Institute of Archaeology


Pyramidal Stone Anchors of the 1st Century BC Mediterranean

Pyramidal Stone Anchors of the 1st Century BC Mediterranean: Distribution, Typology, Function and Potential Origins

Man looking at stone anchors with a magnifying glass and other equipment in an outside area with largely white buildings in the background and a black fence to the side

This project focuses on a rare type of stone anchor that has been reported from several sites in the Eastern and Central Mediterranean dated approximately to the middle part of the first millennium BC. The so-called ‘pyramidal stone anchor’ (PSA) has a distinctive six-sided trapezoidal shape and stood upright on in its flat wide base, rather than laying down. It lacks holes for wooden stocks that are present in many other anchor types, but has a characteristic piercing near the apex of the pyramid that is met by a vertical hole filled with lead, both of which seem to have been used to lift and lower these nearly one metre high, several hundred kilogram structures.

The unique morphology and large size of PSAs means that they are easy to identify where present. Numerous specimens were dredged from the sea near Athens in the early 20th Century and transferred to local museums, where they caught the attention of pioneering female underwater archaeologist and ‘lady of anchors’ Honor Frost (1917-2010). Frost prosed that they were used on Greek ‘Triremes’ around the 5th Century BC, given their possible association of the Athenian specimens with sheds and slipways for these oared warships. She suggested that many were made from volcanic rock not present in the Ath-ens area, and pointed to a northern Greek source for the anchors and the Triremes that they equipped.

Since the initial work of Frost PSAs have been found at several additional sites in Greece and Italy. A large corpus discovered in-situ with a 4th Century BC wreck near the Aegean island of Kythera by Dimitris Kourkoumelis, led to further discussion of their function and origins. As underwater archaeological investigations of the abundant Classical period wrecks along the coasts and islands of the Aegean and wider Mediterranean continue, it seems likely that more PSAs will be discovered. 

This project, funded by a grant from the Honor Frost Foundation furthers the initial research of Frost, Kourkoumelis and others by considering new finds of this unusual but potentially very informative type of stone anchor, and collecting detailed morphometric and scientific information on their shape, size and rock composition. It seeks to summarise the geograph-ic and chronological distribution of PSAs, define their characteristic features and dimen-sions, as well as pointing out possible misidentifications. Geological characterisation of the stone used to manufacture PSA specimens in museums in Greece and Italy via petrogra-phy and geochemistry will reveal the numbers and types of raw material sources used. Comparing these to field samples from candidate areas in Greece and Italy will hopefully reveal the provenance of the analysed PSAs. This will be used to shed light on shipbuilding locations and seafaring routes in the middle of the first millennium BC Mediterranean. The project will also re-assess the various theories regarding the function and deployment of PSAs, as well as the types of ships that carried and used them.

The project, led by Patrick Quinn of UCL, Institute of Archaeology, benefits from collabora-tion with Ioanna Mamaloudi of the Volos Archaeological Museum, Greece and Christoph Reusser of University of Zurich.

Funded travel with the project is undertaken via lower impact sustainable means, namely train, coach and ferry.

Selected bibliography

  • Frost, H. 1990. Where did they build ancient warships?. In: Tzalas, H. E. (Ed.) TROPIS 2. 2nd International Symposium on Ship Construction in Antiquity. Delphi, Greece. Hellenic Institute for the Preservation of Nautical Tradition, Athens: 181–194.

  • Frost, H. 1989. Pyramidal Stone Anchors: An Enquiry. In: Tzalas, H. E (Ed.) TROPIS I. 1st International Symposium on Ship Construction in Antiquity. Piraeus, Greece. Hellenic Institute for the Preservation of Nautical Tradition, Athens. 97–112.

  • Kourkoumelis, D. 2000. The Antidragonera Wreck (Kythera, end of 4th century BC). In: Islands in Archaeology. Bayerische Gesellschaft für Unterwasserarchäologie, Munich.139-144.