Delos: discovering a submerged Hellenistic city

Following an initial season of underwater excavation in the Aegean Sea, Mantha Zarmakoupi talks to CWA about the rise and fall of the trading emporium of Delos.


In the middle of the Cyclades archipelago, off the coast of the Greek island of Delos, archaeologists are exploring the ruins of a once-thriving urban neighbourhood and port, just 1.5-2m below the water’s surface. The new UrbaNetworks project, led by Principal Investigator Dr Mantha Zarmakoupi, and funded by the Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship scheme, is excavating the Stadion District – one of the new neighbourhoods built up during a time of vast urbanisation in the late Hellenistic period. The remains are evidence of the island’s rise to wealth and power during the latter half of the 1st millennium BC.

Rise and fall

The island of Delos is tiny, measuring only 5km north to south and 1.3km east to west. But despite its size, it played an important role during Archaic Greece. Home to the sanctuary of Apollo, it became a significant place of religious pilgrimage as well as being a neutral area for the meeting of the Delian League after the Persian Wars. Then, in 167 BC, the Romans put the island under Athenian dominion and, by granting its port a ‘duty free’ status, turned it into a commercial base connecting the eastern and western Mediterranean. The island became an emporion – a centre of trade and a go-between for Rome’s commercial relations with the Hellenistic east. Slaves and luxury goods all originating in the Middle and Far East, as well as the highly prized Delian bronze statues, were traded through Delos. As a result, the island underwent a period of rapid economic growth and development that saw huge urbanisation in the form of new neighbourhoods and the redevelopment of existing town and port areas. The island acted as an important cosmopolitan port, ending only when it was sacked in 88 BC by the forces of Mithridates, and again in 69 BC by the pirate Athenadoros. By the end of the 1st century BC a change in trade routes was the final blow that sent Delos into a steady decline.

Literary sources stress the extent and importance of the Delian emporion. However, Zarmakoupi told CWA ‘The archaeological record has not provided sufficient information to show how the commercial centre operated. This is the aim of the Marie Curie study UrbaNetworks. We are seeking to explain the ways in which the city accommodated its economic activities as well as the large number of businesspeople that were travelling through. We initiated the underwater fieldwork project off the coast of Delos in order to further understand the organisation and operation of the Delian emporion.’

The preservation at Delos is unique because of its complete abandonment after the 6th century AD. Coupled with a wealth of epigraphic and historical sources, Delos is a perfect place to study social and economic structures as well as art and archaeology. With its important religious sanctuary and later its role as an economic hub, Delos is a key point for understanding the intriguing era of late Hellenistic Greece and the emerging Roman Empire.

The Stadion District

Picasa The theatre district of Delos with Mount Kythnos in the background, as seen from the main port. IMAGE: Bernard Gagnos.

The fieldwork project focuses on one of the new neighbourhoods and port installations that were created at the height of Delos’ urbanisation period in the north-eastern area of the island – the Stadion District, now submerged by the sea. Building on the coast has its hazards, and the Cyclades has seen a sea-level rise of about 2m over the last 2,000 years – engulfing many areas of the once heavily urbanised Delos. The Stadium District was chosen for the Marie Curie underwater fieldwork survey because it is one of the few areas left undisturbed by recent developments, in contrast to much of the west side of the island and the central port. The submerged structures of the central port of Delos suffered irreversible damage following excavations in the 19th and 20th centuries, when archaeological fill was dumped on the sea floor along with rubble following the construction of new buildings for the modern port. Thus the Stadium District is one of the only areas of the ancient Delos seafront where the urban activities of the Delian emporion can be studied.

Close up view of 16 half-buried pots. IMAGE: Foteini Vlachaki

The first fieldwork season started in October 2014, and revealed the remains of a house or building, and a shop or workshop. The house featured a peristyle courtyard and parts of six columns were found in this area. Not far from the peristyle courtyard, a structure featuring 16 half-buried pots alongside the remains of an oven was discovered, similar to the tabernae at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Also found were the remains of the breakwater forming the eastern edge of these structures. A working hypothesis is that this small port would have served as an anchorage for coastal defence as well as complementing and protecting the activities of the main port. The evidence of economic activities so close to the waterfront of the Stadion District shows this area was important to the Delian emporion.

The team will return to Delos in the summer to survey and map the Stadion District. They hope to identify the underwater structures and establish where exactly the port lies, showing both how this neighbourhood worked on a daily basis and how it served the Delian emporion. This will thus further our understanding of the relationship between economic growth and urbanisation.

The Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship project, led by Principal Investigator Dr Mantha Zarmakoupi and hosted by the National Hellenic Research Foundation, is conducting the underwater survey in cooperation with the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities under the direction of Dr Aggeliki Simosi, Director of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, and Dr Zarmakoupi. Read more about the UrbaNetworks project at: