Brief historical overview

If you are not an expert historian, this brief historical overview of the “western world” may help you to start …

Chronology of civilisations adapted from Inman in “Ancient and modern harbors: a repeating phylogeny”, 15th Coastal Engineering Conference, New York, 1974.

Some additional definitions, in round figures (for the Near East):

  • Palaeolithic (Stone) Age: before 10 000 BC
  • Mesolithic (Stone) Age: 10 000 to 5000 BC
  • Neolithic (Stone) Age: 5000 to 3300 BC
  • Early Bronze Age (EBA): 3300 to 2100 BC
  • Middle Bronze Age (MBA): 2100 to 1600 BC
  • Late Bronze Age (LBA): 1600 to 1200 BC

Many Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic sites have been identified in coastal areas, but they did not have any port structures[0]. A few examples are provided by logboat wrecks in northern Europe, Tarsos and Anchialeia (Turkey), Cape Andreas, Nissi Beach, River Aspros, Kyssonerga, Akanthou, Akrotiri (Cyprus), Tell Kabri, Shavei Zion, Megadim, Atlit -Yam, Neve-Yam (Israel), Gorham’s cave (Gibraltar), Bouldnor Cliff (UK).

A submerged probable seawall dated ca. 5500-5000 BC was found at Hreiz (Israel) (Galili, 2019). The oldest known seaport structure (in 2022) is the wadi al-Jarf breakwater in the Gulf of Suez (ca. 2600 BC, Khufu-Chéops). This structure is ca. 325 m long and ca. 6 m wide. It is made of cobbles and clay[1]. Extensive port facilities were also built near Khufu’s pyramid construction-site at Memphis for transport of large ashlars (Gizeh, Egypt). Further coastal settlements are found at Ayn Sukhna (Egypt), Malta, several Aegean islands, several places on the Bulgarian-Romanian coasts, Ictis insula (UK). The port of Byblos (Lebanon) is from the same period, but it is located inside natural coves with no known port structures[2]. Between 2400 and 2000 BC, a 4 m deep basin of 215 x 35 m was built with fired mudbrick at Lothal (India) near River Sabarmati, but this may have been a water reservoir. The smaller harbour basins of Ur were probably also built in this period (Blackman, 1982, Oleson, 2015). Further coastal settlements are found in the Gulf in at Susa, Uruk (Iraq), Rishir (Iran).

The very large port on Pharos island might also date around 2000 BC and its more than 2 km long main breakwater might be seen as an ancestor of the typical Phoenician breakwater structure with two ashlar vertical walls and interspace filled with rubble[3]. Many more places were found in the Nile delta, e.g., Avaris (dated 1700 BC) with a 450 x 400 m basin excavated near the Pelusiac Nile branch.

A series of Minoan ports were found on the north coast of Crete: Kydonia (Chania), Knossos and Amnissos (near Iraklio), Mallia, Ag. Nikolaos, Istron, Pachia Ammos, Tholos, Pseira, Mochlos, Kaloi Limenes, Lebena which are usually quite small.

Natural shelters were used in the 2nd millennium BC on the Turkish coast: Troy, Klazomenai, Miletos, Halicarnassus. Anchorages more or less sheltered by offshore ridges were used as natural shelters on the Levantine coast: Ugarit, Gibala, Shuksi, Siannu, Marathos, Simyra, Arca, Ibirta, Orthosia, Tripolis, Ampa, Botrys, Berytos, Akko, Ascalon, Gaza. In Yavne-Yam, a 100 m x 50 m stone rampart may have been built to improve the shelter[4].

Early Phoenicians gradually improved their natural shelters by adding breakwater structures on top of the offshore ridges, like at Sidon on the “Languette rocheuse” mentioned by Poidebard and Lauffray in 1951, and at other places (Arwad, Batroun, Zire)[5]. Corings show that Sidon’s inner port was already existing in the 17-15th c. BC thanks to this artificially improved reef[6].

