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Catalogue of potential ancient ports in the Black Sea

Catalogue des abris et ports antiques potentiels en mer Noire
Arthur de Graauw
p. 129-144


A ‘harbour’ is a place where ships can seek shelter. The concept of ‘shelter’ has to include anchorages, landing places on beaches, and ports with infrastructures. Even though ancient seafarers could sail 50 to 100 nautical miles in a day, it was important to know where they could find safe shelter within two to three hours of navigation, i.e. only approximately 10 miles. For safe sailing, a total of at least 300 shelters was therefore required around the Black Sea and Azov Sea. This paper presents a list and map of 388 known ancient harbours in the Black Sea and Azov Sea, and concludes that ancient ports are probably still to be found in Ukraine and southern Russia.

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1 - Methodology

1A ‘harbour’ is a place where ships can seek shelter. The concept of ‘shelter’ has to include anchorages, landing places on beaches, and ports including structures such as access channels, breakwaters, jetties, landing stages, quays, warehouses to store commodities and equipment, shipsheds and slipways. Shelters of interest include all places which may have been used by seafarers sailing over long distances. Villae maritimae are also of interest, but shelters used by local fishermen, who may have landed their boats on the beach in front of their homes, are of less interest. In this study, only maritime harbours and some river ports that could be reached by deep-sea ships are considered.

2This paper presents work done to collect, identify and locate ancient harbours. It is based on a study of existing documentation, i.e. on the writings of 78 ancient authors and many modern authors, including the Barrington Atlas.

3The ancient authors are usually historians, philosophers or poets, but for the purpose of this study it is ancient geographers that have retained most of our attention: Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy, and Arrian and Marcian who recount their journeys in the Black Sea. In addition to ports mentioned by ancient authors, some ports mentioned by modern authors have been included: LEHMANN-HARTLEBEN (1923), FROST (1963), BLACKMAn (1982), BLACKMAN and RANKOV (2014), FLEMMING and WEBB (1986), TALBERT (2000), COHEN (1995 and 2006), TIVERIOS (2008), DAWSON (2013), GORDIEIEV (2015) and some up-to-date web sites ( and​).

4In a first stage, only ports were listed that are explicitly mentioned by each ancient author (portus, navale, statio). Cities where the presence of a port was known from other sources were not attributed to an author who mentions the city but does not mention the port. This limitation is certainly questionable, as one cannot imagine coastal settlements without at least minimal shelter for boats. It was therefore decided to include all sites mentioned by the authors of a Periplus who were sailing ships and for whom one might consider that all places they mention are harbours. Furthermore, it was considered that all coastal settlements mentioned in the Barrington Atlas and in the Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire (DARE) must have had a shelter, and they have been included too.

2 - Results

5The result of this work is a list of over 4,000 ancient ports and shelters that are scattered mainly around the Mediterranean Sea, but also in the North Sea, in the Atlantic Ocean, in the Red Sea and the Gulf and in the Indian Ocean.

6Fig. 1 shows 388 known ancient ports and harbours in the Black Sea area. Out of this number, 165 places are mentioned as harbours by ancient authors. A detailed list of all of them is included hereafter in a clockwise rotation starting and ending at the Northern access to the Bosphorus, with their latitude and longitude coordinates.

Fig. 1 ‑ Ancient ports in the Black Sea area

Fig. 1 ‑ Ancient ports in the Black Sea area

3 - Analysis

7Ancient seafarers often used beaches to land their ships. It may be noted that a 37 m military trireme with 170 ‘strong’ oarsmen could be hauled on the beach if the slope was mild enough, for instance no more than 1:7 (about 15 %) which was also a maximum for slipways (BLACKMAN and RANKOV, 2014). This requires sand of a certain grain size (KOMAR, 1998): the very fine sands (or silts) found in large deltas yield a very flat slope which keeps ships far from land. Conversely, a shingle beach has a steep slope that is dangerous for landing ships on.

8During military expeditions, 200 people had to be fed on board triremes. It was impossible for masters to fill their ships with tons of food. In the absence of ports, ship pilots had to find places with a degree of shelter where drinking water could be found, and river estuaries could provide both. The Stadiasmus is an example of a collection of such knowledge, and can be considered as the ancestor of medieval portolans and modern nautical instructions.

9Commercial ships obviously preferred sheltered creeks with clear landmarks on shore (such as a mountain). Many shelters were needed, because seafarers often followed the coast, using safe shelters to stop overnight and escape bad weather. Even though they could sail 50 to 100 nautical miles in a day, it was important to know where they could find safe shelter within two to three hours of navigation; i.e. only approximately 10 miles. With the length of the Black Sea and Azov Sea coast being approximately 5,800 km (according to the Black Sea NGO Network, []) i.e. a little over 3,000 nautical miles, as an order of magnitude, they would hence have required a total of at least 300 shelters around the Black Sea and Azov Sea, which is fairly close to the 388 places found so far.

