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Ancient Corinth’s Port Pushed Back by at Least Five Centuries

Ancient Corinth port
Divers continue to search the remains of the ancient port of Corinth. Credit: Ministry of Culture

Scientists have pushed back the foundation of the port at Ancient Corinth, called Lechaion, by at least five centuries in a study published recently in the academic journal Marine Geology.

Lechaion was the largest port in ancient Greece and was connected with the city of Corinth using the Long Walls, 12 stadia in length.

The port facilities that are visible today mainly date back to the Roman period and consist of three interior basins and an outer basin open to the sea. The morphology of the port during pre-roman periods is widely unknown.

According to the study, anthropogenic lead excesses, associated with brown coal fragments, starting from the 12th century BC were discovered.

Given that historical sources trace the foundation of the port back to the 7th century BC, these results attest to protohistoric industrial use of the site and push back its chronology by over five centuries, the scientists say.

The study notes that the existence of such ancient port activity not only extends the chronological horizon for harbor activity in the Corinthian area, but also provides new insights for the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age transition, including potential trading routes that may have transited through Lechaion, likely spanning across the Gulf of Corinth and possibly even beyond, to western Mediterranean urban centers.

New dates for the foundation of the Ancient Corinth port

Using hand augers and mechanical drills, French geoarchaeologist Antoine Chabrol of Sorbonne University in France and his colleagues carefully collected cylinders of sediment from the inner harbor, where boats would have pulled upriver to anchor.

Analyzing the mud cores, they found a sudden spike in lead levels less than three meters deep. The shift is so sharp and sustained that it could only have been caused by human activity on the riverbanks, says Chabrol.

Lead pollution comes from smelting, mining, and metalwork, and the scientists dated the pollution in the port to as early as 1381 BCE—3,405 years ago—during the Bronze Age.

The five chunks of brown coal, each no bigger than a matchbox, add further evidence of the port’s antiquity. These fragments are a specific kind of coal called lignite, and the pieces collected from the harbor’s sediment date to as early as 1122 BC. T

The nearest known source of lignite is more than 50 kilometers away, suggesting merchants were importing the fossil fuel nuggets to stoke their harborside furnaces by the 12th century BC.

The findings show that Corinth’s port was used consistently for nearly 2,600 years. From the 13th century BC to the 13th century CE, Mycenaean, Phoenician, Roman, and Byzantine ships would have sailed from this strategic location.

“You can detect their presence in one single site,” says Panagiotis Athanasopoulos, an archaeologist at Greece’s Danish Institute at Athens and a collaborator on the project. “It’s like the very essence of historical continuity.”

Lechaion played a big part in turning Corinth into a maritime power

Lechaion served as one of the two principal ports of Corinth, the other being Cenchreae. Its strategic location on the Corinthian Gulf made it a vital hub for maritime trade and naval activities.

As Corinth was a dominant maritime power in the ancient Greek world, the port of Lechaion played a pivotal role in the city’s historical development and interactions with other regions.

Its strategic location enabled the city to engage in extensive trade networks, importing and exporting a wide range of goods, including pottery, wine, olive oil, and luxury items. The port’s activities contributed to Corinth’s economic prosperity, enabling the city to accumulate wealth and exert its influence in the region.

In addition to its economic significance, the port of Lechaion held immense strategic importance for ancient Corinth. Its location at the narrow isthmus of Corinth provided the city with a strategic advantage in controlling maritime traffic between the Aegean and Ionian seas.

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