Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Bjørn Lovén, Mette Schaldemose, The Ancient Harbours of the Piraeus: the Zea Shipsheds and Slipways (2 vols.). Monographs of the Danish Institute at Athens, 15.1-2. Athens: Danish Institute at Athens, 2011. Pp. ix, 174; xvii, 314; 43 plates. ISBN 9788771240078. kr. 599.95.

Reviewed by Carmelo Di Nicuolo, University of Rome 2 «Tor Vergata» - Italian Archaeological School at Athens (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The difficulties of performing archaeological surveys and field operations in heavily urbanized areas are well known. Many of the metropolitan areas around the Mediterranean Sea are the result of millenary urban development and architectural stratification, constantly changing through the reuse of the material evidence of their past history.

This is not the case for Piraeus, one of the major port cities in the Mediterranean. This port city is an example of a sudden re-foundation of an ancient urban center which had ceased to exist for a long period of time. The new neoclassical Piraeus of the 19th century, seriously damaged during World War II, was gradually swallowed up by an aggressive urban expansion that created a hypertrophic port city, encompassing and in many cases destroying most of the evidence of a glorious past within the space of a few years.

The Zea Harbour Project (ZHP), directed by Bjørn Lovén, has been working in this context under the auspices of the Danish Institute at Athens and in collaboration with the 26th Ephorate for Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities of Piraeus since 2001. Its initial field of research was limited to the Harbour at Zea (present day Pasalimani). In 2005 the scope was extended to include the survey and excavation of the Neosoikoi outlining the profile of the ancient Harbour of Mounichia (present day Mikrolimano).

The objective of this book is to review the topography and the architectural aspects of the Zea shipsheds and slipways. This is only the first step in a challenging editorial project to be published in five volumes, where both the results of ongoing research in Zea and those provided by future exploration scheduled in Mounichia for 2014 will be presented.

The first volume consists of two fascicles. The first of these features texts by Lovén on historical evidence, topography, architecture and the new proposed definition of the periods and main building phases of the shipsheds and slipways of Zea. The second fascicle contains an analysis by Mette Schaldemose of all the materials found during the excavation of the Area 1 shipsheds and includes the catalogues, appendices (one of which was authored by M. M. Nielsen; see Appendix 7), a rich bibliography, indices, and an excellent illustrative apparatus. The latter also comprises impressive graphic documentation by B. Klejn Christensen and some fine artistic reconstructions by Y. Nakas.

In the introduction (chapter 1), the author provides a short and useful description of the main structural features of what the specialist literature of Anglo-Saxon tradition regards as shipsheds as opposed to simple unroofed slipways. Shipsheds («neosoikoi», literally «houses for ships») are complex buildings characterized by sloping ramps for hauling ships, with side passages and roofing systems supported by parallel colonnades.1 The total silence of ancient sources on the subject of slipways, the simpler unroofed sloping ramps less suitable for the ordinary maintenance operations of ships, creates some doubt on the matter, unless we can think of an ambivalent use of the term «neosoikos».2

Chapter 1 ends with a methodological introduction, which mainly covers the systems for the extrapolation of the total length of the Zea shipsheds, the combination of linear regressive measurements to calculate the gradients of the ramps and the detection of the relative change in sea level since the Classical period (from ca. - 1.90 m and ca. - 2.90 m).

Chapter 2 collects all the written sources with direct or indirect references to the Piraeus shipsheds from the time of their construction, likely stemming from Themistocles' desire to establish a powerful naval base surrounded by walls in Piraeus (Thuc. 1.93.3-8), to the 2nd century A.D. (Paus.1.29.16). An essential source of information covered by Lovén's investigation is the group of inscriptions, commonly known as «Naval Inventories», discovered by chance in 1834 at the Kantharos, the largest of the three harbours of Piraeus.3 These texts are particularly valuable for their information about several building activities in the Piraeus harbours. This was probably the result of a significant enhancement of the Athenian fleet, which gradually grew from 100 (Arist. Ath.Pol.22.7; Plu. Them.4.1) or 200 triremes (Hdt. 7.144) used at Salamis (480 BC) to the 372 located in 94 shipsheds in Kantharos, 196 in Zea and 82 in Mounichia in 330/29 BC (IG II2 1627, 398-405).

Chapter 3 documents the main stages of studies and field research on the Piraeus naval bases. This section starts with the pioneering survey of W. M. Leake (1821) and the monumental topographic essays by F. Aldenhoven (1837), H. N. Ulrichs (1843) and E. Curtius (1841 and 1868). It continues with a review of the results of the scientific survey of B. Graser (1872) and the first excavations carried out by I. C. Dragatsis (1885 to 1899) and W. Dörpfeld (1885), credited with the earlier interpretation of the oblong structures along the east coast of Zea as shipsheds. The discussion continues with a comprehensive summary of all the excavations conducted since the postwar period, which have greatly enriched the documentation on structures recognizable as shipsheds or slipways in the three Harbours of Piraeus. The third chapter concludes with a useful list of bibliographical references to all the sites in the Mediterranean where remains of shipsheds and / or slipways have been discovered.

