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The Hellenistic Harbour of Amathus: Underwater Excavations, 1984–1986. Vols. 1, 2

The Hellenistic Harbour of Amathus: Underwater Excavations, 1984–1986. Vols. 1, 2

Vol. 1, Architecture and History

By Jean-Yves Empereur and Tony Koželj, with Olivier Picard and Manuela Wurch-Koželj (Études chypriotes 19). Pp. 169. École Française d’Athènes, Athens 2017. €40. ISBN 978-2-86958-293-4 (paper).

Vol. 2, Artefacts Found During Excavation

Edited by Jean-Yves Empereur (Études chypriotes 20). Pp. 218. École Française D’Athènes, Athens 2018. €40. ISBN 978-2-86958-308-5 (paper).

Reviewed by

These two volumes present the results of five months of underwater fieldwork carried out over three seasons, 30 years ago (1984–1986). The volumes comprise the final publication of the Hellenistic harbor of Amathus, supplanting a dozen earlier articles, most of which are short annual reports published in the Bulletin de correspondance hellénique and Report of the Department of Antiquities, Cyprus. Exploration of the harbor occurred in conjunction with terrestrial excavations initiated by the French School at Athens in 1975. While the vast majority of books and articles on the archaeology of Amathus have been published in French, Empereur and Koželj are to be applauded for reaching the widest possible audience by publishing these two volumes on the harbor in English. The term harbor is used here as it is by the authors to refer broadly to the natural body of water and the associated, man-made port structures.

The structures at the harbor at Amathus was important, above all, because it reflects a major architectural project undertaken ca. 300 BCE and having a curiously short life. Underwater excavation revealed that the limestone blocks were in sufficiently pristine condition to suggest that work on structures at the harbor may have been abandoned before it was ever finished. The first part of volume 1 consists of three chapters that provide an architectural study of the harbor remains. Three moles (east, south, and west), constructed of ashlar blocks, form two parallel walls, ranging from three to eight courses high, with rubble fill between. Underwater recording of the blocks was achieved by opening eight (of 18 total) trenches at various locations inside and outside the mole walls. Within these eight trenches the team recorded the dimensions and features of more than 300 individual blocks. These data are presented in nine tables, although there are inconsistencies in the text regarding the total number of blocks recorded (314, 312, and 309, at 63, 68–77, and 78, respectively).

A major contribution of chapter 1 is the inclusion of a typology of bosses visible on some of the more than 300 blocks. Six different bosses were identified (as well as a seventh blank type), and their frequency is presented in the tabular data. While the mathematical miscalculations in the text are vexing (three of seven tallies do not compute [63]), the inescapable inference is that the bosses reflect the multiplicity of both masons and quarries required to build the harbor structures. The survival of other cuttings and notches on some blocks leads the authors to speculate about the machinery used to place them, resulting in a model of a two-masted crane positioned on rollers that could be advanced along the moles as construction progressed.

Several enigmatic architectural elements found near the harbor entrance invite conjecture about its original appearance. These include a fragmentary curved block that was perhaps part of a cylindrical structure (tower, lighthouse, statue base?), a limestone block with cavities in the shape of human feet, and an enormous bowtie-shaped, lead-covered metal cramp 45 cm long and weighing 54.3 kg. This last implies the existence of a missing uppermost course, which may have been salvaged or never completed. Extrapolating from the number of blocks exposed in the trenches, the authors calculate that the original harbor construction may have required as many as 3,500 blocks. Their estimate, in turn, suggests that less than 10% of the original has been examined. The only reconstruction drawings provided (131) are outdated and deemed fictitious by the authors, owing to the inclusion on the harbor’s landward side of either shipsheds or sandy beach, which contradicts topographical and geomorphological evidence pointing to the existence of an inner harbor or basin (126–30).