At Kommos (Crete) a shipshed located near the coast, and including 6 galleries of 37 x 5.60 m, is dated Late Minoan (ca. 1400 BC)[7]. A possible Minoan slipway with 2 galleries of ca. 5 x 40 m is located at Nirou Khani (Crete). A slipway was also found at Sounion (Attica) and shipsheds were found at Kition (Cyprus). Mycenaean ports on the Peloponnesus also date from this period: Epidauros, Egina, Hydra, Asini, Tiryns, Gytheion, Pylos.

Next are the following port structures, all located in ancient Phoenicia:

  • Dor (Israel, ca. 1000 BC) with a 35 m shallow water quay made of large ca. 1 x 0.3 x 2 m ashlar slabs laid as headers facing the sea[8],
  • Tabbat el-Hammam breakwater (Syria, ca. 900-800 BC) 200 x 15 m, with 0.4 x 0.4 x 1.9 m headers[9],
  • Atlit breakwater (Israel, ca. 800 BC) 130 x 10 m, with 0.5 x 0.5 x 1-2 m headers[12],
  • Sidon (Lebanon, ca. 800-600 BC) north breakwater 230 m long, with headers up to 5 m[10],
  • Tyre (Lebanon, ca. 800-600 BC) north breakwater 70 x 12 m, with 0.5 x 0.4 x 2 m headers, and similar south breakwater, over 100 m long[11].

These structures all included ashlar headers ca. 0.5-1 x 0.5-1 x 1-5 m. The pioneering Phoenician breakwaters (Atlit, Tyre) consist of two ashlar vertical walls with interspace filled with rubble. Moreover, this type of structure was still built much later in the 3rd c. BC (e.g. Amathus in Cyprus[13] 380 m, with 0.7 x 0.7 x 3 m headers) and in the 2nd c. AD (Leptiminus and Acholla in Tunisia, with 1 m headers) and even in the 4th c. AD (Seleucia Pieria, 120 m, with 5 m headers[14]). They re-emerged in the 18th c. when international sea-borne trade asked for them again[15].

A major evolution was the introduction of ‘Puteolanus pulvis’ (often translated by ‘pozzolana’) for hardening concrete under water. This enabled large blocks of hundreds of cubic meters of concrete to be constructed under water by pouring concrete into timber caissons, as described by Vitruvius around 20 BC. The first known use for vertical concrete breakwaters is at Agrippa’s naval base of Portus Iulius, near Pozzuoli, in 37 BC, and the most famous is at Caesarea Maritima (Israel) built between 21 and 10 BC[16]. The largest was probably built between 40 and 50 AD at Portus Claudius.

The first rubble mound breakwater was possibly built on Delos island in the 8th c. BC[17], but the Samos breakwater (ca. 530 BC) described by Herodotos (Hist, 3, 44-60) is more famous. This type of structure was widely used for breakwaters in water deeper than a few meters where dumping loose rock over-board barges was easier than positioning ashlar headers with divers. This construction method was described later on by Pliny the Younger at Centumcellae (103 AD). This construction method is still used very often nowadays.


[0] DAWSON, H., 2013, “Mediterranean Voyages – The Archaeology of Island Colonisation and Abandonment”, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California, (324 p).

[1] TALLET, P., 2023:, Khufu-Khéops is therefore a precursor, not only for his Great Pyramid, but also for his maritime works.

[2] CARAYON, N., 2012a, “Geoarchaeology of Byblos, Tyre, Sidon and Beirut”, Rivista di Studi Fenici 1 2011_Impaginato 30/06/12 14:52, (p 45-55).

