09 November 2019
ACE Tour Director Oliver Kenzie applies his archaeological expertise to the Helike Project in Greece.
Helike Project 2019
By Oliver Kenzie
The ancient people known as the Achaeans occupied the entire northern shore of the Peloponnese save for the small wedge of Elaian territory in its north-western corner and the coastline east of Sicyon towards the isthmus. Its southern perimeter reaches the mountains of wild Arcadia, typified by pine forests, high peaks and fresh mountain streams that rush through hilltop villages.
The coast has a different character altogether. Traversing it east to west, one passes the mouths of several squat valleys of glowing ochre stone, arranged in blocks like crumbling wedges of hard cheese, with pencil-like fastigiate cypresses perched on the only available level ground. The tributaries that carve out these smaller valleys soon make way for their older siblings the Selinous, the Kerinitis and the mightiest of Achaea’s watercourses, the Vouraikos, leaving in its wake a gorge so large the ancients presumed Herakles had carved it out to reach one of his numerous love interests, Voura.
To the Greeks, it seemed reasonable that Herakles pursued the poor Voura here; nearby was situated the place bearing the name of her mother ‘Helike’, a city supposedly founded by King Ion and the subject of fieldwork I carried out in the summer of 2019.
Oliver at the Vouraikos Gorge (c) Oliver Kenzie
Emptying into the sea, the snaking waters of the Kerinitis and the Selinous are punctuated by fine strips of green, abundant with citruses, olive groves and bright patches of invasive bamboo, creating a narrow carpet-like delta, rolled out between Achaea’s great rivers. This is important; the fertility of this land was surely attractive to the early settlers of these shores, and no less profitable for the Achaeans. It proved to be one of the reasons the settlement emerged in classical times as the premier polis of Achaea.
However, unbeknown to its inhabitants, a further devastating implication of building a great city between two rivers was its vulnerability to natural disaster, and following an earthquake in 373 BCE, Helike was swallowed by a tsunami and remained buried under deposits of silt and sand until 2001. Its rediscovery by the Helike Project and its director Professor Dora Katsonopoulou has brought to light a number of phases of settlement, undisturbed both by later construction and rudimentary techniques employed by early archaeologists.
Most tantalising for me as a scholar of early Greek temples, a Geometric site in close proximity to an Early Iron Age temple has been uncovered alongside a number of fascinating architectural terracottas, which on publication will add to our ever-expanding understanding of early Archaic temple tectonics on the Greek mainland.
Exposure to these finds will inevitably serve me well and I am grateful to the ACE Foundation for funding my participation. The project also served as a pertinent reminder of the practicalities of archaeological research. Time, money and man-power, regional and national legislative input and local support are hurdles all projects are required to leap over but none more so than at Helike, buried in places up to four or five metres below the surface – silt from the rivers builds up quickly – and every winter the water table rises to drown the uncovered remains in black mud and stagnant water. It seems the very geology that made Helike a fertile and successful city also accounted for her demise and has in turn created some of the most challenging conditions for archaeological work to continue.
Land, irrigation, agriculture and antiquities all have to be balanced together with new infrastructure and 21st century life, leading to the World Monuments Fund including Helike in its 2004 list of 100 Most Endangered Sites. The unwavering commitment of Professor Katsonopoulou, who grew up just a few miles away, is to be commended and even my small contribution with the help of ACE will hopefully have an impact upon the recording and preservation of this important site.
In October 2020, Ollie will be leading a new ACE tour of Ancient Crete & Santorini.
Ancient Crete & Santorini - More Information
Header Image: View from Nea Keryneia over the ancient site of Helike and towards the Corinthian Gulf beyond (c) Oliver Kenzie