The presentation of the topographical arrangements and contextualization of all structures identified as possible shipsheds and slipways along the shorelines of the three harbours of Piraeus (chapter 4), is followed by an innovative proposal for the dating and differentiation into 4 main building phases of the Zea neosoikoi (chapters 5-7). This is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and original results of the research carried out by the ZHP, giving a much more structured building history of the naval bases of Piraeus. The clearer definition of this chronological succession has been confirmed in the study of the rock-cut sequences along the east coastline of Zea Harbour, where I. C. Dragatsis and W. Dörpfeld had already unearthed the monumental remains of the upper part of a few shipsheds (intersection Akti Moutsopoulou / Sirangiou 1 – «Area 1» in the new topographical reconstruction by ZHP). In more recent explorations of the ZHP the latter were found to be part of double-unit shipsheds, intended to accommodate two triremes.

The second fascicle presents Mette Schaldemose's analysis of all the finds. Apart from the reliable reconstruction of building sequences, a crucial element in the formalisation of the proposal for a relative chronology of the 4 phases of Zea slipways and shipsheds was the pottery found in a pit discovered at the southern edge of the ramp of shipshed 17. The analysis of the ceramic evidence allowed Schaldemose to date the most recent material to between 375 and 350 BC. The excavation clarified that this had been intentionally deposited just before the construction of the phase 3 shipshed 17 ramp, thus creating a sufficiently credible terminus post quem. At the same time, the pit was a terminus ante quem for the installation of phase 2 shipsheds, as it had the same orientation as those in phase 3, though it was based on a slightly different architectural / planimetric model.

These phase 2 structures are dated to the second half of the 5th century BC and could represent the first phase of monumental and technological upgrading of the Piraeus port facilities, which had previously only had unroofed slipways. Five of these were documented by ZHP in Area 1 and contextualised with the earliest organization of the harbours and the first defensive system of the Piraeus, generally attributed to the political project of Themistocles. As the author himself stated, the data were not sufficient to define the structural aspects and a more accurate chronology of the still too evanescent Phase 4.

Finally, study of the architectural elements of the superstructures and fragments of architectural terracottas allowed Schaldemose to propose the reconstruction of the roofing systems of Phase 2 and 3 shipsheds.

This is only the first of five volumes, which, when complete, will provide a veritable encyclopedia of Piraeus naval archaeology. Nevertheless, the quantity of data collected and the excellent study of the architecture of the naval installations of Zea, accompanied by top-quality graphic documentation, represent an essential tool for anyone who wants to study the topography and spatial organization of harbour districts in port cities of the ancient world.4

Table of Contents

Volume I.1. The Zea Shipsheds and Slipways: Architecture and Topography
List of Tables
Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: The Historical Evidence
Chapter 3: A History of Shipshed and Slipway Research and Excavations
Chapter 4: The Topography of the Piraean Shipsheds
Chapter 5: The Phase 1 Slipways
Chapter 6: Shipshed Superstructures in Phases 2, 3 and 4
Chapter 7: Shipshed Ramps and Side-passages in Phase 2 and Phase 3
Chapter 8: New Interpretations of Slipway and Shipshed Architecture and Piraean Harbour Topography
Chapter 9: Conclusions

Volume I.2. The Zea Shipsheds and Slipways: Finds, Area 1 Shipshed Roof Reconstructions and Feature Catalogue
List of Drawings in Text
List of Figures
List of Plates
List of Concordance for Pls. 38 and 39
Chapter 1: The Small Finds from the Area 1 Shipsheds
Chapter 2: The Tile Material and Reconstruction of the Roofs of the Zea Shipsheds
Chapter 3: Catalogue: Phase 1 Slipways, Phases 2-3 Shipsheds, and Possible Phase 4 Shipsheds. Key to Abbreviations
Appendix 1: Graser 1872, table following page 65
Appendix 2: Reconstructing the Capitals of the Phase 3 Shipsheds at Zea
Appendix 3: Reconstructing the Capitals of the Phase 2 Shipsheds at Zea
Appendix 4: Calculating the Dimensions and Section of the Gutters of the Phase 3 Shipsheds at Zea
Appendix 5: Reconstructing the Valley Beam in the Phase 2 Shipsheds and the Architrave in the Phase 3 Shipsheds
Appendix 6: Survey and Recording Methods
Appendix 7: Zea Harbour Area 1 Sediment Descriptions
Index Lapidum. Inscriptions
Index Locorum. Ancient Sources
Figures 1-241
Plates 1-43


1.   The author also proposes that the naval installations documented in phases 2 - 4 of Zea and Mounichia should be included.
2.   One aspect of particular interest, although still problematic, concerns the proposal by Bjørn Lovén to translate the term «neorion», sometimes used in ancient literature as a synonym for «neosoikos», as "naval base". This should be understood to mean a whole military harbor district comprising the shipsheds amongst other structures.
3.   The Kantharos area is now almost completely overbuilt; only a few structures of possible shipsheds had been investigated between the 19th and the 20th centuries.
4.   For activities of the ZHP see: ZEA Harbour Project

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.