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The Canal of Xerxes in Northern Greece:

Explorations 1991-2001



Undertaken by:

Undertaken by

British School of Archaeology at Athens


University of Glasgow

The Project

University of Leeds

Project members

National Observatory of Athens


University of Patras

Current work and future plans

University of Thessaloniki

Acknowledgements of the research team

NCSRDemokritos’, Athens





The Canal reputedly built on the orders of the Persian King Xerxes across a narrow isthmus on the Athos peninsula in northern Greece (map) to allow his fleet safe access into the Aegean in advance of the Persian invasion of Greece in the early fifth century BC must have been a remarkable engineering operation for its time. (An earlier invasion fleet had come to grief when rounding the dangerous Mount Athos headland). Yet apart from a depression in the central sector of the isthmus, almost nothing of this canal is visible today, nor are there visible remains of building structures and harbour installations (Figures1a,b,c); what information there is about it comes from accounts by ancient writers, notably Herodotus, and 19th century travellers. Among the former, Herodotus (Histories VII, 22-24, 37, 122) gave a full account of its construction, maintaining that it was indeed a canal throughout its entire 2 km course, while Demetrius Skepsius believed that the Canal was incomplete at the southern end of the isthmus because of the nature of the terrain there (Figure 2), and as a result the ships were dragged along a slipway (diolkos) across this short section. Some more recent writers have supported the idea of a diolkos across the whole isthmus.


The Project

Under the auspices of the British School of Archaeology at Athens, fieldwork was carried out from 1991 to 2000, using different methods of geophysical survey (Figures 3, 4, 5, 6), sedimentological and palynological analysis of cores from bore-holes (Figure 7, 8) and radiocarbon dating, as well as topographic survey (Figure 9).


Project members

This collaborative, bi-national project consisted of the following members (names in alphabetic order):


British team

Dr BJS Isserlin, Archaeologist, University of Leeds

Dr Richard Jones, Archaeological scientist, University of Glasgow

Dr John Uren, Civil Engineer, University of Leeds


Greek team

Dr V Karastahis, Geophysicist, National Observatory, Athens

Prof. S Papamarinopoulos, Geophysicist, University of Patras

Dr G Syrides, Geologist, University of Thessaloniki

Participation: Dr Y Maniatis, Archaeological scientist, National Centre for Scientific Research ‘Demokritos’, Athens



Of the several techniques of geophysical survey that were experimented with, seismic refraction and reflection measurements, which are among the newest techniques in archaeological survey, proved the most informative. Seismic survey provided decisive evidence for the Canal’s existence in the central sector of the isthmus where its depth was estimated to be 14-15m below present ground surface with top and bottom widths of 25-35 m and at most 20m respectively. Figure 10 shows an example one of the high-resolution seismic reflection profile and figure 11 an example of data processing. In Figure 12 are two seismic tomographic sections of the canal following data processing with the ‘Rayinvr’ algorithm (Zelt, C.A., Smith, R.B., 1992. Seismic traveltime inversion for 2-D crustal velocity structure. Geophys. J. Int. 108, 16–34). Figure 13 presents the ray coverage of the canal. The model derived from geophysical methods agrees not only with the findings of sediment analysis of cores from the central sector but also with Herodotus’ account of the canal. Drilling results show a highly significant discontinuity of sediments at about 14.5 m depth, representing the probable bottom of the Canal, red beds below and silty coarse sands above. As for the controversial southern end of the canal, the combined results of both seismic survey and core analysis concur that there seems to be no major constructional obstacle. It appears likely therefore that the Canal ran the full course of the isthmus.

A most important finding has been the absence of marine organisms in the sediments in the central sector of the isthmus, indicating the lifetime of the Canal was probably short; it rapidly became blocked as a result of its sides collapsing: all the indications are that once this prestige engineering operation was completed and the fleet had successfully passed through the Canal, it was soon abandoned, never to be reused. This would go some way towards explaining the lack of building structures and harbour installations. It also suggests that Xerxes built the canal as much for prestige and a show of strength as for its purely functional role.


Figure 10. Example of a seismic reflection profile (Karastathis et al 2001)


Current work and future plans

These include (a) a 3-D graphical representation of the Canal based on 3D seismic tomography and topographic data, and (b) a reconstruction of the likely landscape in the region at the time the Canal was built.


Acknowledgements of the research team

The Project was carried out under the auspices of the British School of Archaeology at Athens, with permits granted by the Greek Ministry of

Financial support on the British side has come from the British School of Archaeology, the British Academy, the Russell Trust, the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, besides the private donation from Mr and Mrs W. Feuchtwanger

On the Greek side funding came from the Greek Secretariat for Research & Technology and NATO's Science for Stability program.
The Project formally acknowledges the support of the ephorate of prehistoric and classical antiquities at
Thessaloniki and the mayor of Nea Roda


Publications in Geophysical Journals

Jones RE, Isserlin BSJ, Karastathis VK, Papamarinopoulos SP, Syrides GE, Uren J, Balatsas I, Kapopoulos Ch, Maniatis Y and Facorellis Y (2000). Exploration of the Canal of Xerxes, Northern Greece: the role of geophysical and other techniques. Archaeological Prospection 7, 147-170.

Karastathis V. K. and Papamarinopoulos St. (1994). Preliminary results of the implementation of the shallow seismic techniques in order to detect the King Xerxes' Canal. Extended Abstract. Newsletter (European Geophysical Society) No. 53 Dec.1994 p. 8-9.

Karastathis V. K. and Papamarinopoulos SP (1997). The detection of the Xerxes Canal by the use of shallow reflection and refraction seismics - preliminary results. Geophysical Prospecting 45: 389-401.

Karastathis V. K, Papamarinopoulos S, and Jones R. E. (2001). 2-D Velocity Structure of the Buried Ancient Canal of Xerxes: An Application of Seismic Methods in Archaeology. Journal of Applied Geophysics 47: 29-43.


Archaeological publications

Isserlin BSJ (1991). The Canal of Xerxes: facts and problems. Annual of the British School at Athens 86: 83-91.

Isserlin BSJ, Jones RE, Papamarinopoulos S and Uren J (1994). The Canal of Xerxes: preliminary investigations in 1991 and 1992. Annual of the British School at Athens 89: 277-84.

Isserlin BSJ, Jones RE, Papamarinopoulos S, Syrides GE, Maniatis Y, Facorellis G and Uren J (1996). The Canal of Xerxes: investigations in 1993-1994. Annual of the British School at Athens 91: 329-40.


Conferences - Symposia

Papamarinopoulos S.P., Jones R.E., Karastathis V., Syridis G., Uren J. and Isserlin B.S.J., (1994). Geophysical Testing on the Hypothesis of the Xerxes' Canal Built in Northern Greece in the 5th Century B.C. Presented at the International Conference on the Application of Natural Science Methods in Archaeology, Saint Petersburg, Russia, 27th - 30th November 1994. Published in the Conference Proceedings.

Papamarinopoulos S.P.,. Jones R.E, Syrides G., Uren J. and B.S.J. Isserlin (1994). The Role of geophysical and other techniques in the exploration of the Canal of Xerxes, N. Greece. 29th International Archaeometry Symposium, Ankara, Turkey (1994).