Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.12.18 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.12.18

Jean-Yves Empereur, Tony Koželj, Olivier Picard, Manuela Wurch-Koželj, The Hellenistic Harbour of Amathus: Underwater Excavations, 1984-1986. Volume 1, Architecture and History. Études Chypriotes, 19.   Paris; Athens:  École Française d'Athènes, 2018.  Pp. 172.  ISBN 9782869582934.  €40,00.  


Reviewed by Alkiviadis Ginalis, Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Austrian Academy of Sciences (alkiviadisginalis@archaeologist.com; ginalis@rgzm.de)

The submerged harbour of the ancient port city of Amathus on the south coast of Cyprus was excavated between 1984 and 1986 by a Franco-Cypriot team under the direction of Jean-Yves Empereur. Several articles and detailed reports on this work have appeared in periodicals such as the IJNA or BCH; the monograph under review is the first of two projected volumes of the excavation’s final publication. Because the facility was rapidly abandoned, either near or just after its completion, and probably without ever having been put into service, the site provides unique insight into the architecture and construction methods of an early Hellenistic harbour.

The volume is divided into two main parts with four chapters in total: Part I (The Hellenistic Harbour) comprises three chapters primarily dedicated to the analysis and understanding of the construction process of the harbour facility itself; and Part II (Post-Harbour History), a single chapter, dealing with individual archaeological features and finds investigated within the wider harbour basin. The authors begin, however, with an extensive preface and an introduction to the history of fieldwork at the site. Since more than 30 years have passed since the last campaign, they address the technical capabilities and working conditions that prevailed in the 1980s. It must be emphasized that photographic documentation as well as excavation methods are of a very high standard.

In Part I, chapter 1 (“The architecture of the Hellenistic harbour,” pp. 32-91) focuses first and foremost on the detailed architectural investigation of the harbour’s most prominent feature: the mole. The analysis is organized geographically, starting with the western section of the mole and moving to its southern and eastern counterpart. Meticulous documentation of the stratigraphy and elevations of each section of the mole, together with full descriptions of the areas excavated, support the authors’ interpretation of the complex architecture of the mole. The last section of this first but most important chapter (pp. 62-91) is of particular interest, offering a comprehensive analysis of the typology of the stone blocks and their specific setting in order to envision the method applied to construct the harbour installation. The authors offer a unique reconstruction of a machine (pp. 91) that could have been used to transport the blocks from the nearby coastal quarries and set them in place. In addition to the seven types of bosses for lifting and transporting the blocks (Figs. 31-8), the excavators also discovered traces of the tools used for their precise positioning (pp. 87-9). Combining these physical details with ancient written accounts of large-scale machines such as siege engines, they reconstruct a very fascinating and for the most part convincing model of a machine perhaps used for this construction. They postulate that the machine, advancing on rollers, would first place blocks at the furthest extension of its boom, then ever inwards towards its core (p. 38). A closer look at the areas investigated indicates, however, that the setting of the blocks does not necessarily always follow this systematic pattern. Nevertheless, the picture of the construction operation presented here opens a new horizon in the understanding of ancient technology and its possible applications.

Another intriguing question is how many and which resources were required for such a massive building project. Despite the fact that the calculations are based on only a small section of the mole, they indicate that the amount of stone needed to complete the project was so great that it must have come from multiple sources and not just a single quarry. Consequently, chapter 2 (“The stone quarries of Amathus harbour”) is exclusively dedicated to the detailed examination of a series of quarries in the surrounding area (pp. 95-110). Impressively, the authors have definitively identified at least two quarries (nos. 169 and 113) that furnished blocks for the harbour construction. Most fascinating, however, is the demonstration of the logistics involved in moving material between the quarries and the harbour, including the operational features and the extraction method.

Chapter 3 (“History of the Hellenistic harbour”) closes the first part of the monograph with a closer look at the historical testimonia on the port city (pp. 112-19), enabling the authors to situate the harbor within the context of the Early Hellenistic period. Based on the nature of the harbour and the historical setting of the struggle between Demetrius I Poliorcetes and Ptolemy I Soter for control of Cyprus, the authors conclude that the function of the harbour was exclusively military. Neither the dimensions of the harbour, however, nor its narrow entrance necessarily point to a military function, and naval facilities such as shipsheds are absent, so the possibility of commercial use should not be discounted.

Chapter 4 (“The archaeological remains”), which forms the entirety of Part II, is dedicated to the investigation of the harbour basin (pp. 123-60), examining architectural features such as the peculiar platform (so-called “beachrock”) in the centre of the basin (pp. 125-31), as well as the post-Hellenistic wells towards the northern end of the basin (pp. 133-49). The chapter continues with a discussion of the harbour’s fate and chronology. Conclusions concerning this difficult question must, of course, be based in large part on the archaeological material documented in the harbour basin. Unfortunately, only the coins are presented here (pp. 151-60); the reader will have to wait for volume 2 for the publication of the pottery. The few tantalizing references to an apparently heterogeneous collection of material, ranging in date from the 4th century BC to the 6th/7th century AD (pp. 45, 53, 67, 114, 148), makes one wonder whether the harbour of Amathus actually was rapidly abandoned, as the authors conclude (p. 162), or whether it may have instead enjoyed a degree of continuous use. An additional trench at the flushing channel (p. 45), located at the turning point of the southern mole, might have provided information relevant to this question. This feature seems to show similarities not only to the Archaic harbour of Thasos and the Hellenistic harbour of Taposiris, but also to the Roman Imperial harbour of Caesarea Maritima and even more so to the Byzantine harbour of Anthedon. The channel might be a later intervention undertaken to address the problem of silting. Although to a more modest extent, the LR 1 and LR 13 amphora sherds, together with the existence of post-Hellenistic wells connected with workshops or tanneries (p. 141), also might suggest use of the harbour for industrial purposes during the Byzantine era.

In conclusion, although the harbour site of Amathus still holds potential for future archaeological investigations, Jean-Yves Empereur and his team have provided an outstanding comprehensive study of the complex harbour situation. With crucial and interesting insights that go far beyond mere architectural analysis, the current monograph establishes a new milestone in the understanding of ancient harbour construction processes. It constitutes a stimulating publication and is highly recommended for those working in the field of ancient harbour studies as well as anyone interested in ancient technology.

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