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Preserving and Protecting Pavlopetri, the World’s Oldest Sunken City


Pavlopetri oldest sunken city
Where the water meets the shore on Vatika Bay, the site of the oldest sunken city in the world, Pavlopetri. Credit: Image courtesy of Mission Blue Hope Spot

Marine traffic now threatens the sunken city of Pavlopetri, which existed for more than 5000 years, off the coast of the Peloponnesian peninsula. The ancient Greek city, lying just 10 feet below the sea’s surface, could be destroyed because of vessels anchoring and cleaning their hulls in the quiet bay.

Volunteers in Neapolis are doing their best to protect the antiquity with the help of a global nonprofit. The NGO Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (ARCH) got involved with volunteers on the ground in Neapolis, Laconia about a decade ago, to assist them in protecting and preserving this unique underwater city.

Submerged in about ten feet of water, it was officially recognized by British archaeologist Nicholas Fleming in 1967. The site has been under observation and study for more than 50 years but had not been protected until ARCH assisted and helped organize the Laconian locals. Although listed as a UNESCO heritage site, uncontrolled marine traffic in the bay posed a threat to the sunken city.

ARCH Joins Mission to Preserve, Protect Pavlopetri

ARCH has three goals in its overall mission. First, to defend and restore cultural treasures and monuments that are threatened or destroyed. Secondly, to work with fellow cultural activists including poets, artists, writers and ordinary citizens who share ARCH’s purpose. Thirdly, to encourage cultural narratives, stories and historical narratives that emphasize creative cultural achievements and universal values of civilization.

Greek Reporter spoke with ARCH local chapter leader Barbara Euser recently. Her home in Neapolis, Laconia overlooks Vatika Bay, so she sees Pavlopetri every day. After meeting archeologists at the site in 2010, she became aware of the dangers that threatened its preservation. She  got locals on board to protect their cultural heritage and the marine environment.

Euser is not Greek and not a native of Neapolis. She was raised in the very much inland city of Denver, Colorado. When she was ten, however, her family took a passenger ship across the Atlantic to the Netherlands. The journey inspired her travels and interest in world cultures and the sea.

She has a B.A. and M.A. in political science from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a J.D. from the University of Denver. Euser worked in the US State Department, serving in Guangzhou, China, Washington, DC, and Paris, France. She has authored and edited more than a dozen books.

Map of sunken city Pavlopetri
A map delineates the sunken city of Pavlopetri. Credit: Image courtesy of ARCH

World Monument Fund Also Adopts Sunken City

“ARCH decided to adopt us as a project, which led Pavlopetri to be nominated for consideration by the World Monument Fund (WMF) in 2016,” according to Euser. WMF is dedicated to safeguarding the world’s most treasured places to enrich people’s lives and build mutual understanding across cultures and communities. The organization, which is headquartered in New York City, has more than 700 sites in 112 countries.

Pavlopetri is included on the 2016 World Monuments Watch. They support local efforts which have the potential to advance heritage conservation practice much more broadly by elaborating strategies for community protection of other underwater heritage sites around the world. The sunken city in Vatika Bay was among 50 sites across 36 countries that were highlighted from 2016 to 2018.

Once Pavlopetri was adopted by the WMF, the local organization was required to have “Watch Days” that would raise awareness. The WMF offered them some financial assistance for the Watch Days they ran from 2016 through to 2019, and the organization received  support from private citizens and the local hospitality industry.

The Watch Days raise awareness with experts making presentations about the importance of Pavlopetri and the threats to it. Greek archeologist Despina Kotsoumba guided snorkeling tours during the Watch Days as well.

The local Greek group also initiated a Pavlopetri Eco Marine Film Festival that ran for three days in 2019 and screened seven films. Since the pandemic, they continue to make recommendations for film screenings on their Facebook page.

Local advocates such as Euser support a Special Port Regulation that would only allow ships to anchor legally in Vatika Bay and promote the adoption of a proactive set of regulations that would protect the site. Warning buoys need to be placed around the site, keeping ships away and signage on land would explain the importance of the site to visitors.

Awareness Will Protect and Preserve Archaic City

“Being aligned with ARCH has benefited Pavlopetri because we were able to get more attention from several ministries and the ephorate in Greece,” Euser told Greek Reporter. “We had combined meetings with members of the ministries of culture and tourism as well as the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities.”

The other staunch defenders of Pavlopetri have included the local newspaper Ta Vatika and the environmental organization Tulipa Goulima, Euser told Greek Reporter.

The President of ARCH, Dr. Cheryl Bernard states on their website, “History is a constant struggle between those who build and those who destroy. You have to decide which team you’re on.”

With a PhD in international relations and as a senior analyst and program director for European and U.S. think tanks, Benard founded ARCH as a consequence of being continuously impressed, during her travels, with the resilience and creativity of individuals and groups who were determined to hold on to treasured aspects of their culture, even under the most trying circumstances.

ARCH began its involvement with Pavlopetri through an email that was a cry for help from Euser. The Greek government was dealing with so many other problems that Pavlopetri was not high on the list of priorities. The people of Neapolis felt isolated in their struggle to protect this ancient place that was so special and so beloved by them.

ARCH went about fact-checking, finding that UNESCO’s website indeed listed Pavlopetri as the world’s oldest underwater city. ARCH also found a BBC documentary, “City Beneath the Waves,” with wonderful images, a report on the archaeological findings from an earlier exploration, and some fascinating speculation on what the city had looked like in its heyday, how the people had lived, worked, prayed and played there.

