Inspire: Art & CultureKeith Van SickleProvencal History & Traditions

Olbia a Lost Mediterranean City and its Mysterious Port

An Ancient Greek Colony

Long before the Romans conquered Gaul (France), the Greeks established a series of colonies along its Mediterranean coast. Marseille, the oldest city in France, was once the Greek colony of Massilia. It, in turn, established smaller colonies in the area around it. One of these was Olbia—now called Olbia de Provence—near the present city of Hyères.

Founded in 325 B.C., Olbia was both a colony and a fortress built to protect the sea trading routes between Massilia and Italy. It had a population of about 700 people and was surrounded by thick walls and guard towers.

Here is a video look at the site.

Olbia prospered under the Greeks, then become part of the Roman Empire when Julius Cesar conquered Gaul in the 1st century A.D. It survived after the Empire’s collapse but was abandoned in the 7th century when the coastal region became insecure. Even worse, the port—the city’s lifeline to the outside world—had slowly submerged.

A Lost City is Rediscovered

Olbia was forgotten until 1909 when pottery fragments were discovered that made reference to the ancient city. Excavations took place throughout the 20th century and are still ongoing. Today, tourists can visit the site and learn what daily life in the city was like over 2,000 years ago.

Olbia en Provence Lost Mediterranean City

©Site Archéologique d’Olbia

Olbia’s submerged port, however, remains something of a mystery. How was it laid out? How was it used? The clues are scattered on the seafloor, a jumble of stone blocks just a few meters below the water’s surface.

Thanks to a project funded by Arpamed (Archaeology and Patrimony of the Mediterranean), the mystery may soon be solved. Under Laurent Borel’s direction, archaeologists and divers are teaming up to make sense of that jumble, and the effort is proceeding in several stages.

A Giant Puzzle

First, the stone blocks must be cleared of all the gunk built up over the centuries. Divers have spent countless hours chipping away at the blocks, gradually revealing their original form.

Olbia Lost Mediterranean City

Next, thousands of photos are being taken with high-resolution underwater cameras to capture the blocks from multiple angles. These images will then be stitched together by powerful computers and sophisticated software, creating a 3-dimensional map of all that lays below the sea. It will be like a giant puzzle, challenging anyone to put the pieces back together.

Olbia Lost Mediterranean City

© L. DAMELET CNRS/CCJ

This is where the fun begins. Borel’s team will try to solve the puzzle, painstakingly fitting together piece after piece until the ancient port is revealed. You might say it will be like the lost city of Atlantis emerging from the sea!

How You Can Help

This work is receiving some government support but is not fully funded. Arpamed is launching a fundraising appeal between April 6 and 23, 2021, to raise 10,000 euros. Those interested in this important project and who wish to donate can do so here.

Practical Information

Olbia tourist brochure (in French)

Site Archéologique d’Olbia (Facebook page)

Image Credits:

Olbia from the air: Site Archéologique d’Olbia Facebook Page
Olbia with tourists: Site Archéologique d’Olbia Facebook Page
Stone blocks with diver: www.arpamed.fr (no attribution is shown)
Diver with camera: www.arpamed.fr © L. DAMELET CNRS/CCJ

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Keith Van Sickle

Keith Van Sickle

Keith is a lifelong traveler who got his first taste of overseas life during a semester abroad in England. But it was the expat assignment to Switzerland that made him really fall in love with Europe.

After returning to California, he and his wife Val dreamed of living abroad again but couldn’t find another expat gig, so they invented their own. Now they split their time between California and St-Rémy-de-Provence, delving ever deeper into what makes France so endlessly fascinating.

Keith is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence, and Are We French Yet?, both available from Amazon.

You can see all of Keith’s blog posts at Life in Provence.

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