[3] JONDET, G., 1916, “Les ports submergés de l’ancienne île de Pharos”, Mémoires présentés à l’institut égyptien, Tome IX, Le Caire, (121 p).
WEILL, R., 1916, “Les ports antéhelléniques de la côte d’Alexandrie et l’Empire crétois”, Bulletin de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, Tome XVI.
SAVILE, L., 1940, Presidential address of Sir Leopold Halliday Savile, K.C.B. on 6/11/1940, Journal of the institution of Civil Engineers 15, No 1, November 1940, (p 1-26).
BELOVA, G., et al., 2019, “Russian underwater archaeological mission to Alexandria, General report (2003-2015)”, Egypt and neighbouring countries 3, (p 1-31).

[4] GALILI, E., et al, 1993, “Underwater surveys and rescue excavations along the Israeli coast”, IJNA, 1993, 22.1, (p 61-77).

[5] VIRET, J., 2005, “Les « murs de mer » de la côte levantine”, Méditerranée, N°104, (p 15-24). This paper is very informative, even if we do not completely agree with its conclusion.

[6] MARRINER, N., 2009, “Géoarchéologie des ports antiques du Liban”, edt. L’Harmattan, (262 p).

[7] BLACKMAN, D. & RANKOV, B., 2013, “Shipsheds of the Ancient Mediterranean”, Cambridge University Press, p 10.

[8] ARKIN SHALEV, E., 2019, “The Iron Age Maritime Interface at the South Bay of Tel Dor: results from the 2016 and 2017 excavation seasons”, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 48.2, (p 439-452). Headers are long blocks placed with the smallest section towards the outer side of the wall. Stretchers are placed with their large side to the outer side.

[9] BRAIDWOOD, R., 1940, “Report on two sondages on the coast of Syria, south of Tartous”, in: Syria. Tome 21 fascicule 2, 1940, (p 183-226), and Haggi, 2007 (see note 12).

[10] CARAYON, N., 2012b, “Les ports phéniciens du Liban – Milieux naturels, organisation spatiale et infrastructures”, Archaeology and History in Lebanon, 36-37 (2012-2013), (p 1-137).

[11] NOUREDDINE, I., 2010, “New Light on the Phoenician Harbor at Tyre”, Near Eastern Archaeology 73:2–3 (2010). See also his 2018 publication: Archaeological Survey of the Phoenician Harbour at Tyre, Lebanon, BAAL 18, 2018, (p 95-112).
DE GRAAUW, A., BROCARD, G., GOIRAN, J-P., 2024, “Where is the Phoenician harbour of Tyre?”, online:

[12] HAGGI, A., 2005, “Underwater excavation at the Phoenician harbor at Athlit, 2002 season”, R.I.M.S. News, report N° 31, Haifa, 2005.
HAGGI, A. & ARTZY, M., 2007, “The harbor of Atlit in Northern Canaanite/Phoenician context”, Near Eastern Archaeology, 70:2, (p 75-84).

[13] NAVIS II, 2002, The Navis II Database Project, European Commission Directorate General X: (go to Harbours/Harbour Information/Israel/Caesarea). This RGZM site does not function presently and will be transferred to

[14] PAMIR, H., 2014, “New Researches and New Discoveries in the Harbours of Seleucia Pieria”, Harbors and Harbor Cities in the Eastern Mediterranean, BYZAS 19, (p 177-198).

[15] ALLSOP, PIERSON & BRUCE, 2017, “Orphan breakwaters-what protection is given when they collapse?”, ICE Coastal Structures and Breakwaters, Liverpool.

[16] GALILI, E., et al., 2021, “Archaeological and Natural Indicators of Sea-Level and Coastal Changes: The Case Study of the Caesarea Roman Harbor”, Geosciences 2021, 11, 306, (26 p).
OLESON, J., BRANDON, C., HOHLFELDER, R., JACKSON, M., 2014, “Building for Eternity – The history and Technology of Roman Concrete Engineering in the Sea”, Oxbow Books, (327 p).

[17] FLEMMING, N., 1980, “Cities under the Mediterranean”, in: “Archaeology under Water”, edt. Keith Muckelroy, McGraw-Hill Book Co, (p 162-177).