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Issue 472, 5 November 2001

Drowned, lost, then found again – Helike

Earth scientist Richard Collier has been helping to explain why the Greek city of Helike, lost beneath the waves following a devastating earthquake in 373 BC, has been discovered buried by river sediment on the edge of the Gulf of Corinth (pictured left).

Comparing his knowledge of the geology of the region with contemporary descriptions of the disaster which destroyed the city, he has contributed towards an explanation of events for a forthcoming BBC1 Horizon programme.

"The descriptions talked of an earthquake, followed a few hours later by the sea coming in to cover the site. In Roman times, Helike was still visible under the sea but in recent history no trace of the city had been found. Over the last 30 years there have been surveys of the Gulf of Corinth, as it was thought the city had slumped out to sea, into the depths of the Gulf," explained Dr Collier.

Recent drilling onshore discovered traces of the city at a depth of three to four metres, which helped Dr Collier understand the reasons for its disappearance.

"We now think the coastal plain must have subsided by several metres following the quake and was submerged, and over the subsequent centuries and millennia, rivers brought down sediment which allowed the river plain to build out into the Gulf again and bury the site completely," he explained.

Dr Collier has a NERC grant to look at how, and how fast, the earth’s crust is deforming in central Greece to help predict the frequency and magnitude of earthquakes. "The Gulf of Corinth is a natural laboratory for studying active rifting," he said. "Faults there are moving as much as five to six metres every thousand years, and the Gulf itself is getting wider by 14mm each year – very fast in geological terms."

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