An international team of archaeologists and geophysicists believe they have discovered a lost island in the eastern Aegean that was once home to the ancient city of Kane.
The island, mentioned by the ancient Greek historian Xenophon, is famous for its proximity to the 406 B.C. sea battle of Arginusae, at which the Athenians defeated the Spartans near the end of the Peloponnesian war.
The Arginusae islands, now called the Garip islands, lie only a few hundred yards off the coast of Turkey. Ancient historical sources refer to three Arginusae islands, but the exact location of the third has long been unclear.
Researchers drilled into the ground and used geological evidence to reveal that what is now a peninsula was once an island. At some point before the late Middle Ages, a land bridge formed between island and shore. An Ottoman map from the 16th century shows the island had already become a peninsula by that point.
It appears the island may have been connected to the mainland by deposits that formed in a narrow natural channel, possibly as a result of earthquakes or the erosion of mainland agricultural fields.
The scientists plan to determine the ages of the geological layers using radiocarbon dating, which will help them better understand how this happened, says Felix Pirson, director of the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul.
Archaeologists also found the submerged remains of an ancient harbor from the Hellenistic period (323 B.C. to 31 B.C.) nearby, another indication that the peninsula was once an island.
Though Kane was only a small city in antiquity, it held a place along a strategic maritime trade route running from the Black Sea along the southern coast of Turkey, with a large harbor where ships could shelter from storms.
Previous research uncovered pottery on the island that suggested trade routes; now certain microorganisms native to the Black Sea that were likely carried in by boats to the nearby port of Elaia offer additional evidence of trade networks.
“Classical archaeology has become much more complex than, say, 20 years ago,” Pirson says. “We can now incorporate many more subtle techniques of studying environmental influences.”
The battle of Arginusae was a bittersweet victory for the Athenians. Though they defeated the Spartans, soon afterward a storm made it impossible to rescue the Athenians whose ships had been destroyed. When the victorious Athenian generals returned home, the citizens voted to execute them for failing to rescue these soldiers.
“It destroyed the morale of Athenian commanders and led indirectly to total defeat a year later,” says Barry Strauss, who studies ancient history at Cornell University.
The Athenians' vengeance ultimately contributed to their downfall, agrees Cambridge University’s Paul Cartledge. “Democratic Athens managed to snatch defeat from victory's jaws—by putting on trial all eight of the admirals who had won the battle, and then illegally condemning them all to death.”
It’s unlikely that any of the wooden shipwrecks from the battle of Arginusae would have survived, but future research will aim to establish a timeline from the drilled cores and combine this data with historical sources to better understand the maritime networks of the broader region.
Archaeologists study a colossal Olmec stone head in La Venta, Mexico in this 1947 National Geographic photo. The Olmec civilization, the first in Mesoamerica, offers valuable clues into the development of the rest of the region.