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City of Poseidon Volume 57 Number 1, January/February 2004
by Tom Gidwitz

A muddy dig in the Corinthian coastal plain yields the remains of an ancient Greek city swallowed by the sea.


It's 8:30 in the morning at Dora Katsonopoulou's house in Nikolaiika, Greece. On a normal day, she would already be at the excavation site where the crew of her Helike Project is hard at work. But this morning she is on the phone, dealing with trouble.

A mile away, in a 15-foot-deep pit, project archaeologists have been uncovering a large Early Bronze Age house more than 4,000 years old. The pit is below the water table, and every night it floods with a foot and a half of water. But this morning the pump that empties it is broken, and it couldn't have happened at a worse time. The project's six-week-long excavation permit expires in four days, and the team is poised to dig into a storeroom that, now underwater, is crowded with pots.

Katsonopoulou is a stylish woman with wavy red hair and the indomitable will of a general laying siege. In her 20-year-long search for Helike, a lost Classical Greek city and cult center of Poseidon destroyed by an earthquake and tidal wave in 373 B.C., she has been both tactician and strategist, an archaeologist who digs in the dirt, lobbies for funds, and combs ancient texts for clues.

Katsonopoulou has been eager to find Helike since she was a child growing up nearby, and while others have looked in vain, she and her partner, Steven Soter, codirector of the small Helike Project, have been closing in on its remains. Yesterday, in what may be a complex of third-century B.C. workshops, they found more than a dozen coins scattered across the pebbled floor, as if spilled by someone running in panic--perhaps during the earthquake that brought down the building's roof.

Lost to both looters and archaeologists alike, Helike has been called an undisturbed "time capsule" of daily life from the Golden Age of Greece, a hoard of temples, statues, and sanctuaries preserved in a layer of marine mud. Soter likens it to "a shipwreck the size of a city." Helike was an economic powerhouse that flourished for centuries. It was the seat of the Dodekapolis, the original 12 cities of the Achaean League, and, in the Iliad, Homer included it among the contingent under Agamemnon's command at the siege of Troy. Its citizens built colonies at Sybaris in southern Italy and Priene on the Asia Minor coast, spreading the city's distinctive cult of Poseidon, god of earthquakes and the sea, to the frontiers of the Greek world.

It was only natural that Helike would be the center of a Poseidon cult, for this region is one of the most active earthquake zones in Europe. There are earthquake faults galore, chief among them the Helike Fault, which forms a visible crack between the mountain wall and the coastal plain. In 1993, Soter was out in the field when earthquakes set the trees swaying, and in 1995, in the middle of the digging season, a quake killed ten in the nearby town of Aigion and leveled an Eliki hotel, killing 16. In 1861, eight miles of coastline dropped about six feet, and a 200-yard-wide coastal strip sank beneath the sea. The rivers' supply of stones and silt renews the vanishing delta: A house built on the beach in the 1890s is now a thousand feet inland.

For five days, during the winter of 373 B.C., wrote third-century A.D. Roman rhetorician Aelian, Helike citizens watched in amazement as beetles, snakes, mice, and "every other creature of that kind" fled the coastal city for higher ground. On the fifth night, the earthquake struck, the coastal plain sank, and as the city crumbled the sea rushed in. A towering tidal wave struck, killing everyone. At dawn the next day 2,000 men from neighboring cities rushed to the rescue but found only the tips of the trees in Poseidon's sacred grove poking above the waves.

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Tom Gidwitz is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America