Volunteers needed to explore Atlantis

Helike, Atlantis
Want to spend next summer excavating the lost ruins of Atlantis? Well, you can! There are only two catches–it may not be Atlantis, and you won’t get to ride in a UFO.

Wide-eyed crystal clutchers need not apply. This is real science and is far more interesting than New Age fantasy.

Archaeologists excavating the once-lost ancient city of Helike in Greece, are looking for volunteers this summer. The city is located in the Peloponnese, the peninsula in southwestern Greece that’s home to Corinth and Sparta. Inhabited from the Bronze Age onwards, it was thought lost after a massive earthquake in the winter of 373/372 B.C. supposedly sloughed it into the sea. All that was left were a few vague stories and the occasional statue trawled up in fishermen’s nets.

Helike, AtlantisSome scholars theorize Helike’s demise may have led to the legend of Atlantis, the famous lost kingdom that also sank into the sea. Others claim a more likely inspiration for Atlantis was Thera, also known as Santorini, an Aegean island that experienced a massive volcanic explosion in the mid second millennium BC that blew away most of its land and may have disrupted the nearby Minoan civilization.

In 2000 and 2001, a Greek team found Helike and discovered that it hadn’t sunk into the sea, but rather got submerged under an inland lagoon that later silted over. Not nearly as romantic, but nostalgia’s loss is our gain. Evidence of over three thousand years of habitation have been found. Intriguingly, excavators found a settlement dating to c.2600-2300 BC that may also have been submerged after an earthquake.

The city was dedicated to Poseidon Helikonios, god of the sea and the earthquakes. The citizens even put the god on their coinage. Considering that their entire city was destroyed by an earthquake and water, it appears their faith was misplaced.

Volunteers are needed for this summer’s excavations. You don’t need any prior experience and you’ll be trained in archaeological tasks like excavation, mapping, and lab work. If you’d rather dig somewhere else, there are hundreds of archaeological excavations around the world needing your help this summer. This list of links will get your started in your search.

Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Check the Helike Project website for more photos of this amazing site.

Sparta: Greece’s ancient warrior city

SpartaAfter having seen Athens and Corinth, I couldn’t resist visiting one of the other great city-states of ancient Greece: Sparta.

Sparta needs no introduction. It’s a star player on the History and Discovery channels and that schlocky pseudo-historical film 300. While I wanted to see the ancient ruins where brave warriors once strode, my main reason for going was to explore nearby Mistra, a Byzantine ghost town with a castle that rivals Acrocorinth. I’ll get to that in my next post.

Sparta is a three-and-a-half hour bus ride from Athens. The route passes along the Aegean shore, through the Isthmus of Corinth, and into the Peloponnese, the peninsula that makes up southwestern Greece. Passing Corinth, the road ascends into rough hills that were being buffeted by a snowstorm.

Luckily the roads were in good condition and I made it on time. The clouds were breaking over the Vale of Sparta although it remained bitterly cold. My first stop was at the Fifth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities to learn more about how the economic crisis was affecting archaeologists’ ability to explore and preserve Greece’s past. The Ephorates are divided by region, in this case Lakonia, roughly the central and southern Peloponnese, and also by period. There’s a Fifth Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities too.

Archaeologists Lygeri Nikolakaki and Ageliki Mexia greeted me in their cramped office overflowing with books, reports, and maps. They spread out several maps in front of me to demonstrate just how rich their area was in medieval remains. Castles, churches, monasteries, and medieval towns dotted the landscape. This area was called the Morea in late Byzantine times and was one of the few centers of wealth, art, and learning during the waning days of the empire in the 14th and 15th centuries.

One region caught my eye–the Mani peninsula. The Ephorate has recorded some 2,000 Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments on the peninsula, and the map showed hiking trails crisscrossing the area. The Maniots were always semi-independent, fierce fighters and pirates who never fully submitted to the Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, or Byzantines. Their culture remains distinct even today. As I was researching this trip I was already planning another one.

%Gallery-146530%

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Mistra: a Byzantine ghost town in Greece!Nikolakaki and Mexia explained that Mistra, the Byzantine city outside Sparta, is their department’s star attraction and one of the top ten most visited historical sites in Greece. Numbers are generally down, however. There was a surge in visitors in 2005 and 2006 after the Olympics, and then a steady decline. They blame the economy and competition from more famous attractions in Greece.

Despite this, funding from the Greek Ministry of Culture and the European Union in recent years has led to improvement at many sites. At Mistra, the Ephorate had installed new signs in Greek and English to explain the remains, and the museum there has been reorganized and improved. The palace of the Despots (local rulers) is being restored. They hope to open a gift shop this summer.

Another Byzantine fortress city, Geraki, is being prepared for visitors and will open in two years, funding permitting. The Ephorate hadn’t received approval for their 2012 budget when I visited, and they’ve been told to “reduce expectations”. At the same time, they’ve been asked to increase the number of visitors.

The Fifth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities may lose its independence under a new scheme by the Ministry of Culture. It’s proposing to merge the Ephorates of each region into one, so that prehistoric, Classical, and Byzantine antiquities will all be handled by one office. Nikolakaki and Mexia are cautiously optimistic about this move, saying that it may help cut waste and improve the ability of the Ephorates to manage Greek’s heritage. After all, many sites, Sparta included, have remains from several different periods.

I hope they’re correct. Mergers generally mean layoffs, and I wouldn’t want to see these dedicated researchers join Greece’s large ranks of the unemployed.