ARCH got in touch with British archaeologist, Dr. Nicholas Flemming, who had first discovered the city in the 1960s. He explained that the place really was extremely special, because most of the cities that have ended up submerged under water date from Roman or later Hellenistic times.

This, however, was an entire Bronze Age port city. Its location meant it had been an important hub along the bustling Aegean seafaring routes. There had been some exploration of the site, but much more remained to be done – its buried ruins still held many secrets about what sorts of goods were traded, how far the reach of the traders had been – as far as Afghanistan, where the all-important lead was obtainable.

Pavlopetri must have been a wealthy city, as indicated by the fact that it had administrative buildings and different kinds of neighborhoods, some obviously for the wealthy elites, others for a working middle class. If it were destroyed before it could be fully studied, an entire chunk of world history would disappear right along with it, according to Flemming.  ARCH needed to do whatever it could to preserve this place, Flemming told the organization’s representatives, because it really was worth the trouble.

According to the web site, the biggest asset to preserving and protecting the site was a determined and committed local people. ARCH found the premier advocate, an American “immigrant” who just happened to have a background in law and in things nautical. From her balcony, Euser had a clear view of the bay. She used a nautical app to see which ships were anchored there, and she used her binoculars to take note of those that tried to do so in secret by turning off their radar.

The citizens of Neapolis have held meetings, formed action committees and launched petitions to save their clean water and their historic legacy. The pollution of the bay wasn’t just harming the ruins –it was also endangering the sea turtles, killing the Posidonia Oceanica – sea grass, leaving tar balls on the formerly pristine beach, which angered the hotel owners and endangered their livelihoods, which depended on tourism.

UNESCO acknowledges Pavlopetri as the oldest underwater city in the world. It dates back more than 5,000 years and represents one of the first “planned” cities – with residential neighborhoods, administrative buildings, factories for the production of pottery, markets and so on.

The submerged remains cover an area of more than 500,000 square feet.

Pavlopetri was an active and prosperous port city. Further excavations will provide new information about ancient maritime trade routes, commerce, religion, government and daily life. With careful management, the site has potential as a tourist attraction with an on-shore museum, guided snorkeling tours and visits via glass bottom boats. In 2011, BBC featured Pavlopetri in the documentary “City Beneath the Waves” which included 3D visualizations of the city map and its structures. This Bronze Age city might even have inspired one of the world’s most enduring myths – the tale of Atlantis.

Pavlopetri is surrounded by sites from ancient Greek literature and myth: Cyclops’ cave on Elafonisos Island, Cape Maleas where Odysseus sailed, and Kythera Island, where the goddess Aphrodite emerged from the waves.

Pavlopetri is threatened by pollution and shifting sediments caused by the presence of large ships. They anchor in Vatika Bay and some engage in hull-cleaning — an illegal activity because it can be highly toxic if conducted unsupervised.

After a cargo ship unloads its freight and while it is waiting to load new freight, it becomes too light and it has to take in a large amount of water as ballast. Preparing to take on new cargo, the ships dump their ballast water in Vatika Bay. The water contains plants and animals from elsewhere, which contaminates the local marine life. Some of the species are invasive and can permanently alter the local ecology.

ARCH director and Barbara Euser
Dr. Cheryl Benard of ARCH and Barbara Euser, holding the official sea turtle adoption certificate protecting and preserving the creatures in Vatika Bay. Credit: Image Courtesy of ARCH

Hull cleaning endangers the bay’s marine life, includes Posidonia Oceania – sea grasses, turtles and affects the quality of the water. ARCH and its Greek Chapter began to advocate on behalf of Pavlopetri from 2014. Support for protecting Pavlopetri comes from  archeologists who have worked on the site, the European Association of Archeologists, the mayor of Elafonisos, a pro bono law firm in Athens, local business owners and media representatives.

A maritime app is used to monitor and document the unregulated presence of anchored ships. Volunteers have kept records of these commercial ships since 2015. Pavlopetri volunteers have worked cooperatively with Athens attorneys who volunteered their services as well for the adoption of a Special Port Regulation to limit commercial vessels entering Vatika Bay.  The bay may eventually be declared a Marine Protected Area.

A London legal firm also volunteered their services by assisting the community file a series of legal complaints to EU Commission and to the UN Special Rapporteur. This required a tremendous amount of paperwork, bureaucratic knowhow and legal research.

Euser’s activism has gotten results. “We have managed to put Pavlopetri on the marine maps so that when ships do come in, the ancient city is delineated,” she says. And the commercial ships, which average about two daily that anchor in the bay, cannot use the excuse that they did not know it was there.

Euser told Greek Reporter that “In 2017, Dr. Sylvia Earle and her team at Mission Blue declared Vatika Bay a Hope Spot. Hope Spots are unique areas of the ocean critical to the health of the planet.” Aside from protecting the marine biodiversity, what makes the Vatika Bay a Hope Spot is the intersection of nature and culture – in the form of a submerged ancient city.

Euser is very positive about the actions that have come about to raise awareness about Pavlopetri through grassroots activism that protect and preserve both the antiquities and sea life in Vatika Bay.

Euser stated “Pavlopetri is important to the entire world. We are the local stewards of the site, with the responsibility to preserve, protect, and promote it, so we may learn what it has to teach us — and our children.”

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