Kenchreai, Eastern Port of Corinth: Discoveries from the Excavations on Koutsongila
November 16, 2012
(See slideshow at end of article for referenced figures.)
A new picture of a thriving commercial center in Roman Greece is emerging from the recent collaborative excavations at Kenchreai directed by Elena Korka (Ministry of Culture) and Joseph L. Rife (Vanderbilt University/American School). The work of the Greek-American team has concentrated on the Koutsongila Ridge, which formed the periphery of the ancient settlement north of the harbor from Early Roman to Early Byzantine times (Figs. 1-2). Our campaign of intensive digging in 2007-2009 produced many important discoveries, which have come into focus as our study and publication phase approaches its conclusion in 2013. Among the highlights are lavish buildings perhaps representing a residential quarter; a ritual-structure and pyre debris on the slope above the town; a sprawling cemetery; and a Late Antique octagonal building of great significance. These discoveries shed important new light on life and death at a small but diverse and prosperous Greek port-town that flourished during the Roman era and survived into the Early Byzantine period.
The overarching goal of our excavation was to contextualize the Koutsongila ridge, the dominant landform in the vicinity of the harbor, within the ancient landscape and its history. We aimed to reconstruct more fully the topography of this area on the northeastern periphery of the ancient port, with specific attention to traffic patterns; the exploitation of this natural prominence for architectural display; and the spatial and functional connections between burial and habitation. Within this topographical framework, we investigated how burial and settlement reflected social, economic, and cultural identities among local residents. To this end, we adopted a focused rather than an expanded approach to digging in order to test our hypotheses concerning activity in specific areas and to limit the impact of intrusive exploration on the ridge. Over three campaigns we dug 33 trenches, including three chamber tombs and 44 cist graves, in three areas designated A, B, and C in the central and southern parts of the ridge (Figs. 3-4).
In the southeastern part of Koutsgonila (Area B) we found several impressive buildings of Early to Middle Roman date (ca. 1st-3rd/4th centuries AD). The surviving structures we uncovered forming the back rooms of elaborate buildings, perhaps houses, facing the sea. The central room in the plan of one building (ca. 4.8 m square) displayed an exquisite polychrome mosaic: a carpet of geometric borders increases in complexity inward to an emblema with the enwreathed head of Silenus (Fig. 5). The mosaic reflects the Hellenistic, or eastern, style of mosaic art in the Roman provinces, which was characterized by a central setpiece embedded in a graduated series of decorated fields and bands. Comparable to some of the finest mosaics of the 2nd-3rd centuries both in the Corinthia (e.g. at Kokkinovrysi near Corinth) and in western Asia Minor (e.g. at Pergamon and Ephesos), the Silenus mosaic at Kenchreai is distinguished by its fine craftsmanship and its accommodation of prevailing tastes in the mosaic art of the eastern provinces.
A similar quality of domestic decoration is evident in the structures located ca. 25 m to the south in Area B (Figs. 3, 6). Excavation here over three seasons revealed a large, richly-appointed complex that could have extended as far as ca. 30 m eastward and downhill to a now submerged sea-wall. The northern extension of the complex seems to represent an annex with a utilitarian purpose, perhaps for storage, while the plan of the southern extension is obscured by later buildings. The central area, however, is well represented by walls in fine masonry and an intact stratigraphic sequence. Here a series of chambers—a corridor with a well, a large water tank, and a room with a deep water channel—constituted a hydraulic installation that apparently distributed water to a bath downslope, perhaps a private installation in a terraced seaside house. Destruction deposits, including the deep fill in a well, reveal that the building before the late 4th century was lavishly decorated with wall-painting, polychrome mosaic pavement, and revetment in exotic marble (Fig. 7). The housewares, including a wide range of local and imported pottery and glass vessels, and the faunal remains, indicate a diverse diet that was rich in seafood. Together, the buildings in Area B thus seem to have belonged to an opulent residential quarter on the edge of the port that extended northeast up the coast from the harbor.
Resourceful residents of Roman Kenchreai erected elaborate chamber tombs in a prominent location, along the seaward slope of Koutsongila to the north of the lavish buildings (Area C; Fig. 3). These tombs have been known at the site since the early 20th century and have been frequently disturbed by looters. Of the 30 so far identified in the vicinity, most conform to a standard plan: a small, gabled building erected at the surface over a descending stairway, which entered a rectangular chamber underground, with immured burial compartments in the form of niches for the deposition of cinerary urns and loculi for the inhumation of intact bodies (Fig. 8). The families who used these tombs over several generations for the burial of their descendents and dependents were concerned to express their authority and stability in the local community. Excavation inside and around three tombs (nos. 2, 7, 10) has uncovered abundant evidence for funerary rituals and tomb design in the Early to Middle Roman periods (ca. middle 1st-late 3rd/4th centuries AD). In clearing around the tombs’ entrances and the buildings that covered them at ancient ground level (Fig. 9), we found no traces of funeral pyres, food preparation or service, or material offerings to the dead. It is uncertain whether such activities were performed at the bereaved home, elsewhere in the cemetery, or inside the chamber. The chambers proper contained rock-cut furniture, small altars, numerous cooking- and coarse-ware vessels, pockets of cooked figs, and butchered animal bones (Fig. 10). These remains attest to the integral part that food and drink played in burial and commemoration. The purposeful concentration of such vessels as well as lamps along the west (back) walls of the chambers show that this was a central area for ritual performances using portable illumination.
