Archaeologists Uncover Massive Naval Bases of the Ancient Athenians

Researchers have excavated ship sheds in the city of Piraeus that held triremes from the pivotal Battle of Salamis

Athenian Naval BaseIf he toured Mounichia harbor today, Xerxes the Great, ruler of the Persian Empire, might scoff at the pleasure yachts and fisherman that can primarily be found on the waters just south of Athens, Greece. But 2,500 years ago, when the protected harbor in Piraeus, a port city on the outskirts of Athens, was a full on naval base bristling with armed sailors and mean-looking triremes? That might have made him think twice about trying to invade Greece. 

Archaeologists are learning just how formidable Athens’ naval war machine really was after excavating parts of two of the three militarized harbors built in Piraeus. “We have identified, for the first time, the 5th century BC naval bases of Piraeus—the ship-sheds, the slipways and the harbor fortifications,” Bjørn Lovén, director of the Zea Harbor Project, which led the excavations, tells Philippe Bohstrom at Haaretz.

Lovén says the naval fortifications at one time housed about 400 fast and maneuverable ships called triremes. These vessels were tended to by 80,000 sailors and soldiers.

Lovén and his team most recently excavated the remains of six ship sheds, David DeMar writes at The sheds stored triremes to protect them from marine woodworms and to keep the hot Mediterranean sun from shrinking their timbers and causing leaks. The sheds were huge—spread between the three ports of Piraeus (Mounichia, Zea and Kantharos), they covered 110,000 square meters or more than 1 million square feet, according to a video by Lovén. To put that number in comparison, that’s the size of approximately 17 football fields. 

Carbon-14 dating of pottery and wooden foundations placed the ship-sheds between 520 and 480 BC. Those dates are significant because it likely means they housed triremes that took part in the Battle of Salamis in 480, a key event in Greek history.

In 490, the Athenians thwarted an invasion by Persian ruler Darius I at Marathon. But they knew the Persians would return. That’s why politician and general Themistocles convinced Athens to ramp up its navy, building 200 new triremes and housing them in almost impregnable naval bases in Piraeus.

The harbors could be closed off by large gates with fortified towers on either side, Bohstrom writes. Other fortifications along the coast could also attack approaching ships, making an advance on the naval bases by sea almost suicidal.

“It would have been an almost impregnable harbor,” another researcher on the project, Møller Nielsen tells Bohstrom.

Themistocles chose the right strategy. When the Persians attacked 10 years later under Xerxes I, the 400 Greek ships defeated 1,000 Persian vessels at the Battle of Salamis, a turning point of Greek history.

“It is difficult to predict what would have happened if the Greek fleet had lost at Salamis, but it is clear that a Persian victory would have had immense consequences for subsequent cultural and social developments in Europe,” Lovén says in a press release. “The victory at Salamis rightly echoes through history and awakens awe and inspiration around the world today.”

He also tells Discovery News that the battle influenced Athenian democracy. “All social classes rowed and fought aboard the triremes. I strongly believe this pivotal battle created an immensely strong bond among most of the citizens,” he says, “and in this way the Athenian navy was to develop into the backbone of the world's first democracy.”

The naval bases did eventually fall, however. Around 404 BC, Sparta and other Greek states defeated Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War and tore down its naval fortifications in Piraeus.

The Wooden Wall Battle of Salamis, 480 BC


Gospel of Jesus’s Wife Likely a Fake

Gospel of Jesus's Wife Likely a Fake, Bizarre Backstory Suggests


A papyrus holding text that suggests Jesus Christ was married and whose authenticity has been a matter of intense debate since it was unveiled in 2012 is almost certainly a fake.

Karen King, the Harvard professor who discovered the Gospel of Jesus's Wife and has defended its authenticity, has now conceded that the papyrus is likely a forgery and that its owner lied to her about the provenance and his own background.

The concession comes after Walter Fritz, a resident of North Port, Florida, revealed that he is the owner of the papyrus that claims Jesus had a wife. Fritz said this to Ariel Sabar, a journalist for The Atlantic who wrote an exposé published June 15.

Less than a day after that article was published, more documents came out revealing a fake Greek manuscript the owner had posted on his website and a blog in which the owner’s wife talks of restoring a second century Christian gospel, a project that apparently left part of the manuscript in fragments.

Then on the evening of June 16, King conceded that the papyrus is likely a forgery. The new evidence "tips the balance toward forgery," King told Sabar. [6 Archaeological Forgeries That Could Have Changed History]

The Gospel of Jesus's Wife contains the words "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...,'" suggesting that some people, in ancient times, believed that Jesus had a wife. King announced its discovery in September 2012.

A number of scholars suspected that Fritz was the owner; Live Science's prior investigations also revealed that he might have been the owner. With Fritz's ownership confirmed, new documents related to the Gospel of Jesus's Wife were published on the blog of Christian Askeland, a research associate with the Institute for Septuagint and Biblical Research in Wuppertal, Germany.

Additionally, Live Science had obtained several documents that were being withheld until Fritz was confirmed as the owner of the papyrus. These documents can now be published.

The papyrus received extensive media coverage after it was first revealed in 2012. Scientific tests published in April 2014 in the journal Harvard Theological Review supported the authenticity of the papyrus. However, another series of studies published in the journal New Testament Studies in July 2015 suggested it was a forgery, having been copied, in part, from an online translation of the Gospel of Thomas published in 2002.

Fritz claims to have purchased the Gospel of Jesus's Wife, along with other papyri, in 1999 from a man named Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, the owner of ACMB-American Corporation for Milling and Boreworks in Venice, Florida. The two men worked together at the company, with Fritz becoming president of its U.S. operations.

In 2014, Live Science interviewed Laukamp's stepson, René Ernest, who said that Laukamp did not own the papyrus and had no interest in antiquities. Axel Herzsprung, a friend and business partner of Laukamp, also told Live Science that Laukamp did not collect papyri.

Sabar, of The Atlantic, also interviewed Ernest and Herzsprung for his article. Again, the two denied Fritz's claims, saying that Laukamp did not own the papyrus. Ernest told Sabar that Laukamp was a kind-hearted individual with minimal education who drank a lot and had no interest in antiquities.

Herzsprung described Fritz as a smooth talker who suckered Laukamp into giving him an executive position at ACMB. Fritz "was very eloquent," Herzsprung told Sabar, adding that "Laukamp was easily influenced — he didn't have a very high IQ — and Fritz was successful in talking his way in."

"Herzsprung made no effort to hide his hatred of Fritz," Sabar wrote. "I was so angry at him that I thought it was better we never meet in the dark somewhere," Herzsprung told Sabar.