In chapter 2, the authors identify five local quarries believed to have supplied the blocks for the harbor; two of these are examined in detail. The first (site 169), which is located very near the ancient harbor at the modern shoreline, produced evidence for metalworking in the form of a hearth, cobblestones for striking, and a reservoir, all understood to be the remains of a smithy where stonecutting tools would have been repaired. Elsewhere at this quarry, the team observed abandoned blocks, and they recorded wedge holes indicative of the extraction process. Careful study of several other wedge holes of rectangular or trapezoidal shape led the authors to theorize the existence of a tripod for hoisting newly quarried blocks onto carts. Farther inland at the second quarry (site 113), the team documented wedge holes, channels, and microfissures and used these subtle visual clues to identify the block negatives (footprints left behind once the blocks were extracted). The chapter culminates in a tabular concordance of block negatives in the quarry and actual blocks recorded in the harbor. Although the catalogue-style format interrupts the flow of the text, chapter 2 is a 15-page jewel that will engage anyone interested in ancient stonecutting.

Part 2 of volume 1 summarizes the evidence for activity at Amathus after the abandonment of the Hellenistic harbor. The geomorphological evidence consists of two parallel lines of “beachrock,” a naturally occurring sandstone conglomerate, inside the Hellenistic harbor, which suggest that the sea level dropped by at least 6 m. Late Roman 1 amphora (LRA 1) fragments cemented into the beachrock provide a date in the fourth century CE. The archaeological evidence consists of three freshwater wells, two of which feature stone-lined shafts set on a footing of wooden beams. The third well is actually a rectangular reservoir for a sakieh, an animal-driven waterwheel equipped with ceramic pots for water collection. While the sakieh is well documented in Egypt, this example from Amathus is the earliest attested on Cyprus and presumably is connected with the tanning of hides. All three wells appear to have dried up and been filled ca. 600 CE. The 14 pages allocated to the description, depiction, and operation of sakieh waterwheels are a valuable resource.

Unlike volume 1, where the content is organized into chapters, the material in volume 2 is presented in a series of articles. The focus of the first part is the “mass of [Hellenistic] pottery and amphorae discovered in every sondage that we opened” (9). Careful study of the predominant shapes (bowls, jugs, and saucers) showed that there was effectively no stratigraphy, and as such the finds represent a massive fill. Petrographic analysis of the six fabrics, coupled with the presence of kiln wasters among the fill, lead to the inescapable conclusion that this “homogeneous assemblage” was a deliberate dump of debris from several local workshops. There follows a short but interesting excursus on the design, function, and distribution of Palmiped bowls (also known as cuvettes, mortaria, and “Persian” bowls).

The numbers are staggering: of an estimated 18,000 ceramic sherds recovered from the Hellenistic harbor, two-thirds are from transport amphoras and one-third from other pottery. Of the other pottery, 1,000 were deemed diagnostic, and 96 of them are catalogued in a 54-page chapter. The presentation of the Hellenistic amphoras seems curiously uneven by comparison, with 23 examples of six amphora types discussed in a five-page chapter. Part 1 of volume 2 concludes with a catalogue of 110 metallic objects (other than coins) discovered in the harbor. These include nails, fishing weights, lead sheets, and votive offerings. Eleven (of 26) nails are categorized as ship fasteners, used to join hull planking to frames (86–91); this interpretation is problematic in that only one (D50) is long enough to function in this way, and none is clenched or bent as such fasteners typically were. Furthermore, the nails are described as being of bronze, copper alloy, or iron, a distinction that warrants elemental analysis since iron fasteners were not common in ship construction until well after the Hellenistic period.

The second part of volume 2 follows the general arrangement of part 1 in being dedicated to the pottery, amphoras, and metallic objects from the three Late Roman wells described in volume 1. Statistical analysis of the pottery is based on 661 sherds, 132 of which appear in the catalogue. The pottery is organized into three categories according to clay fabric: local (A), Cypriot (B), and imported (C). The vast majority of the sherds are locally produced jugs, jars, lids, basins, dolia, and sakieh pots. The same pattern appears among the Late Roman amphoras (mostly LRA 1 and LRA 13), where 90% of the sherds are deemed local on the basis of clay fabric and the presence of misfired pieces. Given the fundamental importance of the fabrics, therefore, the variations in ceramic analysis by the three authors in this volume are frustrating. One author provides Munsell numbers (though only sporadically), another relies on Cailleux’s Code des couleurs des sols, and the third employs neither. Different researchers approach their respective material differently, but the presentation of these materials in the same volume warrants more uniformity and consistency. Part 2 concludes with two short but comprehensive reports on a faunal assemblage and the radiocarbon dating of wood samples, both from the Late Roman wells.

