Pavlopetri: A window on to Bronze Age suburban life

Computer generated image of  Pavlopetri A computer generated image of what Pavlopetri might have looked like

Semi-detached houses with gardens, clothes drying in the courtyards, walls and well-made streets - Pavlopetri epitomises the suburban way of life. Except that it's a Bronze Age port, submerged for millennia off the south-east coast of Greece.

This summer it became the first underwater city to be fully digitally mapped and recorded in three dimensions, and then brought back to life with computer graphics.

The result shows how much it has in common with port cities of today - Liverpool, London, New York, San Francisco, Tokyo or Shanghai - despite the fact that its heyday was 4,000 years ago.

Covering an area of about eight football pitches, Pavlopetri appears as a series of large areas of stones indicating building complexes, among which a network of walls can be traced.

It is a city of well-built roads lined by detached and semi-detached two-storey houses. There are larger apparently public buildings and evidence of a complex water management system involving channels and guttering.

How it was done

Diver above domestic dwelling
  • Underwater archaeologists from the University of Nottingham and the Greek Ministry of Culture used acoustic sonar and an advanced stereo-mapping robot from Sydney University to record the city stone by stone in photo-realistic 3D
  • Film industry CGI specialists joined researchers in the field, applying state-of-the-art computer graphics to the archaeological survey data

The city was divided into pleasant courtyards and open areas where people cultivated gardens, ground grain, dried clothes and chatted with their neighbours.

Dotted in between the buildings and sometimes built into the walls themselves there are stone-lined graves. These contrast with an organised cemetery just outside the city.

There is much about Pavlopetri that parallels our own towns and cities, and our own suburban way of life - people living side by side along planned-out streets.

This was not a village of farmers but a stratified society where people had professions - there were city leaders, officials, scribes, merchants, traders, craftsmen (potters, bronze workers, artists), soldiers, sailors, farmers, shepherds and also probably slaves.

Greek Bronze Age society was becoming hierarchical and very organised, everyone had a clearly defined role to play.

Cutting-edge fashion

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They made cheap copies of expensive exotic goods, in the same way that desirable designer brands are copied today”

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The rise and fall of Pavlopetri coincided roughly with the period of the first European civilizations - the Minoans from Crete and later the Mycenaeans of mainland Greece.

Although the power of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilisations was largely based on their control of the sea, archaeology has tended to focus on the better-known inland palaces and citadels.

By contrast, Pavlopetri offers a unique opportunity to study in detail how an ancient port functioned, how ships came in and, most importantly, the extent of maritime contacts and trade in the Bronze Age.

As a thriving port Pavlopetri was open to a heady mix of influences from the sea. Like modern coastal cities its wealth was built on commerce and trade.

Could Pavlopetri be Atlantis?

Pavlopetri - as seen in CGI
  • The legend of Atlantis was first mentioned more than 2,000 years ago by Plato, who said the island state had sunk some 9,000 years before
  • Most proposed locations for Atlantis are in or near the Mediterranean - islands such as Sardinia, Crete and Santorini, Sicily, Cyprus and Malta
  • There is no suggestion that Pavlopetri, which sank 3,000 years ago (probably as a result of earthquake activity), is Atlantis, but its fate - along with other sunken cities - could have inspired the story

Visiting traders and seafarers ensured that the people of Pavlopetri were in touch with all the latest innovations and were at the cutting edge of current fashions.

Archaeologists have recovered the shards of everyday items such as cooking pots, crockery, jugs, storage vessels and grinding stones as well as finer drinking vessels probably kept to impress and brought out when higher status guests paid a visit or used to make offerings to the gods.

Imported vessels came from all around the Aegean and from Minoan Crete. Equally the people of Pavlopetri copied Cretan and mainland styles producing their own versions out of local pottery.

In some cases they made exact ceramic copies of high status Cretan bronze jugs - in effect making cheap copies of expensive exotic goods in much the same way that desirable designer brands are copied today.

Warehouses

Scattered all over the seabed at Pavlopetri are the remains of hundreds of large storage vessels known as pithoi.

These could have been easily loaded on and off ships and were used to transport a range of commodities including olive oil, wine, dyes, perfumes and smaller exotica such as figurines or high status table wares.

Other cities claimed by the sea

  • Dunwich, in Suffolk, UK, was swamped by huge waves in 1286 and coastal erosion claimed more of the city later - a village remains, but many churches, houses and shops are submerged
  • Baiae, an ancient Roman town overlooking the Bay of Naples is now mostly underwater following coastal erosion and volcanic activity
  • Port Royal, Jamaica, sank after a quake in 1692

Dense concentrations of these vessels at particular buildings suggest a form of centralised storage and presumably redistribution was taking place at the site.

Such an operation would have required an advanced level of administration and accounting to keep track of imports and exports.

It would have required written documents and we can assume that in common with the finds of Linear A tablets from Minoan sites and Linear B tablets from Mycenaean sites - the first evidence of writing in Europe - some form of script was known and used at Pavlopetri - although no definite evidence has so far been found.

Pavlopetri was part of the birth of a new type of city in Europe. Not one based around a god-like king or sacred palatial structure, but rather one based on trade and economics.

All of the world's major modern coastal cities owe their success to their relationship with the sea. All had at their heart a gateway to the sea and the rest of the world. Pavlopetri can perhaps be seen as one of the first links in this chain which continues to this day.

City Beneath the Waves Pavlopetri will be on BBC Two at 8pm on Sunday 9 October 2011 and after on BBC iPlayer

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