Ancient Harbors Rise Again

9 January 2006 (All day)


Master mariners.
The Phoenician's seafaring and ship building skills put them in the top ranks of Mediterranean traders and colonizers beginning in the Bronze Age.

Linens, embroidery, metalwork, and ceramics--these are just some of the fine goods exported by the Phoenicians throughout the Mediterranean. The sea traders and colonizers were a major force in the ancient world from about 3000 B.C.E. to 538 B.C.E., yet their chief harbors, located at Sidon and Tyre in Lebanon, vanished from sight long ago. Now a team of geoarchaeologists claims to have discovered those key ports.

The team, led by geoarchaeologists Nick Marriner and Christophe Morhange of the European Center for Research and Teaching of Environmental Geosciences in Aix-en-Provence, France, began working on the Lebanese coast in 1998. Sonar helped them find the margins of the harbors, and then deep coring unveiled the detailed life history of the ports. As the team reports in this month's issue of Geology, the harbors went through several phases.

From about 3000 B.C.E., boats anchored in natural coves and bays. At Sidon, for example, the team found crustaceans typical of brackish lagoons in the cores, indicating that the bays were fairly sheltered. By about 1200 B.C.E., the Phoenicians began building artificial harbors, a period which corresponds to other archaeological evidence that ship traffic was increasing at that time. After the invention of concrete by the Romans around 300 B.C.E., sophisticated harbor engineering became possible, and the ports were at their height during the subsequent Greco-Roman and Byzantine periods, from 332 B.C.E. to about 1000 C.E. After that time, Tyre and Sidon rapidly declined in importance, and the harbors were apparently abandoned: The coring shows that the beach began to become exposed, and the lagoon species of crustaceans gave way to species typical of unsheltered coastlines and open seas.

The Phoenicians had to work hard to keep their ports deep enough for ships to enter. In a companion study of Tyre's harbor, published in this month's issue of Quaternary Research, Marriner and Morhange report that the Phoenicians extensively dredged this port during the Greco-Roman and Byzantine periods. The dredging kept it from silting up as a result of intensified agriculture and construction on the mainland that caused greater soil erosion and runoff of sediments, especially in the Litani River. Even more silting, the researchers point out, was caused by the practice of using the harbor as a huge waste dump.

Michal Artzy, a coastal and underwater archaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel, says that the team has a good case for having found these famous harbors. "The scholars involved in this work are top notch," she says. Artzy, who is currently studying the Phoenician harbor of Athlit, on the present-day Israeli coast, adds that the state of the art methods used in the study represent "extraordinarily impressive work."

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