The Archaeological Museum of Sparta is worth seeing to get some background on the city and its history. Despite the cold, only the front room where the ticket seller sat was heated. The rest of the heating had been turned off to save money.

I kept my coat on as I browsed the few rooms in this small but well-stocked museum. Funerary stelae, statues of the gods, and a remarkable bust of an ancient warrior showed that while Sparta was famous for its martial skill, it produced good art as well. Some of the best artifacts are a series of mosaics discovered in Roman-period houses in the area. Check out the photo gallery for some of the best displays from this interesting museum.

Chats with archaeologists and visits to museums, however informative, can’t compete with seeing the ruins themselves. That evening, with the sun peeking through the clouds, I took the short stroll to the edge of town to see ancient Sparta.

While not nearly as impressive as the ruins of Corinth or Athens, the remains of ancient Sparta are alluring. Soon the town of modern Sparta is left behind and you enter olive groves. There were almost no other visitors when I went and the place as quiet except for birdsong. From the old acropolis you can look out over the theater and the remains of a temple to Athena. Nearby lie the foundations of a Byzantine church. The ancient stones were taking on a golden hue from the evening light.

As I stood in an olive grove looking out over Sparta’s ancient theater, a shepherd grazed his flock nearby. A ray of sunlight broke through the clouds to shine on the medieval town of Mistra in the distance. Beyond that rose the snowy peaks and gorges of Taygetus mountains. Perfect.

A friend who has traveled extensively in Greece says that the country’s scenery “does tend to sneak up on you like that.”

Greece sneaked up on me several times during my trip.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Mistra!

Archaeologists blog as they excavate Nea Paphos World Heritage site

archaeologists, Nea Paphos
Archaeologists excavating at the ancient city of Nea Paphos in Cyprus have written about their work and discoveries in a blog.

A University of Sydney team has been working to uncover medieval walls built atop a Classical theater and investigating a public fountain dating to the first century AD, the Cyprus Mail reports.

Nea Paphos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was founded around 300 BC, and the theater was built around the same time. It served as the capital of Cyprus during the Hellenistic and Roman periods and was an important spot in Byzantine times, when a castle was built nearby. Legend has it that Aphrodite emerged from the sea at the nearby beach. I’ve been to that beach and it’s so beautiful I’m not surprised the legend arose there. Aphrodite probably started as a Phoenician fertility goddess long before the Greeks and Romans arrived, and continued as the cult of Aphrodite until 391 AD when the Roman Emperor Theodosius banned all pagan religions.

The team has wrapped up its work for the season but they and their blog will return in 2012. I’m glad to see archaeologists reaching out to the public this way and I hope more follow the University of Sydney’s example. There’s a lot of popular misconception about how archaeologists do their work and blogs like theirs help remedy that.

Photo of the Odeon of Nea Paphos from second century AD courtesy user einalem via flickr.

Excavations at ancient city of Perge in Turkey celebrate 65 years

Turkey, Perge, Perga
Archaeological excavations at the ancient city of Perge in southern Turkey have reached their 65th year, the Hürriyet Daily News reports. This makes them the longest-running excavations in a country with a wealth of ancient sites.

Perge (aka Perga) is in Turkey’s Antalya province and was founded 3,500 years ago by the Hittites. It became a prosperous Greek colony like Ephesus and Pergamon and was for a time under Persian rule. Many of the surviving remains are from the Roman period. In the early days of Christianity, St. Paul preached there (Acts 14:25). Several interesting monuments can still be seen such as a theatre, a stadium, two city gates, and a temple to Artemis.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site is so massive that more than a half century of digging has only uncovered a quarter of it. The current project is to restore many of the columns that once lined the streets.

Perga is at one end of a challenging 300+ mile trek called the St. Paul Trail that cuts diagonally across the country.

For more information and photos, check out this Anatolian travel page.

[Photo courtesy archer10 (Dennis) via flickr]

Battle of Marathon to be fought again

Battle of MarathonWhile the U.S. is having lots of Civil War reenactments lately, it’s not the only country where avid hobbyists like to refight old battles. This year Greece is marking the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, an epic clash between the Greeks and Persians that saved Europe from invasion and allowed Greek culture to thrive. To commemorate the battle, there will be a reenactment on the actual battlefield.

The battle was a desperate attempt to stop the Persian Empire, the major superpower of the day, from invading Greece in 490 BC. The Greek city-states of Athens and Palataea blocked the passes leading out from the Persian beachhead on the Plain of Marathon. Even though the Greeks were outnumbered two-to-one, they attacked and routed the Persians, ending the invasion.

There’s a legend that an Athenian named Pheidippides ran from the battlefield to Athens to announce the victory and died from exhaustion right after he gave the good news. The distance from Marathon to Athens is, of course, about 26 miles. This actually never happened, but it makes a good story.

From September 9 to 11, hundreds of reenactors from around the world will converge on the battlefield for a day of sham fighting and historical demonstrations. The Greek side will include many Greeks, while the Persian ranks will have many Iranians. Dozens of other countries will contribute people as well. Events will be centered on a reconstruction of the Greek military camp and there will be archery demonstrations, ancient music and dancing, and much more.

At least 200 warriors will duke it out on the original battlefield, but there won’t be any blood spilled. The Greeks will have dull spears and the Persians will be firing rubber-tipped arrows. I bet this poor fellow pictured here, a Greek casualty of the real battle, wished there were rubber arrows back in his day.

[Photo courtesy Keith Schengili-Roberts]