We found rare evidence for contemporary rituals south of the cemetery and west of the houses (Area A; Fig. 3). On a prominent bedrock outcropping was situated a rectangular building with walls plastered in white, a bench or platform along the back wall, and a large circular pit at its center (Fig. 11). The structure’s visible situation, its fine construction, and its main features all suggest some ritual purpose, such as for cult-worship, dining, or ablution. More secure evidence for ritual activities came to light on the adjacent slope, where we uncovered pyre debris that had been dumped into shallow, irregular depressions (Fig. 12). To our knowledge, this field of cremation debris is the first of its kind documented in Roman Greece. Apparently mourners had moved here piles of ash, burned human and animal bones, and molten nails from one or more pyres in the area, perhaps at the top of the ridge, where there was ample level ground and favorable breezes for large-scale cremation. The activities in this upper area of the ridge constituted one stage in a longer process of mourning and burial that began in the home and ended in the tomb.
The use of the Koutsongila Ridge dramatically changed by late antiquity. The impressive houses, tombs, and ritual building that had distinguished the ridge during the Early to Middle Roman periods were in a state of disuse and disrepair, if not total destruction, in the 5th to 6th centuries. From then into the 7th century, the eastern slope and the ruins of earlier centuries were covered by a cemetery of Christian graves. These burials reflect the evolution of local funerary practices over the long term. Most were simple cist graves cut into the bedrock displaying simple epitaphs and containing multiple individuals and occasionally a few vessels for pouring liquids, personal ornaments, or coins (Figs. 13-15). Our study of the skeletal remains of at least 130 individuals (85 adults, 44 subadults) interred in these graves reveals that relatives were interred together, and that local residents during this era lived vigorous lives, and many died by their fourth-fifth decade.
Apart from this cemetery of cist graves, one Late Antique building on Koutsongila was exceptional. Located conspicuously on the promontory above the north mole, and built over the opulent complex in Area B, was an Octagon (14.25 m maximum interior width; Figs. 2, 16-17). Inside its massive walls were angular piers that divided an outer ambulatory from an interior chamber, the former paved with tiles and the latter with a geometric mosaic. The lower interior walls were sheathed in bluish-gray schistous marble carved in arched panels with fleur-de-lis motifs (Fig. 18). Although the area has not been fully explored and part of the Octagon has been lost to the sea, we found several monumental burials with rich offerings alongside the building’s outer walls (Fig. 19). Foundation and floor deposits indicate that it was built in the early-middle 5th century and used until around the middle 6th century (Fig. 20). In Late Antiquity, octagons typically occurred in Imperial or ecclesiastical complexes, baptisteries, or martyria, such as the famous buildings at Ravenna, Sirmium, Thessalonica, Philippi, Phrygian Hierapolis, Syrian Antioch, and even the western Corinthian port of Lechaion. While our building is still under study, it’s location, design and the associated graves point to its possible identification as the magnificent tomb of a local holy person, cleric, or grandee. Tombs of this type were erected in Asia Minor and the Near East, but the Octagon at Kenchreai would be an unusual case in the known sepulchral architecture of Late Antique Greece.
A fuller understanding of Roman Kenchreai has emerged from our exploration of Koutsongila, which has opened a window onto the settlement stretching from its outer limits into its heart. Residents exploited the natural terrain and topographic prominence of the ridge in creating domestic space and performing ritual activities. The local community was small but affluent, and it shared in the styles and interests of an elite culture embraced by urban aristocrats across the Roman East. The port did not collapse in late antiquity; as its topography evolved, the people of Kenchreai continued to invest in impressive and innovative buildings, such as the rare Octagon. We thank our collaborators and supporting institutions for making our research possible, and for helping us to share these discoveries as a contribution to future scholarship.
— Joseph L. Rife and Elena Korka
Acknowledgements. We thank the following offices, institutions, and individuals for their generous support of the Excavations: the 37th Ephoreia of Classical and Prehistoric Antiquities and Dr Konstandinis Kissas; the 25th Ephoreia of Byzantine Antiquities and Dr Dimitrios Athanasoulis; the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and Professor Jack Davis; the Psycha Foundation and the late Y. Sakelarakis; Macalester College; Vanderbilt University; the Center for Hellenic Studies of Harvard University and Professor Gregory Nagy; the Luther I. Replogle Foundation; and the Loeb Classical Library Foundation.