Main Phoenician harbours rediscovered
30 January 2006, CIESM News

The Phoenicians were excellent seafarers - they formed the major naval and trading power in the Mediterranean region. Phoenician colonies and commercial outposts were spread throughout the Mediterranean and the seamen navigated through the Strait of Gibraltar and much beyond (e.g. Britain) to trade textiles, glass, Lebanon cedar (especially suitable for shipbuilding) and the purple dye derived from the gastropod Murex trunculus in return for various goods.

Despite the importance of the Phoenician maritime culture in the ancient world, remarkably little is known about their coastal environment, reflecting the great complexity of the puzzle confronting Mediterranean coastal geoarcheologists, as documented at length in the CIESM Workshop Monograph 24*, published in October 2003. While the locations of Phoenician ports have been subject of longstanding archaeological speculation, now a team of geoarcheologists, led by Nick Marriner and Christophe Morhange ( CEREGE, Aix-en-Provence, France), has discovered the harbours of Phoenicia’s two most important city states, Sidon and Tyre, located on the present-day Lebanese coast. The discovery is based on non-destructive, high-resolution geoscience techniques including coring to elucidate the coastal stratigraphy and the application of radiocarbon chronology on seeds, woods and marine shell material.

As the team reports in this month’s issue of Geology, the ancient harbours went through various stages. In the Bronze Age (ca. 3000-1200 BC), boats and merchant vessels anchored in ‘protoharbors’: natural, rather sheltered coves. Biostratigraphical and lithostratigraphical analyses evidence a semi-open marine basin characterised by medium to fine sands and brackish-lagoonal and coastal assemblages. During the first millennium BC, rising sea levels and expanding international trade forced the Phoenicians to build early artificial, semi-protected harbour basins. With the invention of concrete by the Romans (ca. 300 BC) a more sophisticated harbour engineering became possible and the ports reached their apogee during the Greco-Roman and Byzantine periods (ca. 332 BC to 1000 AD).

In these periods, intensified land clearing and agriculture led to increased soil erosion and resulted in rapid rates of sedimentation in the Levantine Sea. This made maintenance work in the Phoenician ports necessary to keep them navigable. In an accompanying study, also published this month in Quaternary Research, Nick Marriner and Christophe Morhange present geoarchaeological evidence of extensive dredging practices in Tyre’s ancient ports. The economic decline of Tyre caused the deterioration of harbour structures and coastal protection and finally the reopening to offshore marine processes. During the Medieval destruction phase, silting and coastal progradation buried the remains of the infrastructure of the Phoenician harbours, which were lost until now.

* CIESM Monograph No. 24 is entitled “Human records of recent geological evolution in the Mediterranean Basin – historical and archaeological evidence”. Like all CIESM Monographs it can be downloaded from this site.