History

Underwater Remains of Ancient Naval Base Found

The base played a key role in the most decisive naval battle of antiquity.

<p>Credit: Vassilis Tsiairis <span></span></p>

Danish and Greek archaeologists have discovered the remains of one of the largest building complexes of the ancient world -- a naval base that 2,500 years ago housed Athens's enormous fleet.

Featuring massive harbor fortifications and sheds designed to hold hundreds of war ships called triremes, the base played a key role in the most decisive naval battle of antiquity.

The remains lay hidden under the water of the Mounichia fishing and yachting harbor in the Piraeus.

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University of Copenhagen archaeologist Bjørn Lovén, who led the expedition as part of the Zea Harbor Project, identified and excavated six ship-sheds that were used to protect the Greek ships from shipworm and from drying when they were not needed on the sea.

"The sheds were monumental," Lovén said.

He noted the foundations under the columns were 4 foot by 6 inches and the sheds themselves were just over 19 feet wide, up to 26 feet tall and 164 feet long.

Based on pottery and carbon-14 dating from a worked piece of wood found inside the foundations of a colonnade dividing two ship-sheds, Lovén and colleagues dated the structure to around 520-480 B.C. or shortly thereafter.

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Such evidence means the ship-sheds in all probability housed the warships that were deployed in 480 B.C. in the famous naval battle of Salamis between the Greeks and Persians.

Fought in the narrow straits that separate the Greek mainland from the island of Salamis, the battle is regarded as one of the greatest and most important naval engagements of antiquity. The Greeks's three-tiered warships, led by the Athenian politician and general Themistocles, defeated the much larger invading Persian fleet led by King Xerxes, who intended to add Greece to the greatest empire on Earth.

"All social classes rowed and fought aboard the triremes. I strongly believe this pivotal battle created an immensely strong bond among most of the citizens, and in this way the Athenian navy was to develop into the backbone of the world's first democracy," Lovén told Discovery News.

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The battle of Salamis secured the independence of the Greek city-states and ultimately the development of western civilization.

"It is difficult to predict what would have happened if the Greek fleet had lost at Salamis, but it is clear that a Persian victory would have had immense consequences for subsequent cultural and social developments in Europe," Lovén said.

"What we've been excavating, in essence, are the material remains of an extraordinary historical development," he added.

Lovén plans to continue the excavations at some point in the future.

"We won't specifically to look for a trireme – the Holy Grail of underwater archaeology. But I believe it is important to search for this famous warship and keep searching and searching – because somewhere there must be one hiding in the sediments," he said.