The Archeological Heritage in the Seas of Kefalonia

It is well known that Greek seas are full or ancient relics as for millennia daring sailors connected the civilizations around Mediterranean. Greeks established  sea commerce among their colonies from the coast of modern day Turkey and eastern Mediterranean and also Italy, Sicily and all the way to the far western end of Mediterranean to the  Greek mainland and islands  in a more complex and spread way than civilizations before them, making Greece the center of this commerce. And then there was the vast Roman empire spread all around Mediterranean that intensified marine commerce and traffic but once again Greece was in the center of these marine routes. Literally every island and all channels and straits in Greek seas are littered with ancient pottery that can be dated as from prehistoric times of 2700 BC to the late Roman times of 600 AD.

Such is the case at the sea around Kefalonia and Ithaca. Historical data and modern simulation models alike (like ORBIS by Stanford University) point out that the straits around the islands were a central transport hub for the marine commerce during Greek and Roman times. Back then sailing was made as close to the shore as possible, so an obvious way was to sail from island to island and around continental coastline. That marks the pivotal location of Kefalonia. Kefalonia stands at the exit of Gulf of Corinth so was in the way of all marine traffic from this city-state (a sea commerce giant in classical era) and from Athens as well towards the Greek colonies in Italy, Sicily and further, like modern day Marseille and more. That is also the case for ships coming from the rich cities of Aegean islands, Crete, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Cyprus and Egypt. Even from these territories, sailing was made with small leaps from island to island and then around the coastline of Peloponnese and then depending on the destination, there was two, major, possible routes:

For vessels heading to Dalmatian and Adriatic coastline or to Eastern ports of Italy, the main route was the channel between Kefalonia (and the one between Ithaca and green mainland to a lesser extend as slightly longer). For vessels heading to all of western Mediterranean ports and most importantly Sicily and Rome, the route was following the south coast of Kefalonia before the last perilous leap from the southwestern tip of the island towards Italy.

A clear evidence of this marine traffic lies in the bottom of the sea around the coastline of the islands. There are two main patterns. Bays and inlets that could offer protection from rough seas usually have evidence of wrecks at the headlands marking them as not all captains have managed to sail their ships into safety in bad weather. In these cases, the main patterns are small or massive piles of amphorae (depending on the size of the vessel) starting from the shallows at the coastal rocks and gliding down to the underwater slopes. Usually in this case metal parts, mostly copper and lead, of the sunk boats can be found like anchors, parts of the rigging, nails etc. Inside protected bays that ships were spending some time at anchor, one can find amphorae belonging to many different eras, as sailors were littering the bottom with the clay pots after consuming the content or getting rid of what was damaged. In these bays used for millennia, lost anchors or other items can also be found.

Following the traces in land and below the sea we can form an idea of what was happening then and especially in Roman times, when the marine traffic was intense within the vast empire and also trading posts and harbors were set in the land.In Kefalonia along these routes there is the ruins at Fiskardo which apparently was an important Roman harbor and of course the port of Sami, that after besieged by the Romans became their administration center on the island. And then there is evidence of a very important roman presence in Skala, where there are ruins of a residence complex with many rooms and amazing mosaics. Skala could be a significant outpost as Cape Mounda is the point that sailing to the western Mediterranean starts, following the south coast of Kefalonia.

Ancient wrecks of Kefalonia

A more detailed idea can be given when looking at the u/w evidence. There are lots of wrecks and temporary ports evidence along those marine routes, many within scuba diving or snorkeling limits and many more yet to be discovered.

Starting from Mazi cove at the southwestern tip of Ithaca, where a tiny bay protected from prevailing northern winds is, scattered amphorae can be found around, marking a final resting place and possibly freshwater fountain for the sailors before turning around the cove and sail through the channel. At Ithaca’s west coast also roman roof tiles and amphorae can be found in proximity to the modern ports of Pisaetos and Polis, cargos of long-gone boats.

Right across Mazi, on the east coast of Kefalonia and at the land head separating Antisamos bay from Sami there is what’s left from a roman boat that crashed to the rocks and sunk. Crumbles of amphorae stuck together in blocks lie at the coastal rock just few meters below the surface, whilst bigger parts of 2ndc BC amphorae litter the u/w slope.

