main streets, rock-cut tombs and religious structures. In addition, the seabed was replete with thousands of shards of pottery.