BBC documentary brings the world's oldest underwater city back to life

06 Oct 2011 14:34:58.277

PA 300/11

Movie industry computer graphics and the very latest digital marine technology have brought the world’s oldest submerged city back to life in a BBC Two documentary due to be shown this Sunday (October 9) at 8pm.

Just a few metres under the sea, off the southern coast of Greece, lies Pavlopetri — the oldest submerged city in the world.  A team of archaeologists from The University of Nottingham, working with the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, have spent the last three years surveying the site which was first discovered in the late 1960’s. This summer the city, which dates back over 5,000 years, became the first underwater city to be fully digitally mapped and recorded creating a highly detailed stone by stone plan in photo-realistic 3D:

In a ground breaking collaboration, movie industry CGI specialists were invited to be part of a research team in the field to use state-of-the-art computer graphics in combination with the archaeological survey data as it was recovered to help bring the ancient city back to life. This story will be told in a one hour BBC Two documentary — City Beneath the Waves: Pavlopetri:

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Working with experts in acoustic sonar and the latest digital survey techniques Dr Jon Henderson from the Department of Archaeology at Nottingham has been able to record the entire city, which covers over 80,000 square metres.

Using an advanced stereo-mapping robot, developed by the Australian Centre of Field Robotics at Sydney University, the entire city was recorded to a resolution of a few centimetres. From tiny graves, to door steps, from the walls of huge buildings which line the ancient streets to the ancient artefacts that litter the seabed — every item was recorded in high resolution 3D creating a resource that can be analysed and studied by other archaeologists for years to come.

Dr Henderson said: “Pavlopetri offers a unique opportunity to study in detail how an ancient port functioned, how ships came in and, most importantly, the extent of maritime contacts and trade in the Bronze Age.

“There is much about Pavlopetri that can be paralleled in our own towns and cities, our own suburban way of life — people living side by side along planned out streets. This was not a village of farmers but a stratified society where people had professions — there were city leaders, officials, scribes, merchants, traders, craftsmen (potters, bronze workers, and artists), soldiers, sailors, farmers, shepherds and also probably slaves. Greek Bronze Age society was becoming hierarchical and very organized; everyone had a clearly defined role to play.”

But occupation of this site began long before that. Dr Henderson and his team have discovered evidence to suggest that people were living here as early as the Stone Age. The site then developed and grew to span the whole of the Bronze Age from 3,000 to 1,000 BC.

Dr Henderson said: “This is the period of the first European civilizations — the Minoans from Crete and later the Mycenaeans of mainland Greece. Just over 100 years ago these civilizations were entirely unknown to archaeologists and since then they have turned out to be much more advanced than anyone had previously believed.”

This year a team from the BBC joined Dr Henderson and experts from the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities to digitally raise it from the seabed.

One of the core aims of the current project is to determine how Pavlopetri ended up underwater in the first place.

Dr Henderson said: “From the recovered finds it seems that occupation ceased at the site sometime before 1,000 BC. Since then the Bronze Age building foundations have become submerged by around 4-5 m of water. The answer is likely to be related to earthquake activity — the East Mediterranean is one of the most tectonically active areas in the world — and the team have been sampling and surveying the surrounding coastline to determine whether the city was submerged during one dramatic event or more likely if it gradually sank after a series of smaller earthquakes over the last 3,000 years.

‘City Beneath the Waves: Pavlopetri’ will show how the latest in cutting-edge science and technology has been used to prise age-old secrets from the complex of streets and stone buildings that lie less than five metres below the surface. State-of-the-art CGI will reveal, for the first time how a city that has been lost to the sea for 3,000 years would once have looked and operated.

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 Notes to editors:  The University of Nottingham, described by The Sunday Times University Guide 2011 as ‘the embodiment of the modern international university’, has award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the QS World University Rankings. It was named ‘Europe’s greenest university’ in the UI GreenMetric World University Ranking, a league table of the world’s most environmentally-friendly higher education institutions, which ranked Nottingham second in the world overall.

The University is committed to providing a truly international education for its 40,000 students, producing world-leading research and benefiting the communities around its campuses in the UK and Asia.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranked the University 7th in the UK by research power. The University’s vision is to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health.

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Story credits

More information is available from Dr Jon Henderson, on +44 (0)115 951 4842,

Lindsay Brooke

Lindsay Brooke - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5751 Location: University Park

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