Further north at the east coast of Kefalonia there is a wreck site of paramount importance.  The wreck there is dated back to Protohelladic Period(PH II-PH III, 2750-2000 B.C.) and obviously claims to be the oldest in the Mediterranean! The area is under archeological research and closed to recreational diving.

Gagiana Cove ancient greek wreck

A roman era wreck with few dozens of amphorae also can be found at the steep u/w slopes of the tiny islet Asteris, not too far from Fiskardo. Asteris is mentioned in Odyssey as the place where an ambush for Tilemachos was set. And then there is the huge roman wreck just of the bay of Fiskardo, a well-known wreck for some years now by the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, that recently hit the news worldwide as Greek scientists from the Laboratory Marine Geology & Physical Oceanography of Patras’ University published a paper about their survey on the site few years ago.  The wreck is in deep water and what makes it unique is that its obvious size and massive cargo challenges what was believed for the size of boats of that era. The cargo, literally a hill of around 5000 amphorae maintains the shape of a ship as the wood eventually disintegrated. The area is under archeological research and closed to diving, regardless if the depth is beyond the limits of recreational diving. Obviously there are many more wrecks to be discovered around the channel and towards Lefkas, but deep water still hold well the secrets of the past.

Fortunately, to the south of the island the coastal waters are much shallower and not only are a cradle of history but also reveal the relics. In Limenia beach between Poros and Skala even snorkelers can observe small fragments of pots, obviously broken and curved by the waves for centuries, and one can imagine small boats anchored and fishermen at rest, after having some wine, throwing the amphora in the sea, just like many modern day holiday makers!

The last bay north of Skala and before boats being exposed to south winds and swell, on both sides holds evidence of small late roman era wrecks, in the form of mostly broken amphora stuck together and elements of lead anchors, but also there are random period and shape amphorae and anchors here and there, obviously from boats seeking a temporary shelter.  Closer to Skala and below the land archeological site of the archaic temple, different era pieces of amphorae are scattered around the little bay, most probably from boats anchoring there for the sailors to visit the temple, or perhaps the bay was serving as a harbor for Skala.

And then there is the infamous Kakava Shoals, an extended shallow area a couple of miles off Cape Mounda. The shoals are dangerous to ships even in modern times so one could guess what a deadly surprise were the sharp rocks of the reefs whilst swept by swell for ancient sailors.  There the abundance of amphorae in some places is such that once was believed to be a legendary submerged village! In fact there are at least four different era ancient wrecks ranging from 5thBC to 5thAD centuries already identified at the shallower parts of the shoals and obviously many more to be discovered. Among the most peculiar findings is a site where 12 anchors, probably late roman type, are scattered, perhaps in an attempt to lighten and save a ship.

Roman merchant boat

Further down the south coast of Kefalonia there are two more landmarks that hold evidence of ancient marine routes, Dias and Agios Nicolas islets. Around Dias different era pieces of amphorae are scattered around, most probably from boats anchoring for the sailors to visit the temple of Zeus once there. At Agios Nikolaos sharp rocks, apparently a ship have crashed and crumbles of amphorae stuck together in blocks along with some bigger fragments lie just few meters below the surface. The final contact point with the land of Kefalonia before sailing at the open Ionian Sea towards Sicily and the west, is a little protected bay just before Cape Gerogombos at the southwestern tip of the island. There sailors could find fresh water and the last chance for some rest.  Amphorae and anchors of many shapes and periods from early Greek to late Roman times can be found there.

Underwater relics mark a marine flow that from southeast Kefalonia was diverted either north along the east coast towards the open sea beyond the strait between Kefalonia and Lefkas or westwards along the south coast and towards the open Adriatic Sea. Lots of archeological evidence prove Kefalonia as a key point of the ancient marine routes from the dawn of civilizations in the Mediterranean. And ancient Greeks were well aware of the geographical advantage of Kefalonia and Ithaca.

In the most well-known and influential epic poem of western culture, Homer’s Odyssey, the most legendary sailor of all times and probably the greatest explorer of Greek Mythology, Odysseus (Ulysses) is the king of Ithaca and Kefalonia and the ruler of “Magnanimous Cephalonians”!

All this underwater Archeological Heritage waits for scuba divers to discover!

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