Archaeologists Uncover Massive Naval Bases of the Ancient Athenians

Researchers have excavated ship sheds in the city of Piraeus that held triremes from the pivotal Battle of Salamis
A drawing of one of the Athenian ship sheds built in the harbors of Piraeus (University of Copenhagen)

If he toured Mounichia harbor today, Xerxes the Great, ruler of the Persian Empire, might scoff at the pleasure yachts and fisherman that can primarily be found on the waters just south of Athens, Greece. But 2,500 years ago, when the protected harbor in Piraeus, a port city on the outskirts of Athens, was a full on naval base bristling with armed sailors and mean-looking triremes? That might have made him think twice about trying to invade Greece.

Archaeologists are learning just how formidable Athens’ naval war machine really was after excavating parts of two of the three militarized harbors built in Piraeus. “We have identified, for the first time, the 5th century BC naval bases of Piraeus—the ship-sheds, the slipways and the harbor fortifications,” Bjørn Lovén, director of the Zea Harbor Project, which led the excavations, tells Philippe Bohstrom at Haaretz.

Lovén says the naval fortifications at one time housed about 400 fast and maneuverable ships called triremes. These vessels were tended to by 80,000 sailors and soldiers.

Lovén and his team most recently excavated the remains of six ship sheds, David DeMar writes at NewHistorian.com. The sheds stored triremes to protect them from marine woodworms and to keep the hot Mediterranean sun from shrinking their timbers and causing leaks. The sheds were huge—spread between the three ports of Piraeus (Mounichia, Zea and Kantharos), they covered 110,000 square meters or more than 1 million square feet, according to a video by Lovén. To put that number in comparison, that’s the size of approximately 17 football fields.

Carbon-14 dating of pottery and wooden foundations placed the ship-sheds between 520 and 480 BC. Those dates are significant because it likely means they housed triremes that took part in the Battle of Salamis in 480, a key event in Greek history.

In 490, the Athenians thwarted an invasion by Persian ruler Darius I at Marathon. But they knew the Persians would return. That’s why politician and general Themistocles convinced Athens to ramp up its navy, building 200 new triremes and housing them in almost impregnable naval bases in Piraeus.

The harbors could be closed off by large gates with fortified towers on either side, Bohstrom writes. Other fortifications along the coast could also attack approaching ships, making an advance on the naval bases by sea almost suicidal.

“It would have been an almost impregnable harbor,” another researcher on the project, Møller Nielsen tells Bohstrom.

Themistocles chose the right strategy. When the Persians attacked 10 years later under Xerxes I, the 400 Greek ships defeated 1,000 Persian vessels at the Battle of Salamis, a turning point of Greek history.
Diver excavating ship shed remains in Mounichia harbor (University of Copenhagen)

“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 says in a press release. “The victory at Salamis rightly echoes through history and awakens awe and inspiration around the world today.”

He also tells Discovery News that the battle influenced Athenian democracy. “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,” he says, “and in this way the Athenian navy was to develop into the backbone of the world's first democracy.”

The naval bases did eventually fall, however. Around 404 BC, Sparta and other Greek states defeated Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War and tore down its naval fortifications in Piraeus.

The submerged remains of an ancient Athenian naval base, dated to around 493 BCE, have been uncovered thanks to the work of an international team of underwater archaeologists.

The remains of the naval base were found deep within the harbor of Mounichia, used today primarily for fishing and as a berth for yachts. Originally, it was the location of one of the largest building works of ancient Greece, playing a major role in the region’s ability to defend itself from maritime attacks.

In an interview with CPH Post Online, Bjørn Lovén, an underwater archaeologist from the University of Copenhagen that was involved in the research project, said that it was a difficult endeavor to say the least. On many days, the harbor’s waters had extremely low visibility – only as far as 20 centimeters in several cases – making working conditions quite poor.

However, Lovén remarked that the research team had been ultimately able to not just locate six ship houses but excavate them as well. These houses were used to provide protection to Greek ships from drying out and from being eaten by woodworm. The ships would be pulled ashore and placed within these ship houses whenever they were not being used, the archaeologist added.

These ship houses were cyclopean in size, as they needed to be formidable in order to accommodate the large Athenian ships. Beneath the pillars of these houses, the foundations were found to be 1.4 x 1.4 meters wide, sometimes more than 7 to 8 meters high in places, and at least 50 meters long.

The revelation of the naval base’s existence is part of a long-running excavation endeavor known as the Zea Harbour Project. The initiative originally saw Piraeus, another ancient Athenian naval base, excavated from 2001 through 2012.

Lovén said that the research team has been able to date the ship houses found underwater at Mounichia to between 520 BCE and 480 BCE, or perhaps just slightly earlier. This means these houses could have provided shelter to the Athenian ships that were instrumental in defeating the Persians during the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE.

The famous naval battle was pivotal in stopping the Second Persian Invasion led by King Xerxes. The Battle of Salamis, hot on the heels of the Spartan delaying action at the Battle of Thermopylae (popularized by films such as “The 300”), was a decisive victory for the Greek city-states that had allied against the Persian threat, despite the fact that the Persians had them woefully outnumbered. The Greeks capitalized on the inability of the Persians to maneuver within the Straits of Salamis, which eliminated the Persian numerical advantage.

The battle marked the turning point in the war against the invading Persians, as Xerxes retreated to Asia. His remaining forces would be routed the following year, spelling an end to Persian invasion into the Grecian archipelago and paving the way for Greek culture to flourish and influence modern Western history.

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