The Story of Pavlopetri

Six thousand years ago, in Greece, an urban revolution occurred. Instead of continuing to form only random settlements and villages, people began to live in more planned and structured communities.Thus, cities were born.

In the Greek Peloponnese, the remains of one such city – thought to be one of the oldest – holds clues to what these early urban settlements looked like. There are carefully laid out streets, residential neighborhoods with gardens, a harbor with warehouses, government buildings for administration, temples and for the departed, an area with chamber tombs chiseled into stone.

A network of pipes lining the streets indicates there was some kind of plumbing, running water, and perhaps a sewage system. The private homes of more affluent families had two stories, seemingly with roof terraces.. The town’s wealth derived from its weaving and pottery industries, but most of all it was due to its fortunate location on a natural harbor, making it a port of call with all the associated jobs and income – and probably a lively night life, too.

Trading ships from Crete stopped here to load and unload wares. As we know from shards of pottery found here, local artisans made a business out of imitating the styles and fashions of fashionable Crete, creating affordable copies and keeping the local citizens on the cutting edge of style.

We know quite a bit about this city – but we don’t know its original name. And we don’t know what disaster befell it. There might have been one big earthquake, or a series of small ones, or a tsunami. Or the sea level could just naturally have risen over the decades. What we do know is that this city, today called Pavlopetri, ended up underwater. Archeologists claim it is the oldest submerged city in the world.

It was discovered in 1967 by Nicholas Flemming, an oceanographer from the Institute of Oceanography at the University of Southampton. In 2009, archeologist Jon Henderson brought a team from Nottingham University to map and explore the site. They worked closely with the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, a special peripheral service of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports with responsibility throughout Greece. They have the lead on all underwater archeological projects.

Underwater archaeology is a specialized branch of science. Exploring historic sites while wearing diving gear is obviously quite challenging, but also quite exciting. In addition to underwater cities, of which dozens are known throughout the world, these diver/archeologists also explore sunken ships, some of them thousands of years old.

Marine archeologists can learn about trade routes by seeing which kinds of items the ships were carrying from one destination to another. Coins found onboard tell them which cultures were engaging in mutual commerce. They can reconstruct some of history’s most dramatic sea battles by mapping the position of multiple sunken battleships and seeing what weapons they carried.

In the Turkish city of Bodrum, there is a Museum devoted to Underwater Archeology.

Donald Frey, President of the Institute of Nautical Archeology, found many of the items in the museum.

In 2009 in Pavlopetri, Jon Henderson and his team were able to map the sunken City of Pavlopetri. A Robotics Team from Australia, used high tech means to create a virtual image of what the city might have looked like.

The team of archeologists and other scientists ran into some administrative snags, but they hope to come back and do a complete excavation of the buried city. Local residents hope this will happen. They have big plans – they would like to build a visitor’s center with interactive exhibits and offer organized snorkeling tours and glass-bottomed boat tours to show off their local treasure to tourists.

Pavlopetri is located on the outskirts of Neapolis, a town that makes its living from farming, producing top grade organic olive oil and honey, fishing and tourism. The clean beaches and fantastic food attract summer visitors, as do the nearby sights: the historic city of Sparta, the fortified city of Monemvasia, and the island of Elafonisos. The people of Neapolis are strongly committed to maintaining their clean and healthy environment and proud of their historic legacy.

But now, both are in danger.

Ships are anchoring illegally in Vatika Bay.

This allows them to save the fee they would have to pay if they anchored in a recognized port. Their anchors disturb the marine plants and animals that live here, including the Poseidonia oceanica “Neptune Seagrass” meadows, Pinna nobilis "Noble Pen Shell" and the endangered Caretta caretta, Loggerhead sea turtle.

While anchored in the Bay, they also hire diving companies to clean their hulls, which releases large amounts of toxic paint, chemicals and dirt into the bay.

The pollution and the sediment stirred up by the anchors is damaging and degrading the underwater city.

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. That is why this practice is banned except under controlled circumstances. Behind these problems lie political and financial interests.

The Ephorate, which should be enthusiastically promoting the protection and the scientific study of Pavlopetri, has instead impeded the efforts of international and Greek archeologists. The local Coast Guard, which should enforce the many laws protecting marine plants and animals and prohibiting marine pollution, instead turns a blind eye to the ships anchoring in Vatika Bay.

The citizens of Neapolis have held meetings, formed action committees and launched petitions to save their clean water and their historic legacy.

If the rest of the world finds out what is happening to the oldest underwater city in the world, we will be successful in protecting Pavlopetri and making it possible for Pavlopetri to be fully explored so that everyone in the world can learn what it has to teach us.