The authors conclude that the Hellenistic harbor was designed primarily to accommodate warships, owing to the narrowness of the entrance (20 m), although they are hard-pressed to explain the lack of any evidence for shipsheds. The harbor's short life is understood to be a direct result of the vicissitudes of Hellenistic politics. Cyprus was seized by Ptolemy Soter of Egypt in 316 BCE, lost to Antigonus Monophthalmus and his son Demetrios Poliorcetes of Macedonia in 306, and recaptured by Ptolemy again in 294. Given the strategic advantage that Amathus provided to anyone contemplating an attack on Alexandria, it is indeed tempting to read construction at the harbor as an Antigonid project of the late fourth century BCE. It is hyperbole, however, to conclude that the “six coins of Antigonus Monophthalmus and of his son Demetrius Poliorcetes found near the entrance channel enlighten us as to the authority behind the construction of this monument” (2:9). Are we to imagine that the merchant ship that sank at Kyrenia, Cyprus, about this same time was commissioned by Demetrius because two bronze coins minted during his reign were discovered on board?

Readers benefit from the easily accessible, foldout, color site plans inside the front and back covers (which also make convenient bookmarks), though the only map of Cyprus showing the location of Amathus appears toward the end of the second volume (198). The illustrations are generally excellent; photographs are in color and are large. Editing irregularities are present in the formatting of dates, use of asterisks, labeling of illustrations, numbering of footnotes, and occasional typographical errors (1:87 mentions both “Hero of Alexandria [1st century AD]” and “Hero of Alexander [1st century BC]”).

The reader cannot help but be reminded that the authors possess a vast amount of accumulated experience excavating other harbors (Thasos, Alexandria), quarries (Thasos, Delos, Byllis), and pottery workshops; this experience underpins much of the scholarship in these two volumes. The organization and presentation of the material, however, is not always intuitive. It is unclear, for example, why the coins are included in volume 1 but all other artifacts appear in volume 2. In volume 1, the site chronology is summarized in chapter 3, based on the evidence of coins (ch. 4) and pottery (vol. 2). Given that the material in both volumes can be rather neatly separated into (a) Hellenistic harbor (and source quarries) and (b) Late Roman wells, it is curious and somewhat regrettable that the editors did not choose to organize the two volumes along these lines.

These volumes establish the Hellenistic harbor at Amathus as a unique monumental maritime project realized at a fast pace, but strangely never completed. The careful recording and now comprehensive publication of this important site advances our understanding of the intensive extraction of ashlar blocks from local quarries and rapid assembly of the harbor moles. As quickly as it was built, a massive fill rendered the harbor inoperable; these events are contextualized within the turbulent political situation of late fourth-century BCE Cyprus. The excavation of several Late Roman wells provides valuable evidence for economic activity (tanning) along the shore of Amathus 1,000 years later. The geological and cultural events that transpired in the intervening millennium remain obscure, and they prompt the authors’ call, throughout both volumes, for continued research in the form of archaeometric, petrographic, and geophysical analyses.

Deborah N. Carlson
Nautical Archaeology Program
Department of Anthropology
Texas A&M University

Book Review of The Hellenistic Harbour of Amathus: Underwater Excavations, 1984–1986. Vols. 1, 2
Vol. 1 by Jean-Yves Empereur and Tony Koželj
Vol. 2 edited by Jean-Yves Empereur
Reviewed by Deborah Carlson
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 1 (January 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1241.Carlson

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