10Many of these sheltered creeks still exist today, but large changes have occurred in some places:

  • crustal movements which explain why some ancient ports are buried under modern ports;

  • relative sea-level rise of 0.30 to 0.50 m over the past 2000 years (see FLEMMING and WEBB, 1986; MORHANGE, 2014);

  • storms and seismic events inducing tsunamis which devastated some coastal areas;

  • river estuaries tend to silt up, and this explains why some ancient ports are now far from the sea (e.g. Danube and Don deltas) or have simply filled up with sand (ANTHONY et al., 2014);

  • in some large cities, the ‘old port’ has been reclaimed to create a new waterfront area (e.g. Varna, Mangalia, Constanza);

  • beaches are subject to sedimentation and erosion by wave action, and the latter explains why some ancient ports were lost to the sea.

11It should also be noted that ports mentioned here have been collected from texts of various dates ranging from 500 BC (except for Homer) to 500 AD (with a few exceptions). The various authors did not see the same things. Likewise, some authors simply repeated what others wrote before them!

12Even though the total number of shelters is fairly close to a safe number of one every 10 nautical miles, it can be seen from Fig. 1 that many ancient harbours probably still remain to be found on the northern coasts of the Black Sea and in the Azov Sea, notably in Ukraine and in Russia. I can suggest some likely candidates in areas that today provide some nautical shelter and access to fresh water, and that are a reasonable distance from each other and other known ancient ports:

  • along the canal crossing the Crimean Peninsula between Perekop and Heniches’k,

  • on several coastal lakes on the western Crimean coast,

  • from Crimea to Marioupol: Gulfs of Fedotova, Obytichna, Berdiansk, Belosarayska, although it is acknowledged that this sandy coast with significant sediment transport (littoral drift) does not provide easy access for shipping,

  • from Novorossiysk to Sokhumi: Krinitsa, Dzhubga, Lermontovo, Olginka, Golovinka, Gudauta (R. Hypsta),

  • on the main rivers: Dniepr, Don.

13Some of these candidates might require more attention from historians and archaeologists. The Catalogue of Ancient Ports & Harbours tries to be exhaustive, but is most probably not. This list must be seen as an incomplete collection and the geographical location is sometimes speculative. This work needs to be corrected and completed.

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ANTHONY E., MARRINER N., MORHANGE C., (2014), Human influence and the changing geomorphology of Mediterranean deltas and coasts over the last 6000 years: From progradation to destruction phase? Earth-Science Reviews, 139, p. 336–361.

BLACKMAN D., (1982), Ancient harbours in the Mediterranean, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration, 11.2, p. 79-104 and 11.3, p. 185-211.

BLACKMAN D., RANKOV B. (eds), (2014), Shipsheds of the Ancient Mediterranean, Cambridge University Press, 617 p.

CARAYON N., (2008), Les ports phéniciens et puniques, Université de Strasbourg II, PhD, 1384 p.

COHEN G., (1995), The Hellenistic settlements in Europe, the islands and Asia Minor, University of California Press, 481 p.

COHEN G., (2006), The Hellenistic settlements in Syria, the Red Sea basin and North Africa, University of California Press, 501 p.

DAWSON H., (2013), Mediterranean Voyages - The Archaeology of Island Colonisation and Abandonment, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California, 324 p.

DE GRAAUW A., (2016), Ancient Ports and Harbours, The Catalogue, 5th ed., Grenoble, 250 p., [online].

FLEMMING N., WEBB, C., (1986), Tectonic and eustatic coastal changes during the last 10 000 years derived from archaeological data, Z. Geomorph. N.F, Suppl. 62, Berlin, p. 1-29.

FROST H., (1963), Under the Mediterranean, Marine antiquities, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, London, 278 p.

GORDIEIEV A. (2015), Place names of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov coasts from portolan charts of XIV-XVII centuries, Kiev, 544 p.

KOMAR P., (1998), Beach processes and sedimentation, 2nd ed., Prentice Hall, 544 p.

LEHMANN-HARTLEBEN K., (1923), Die antiken Hafenanlagen des Mittelmeeres, Klio, Beihefte 14, 304 p.

MORHANGE C. (dir), (2014), Ports antiques et variations relatives du niveau marin, Géochronique, 130, p. 21-24.

TALBERT R., (2000), Barrington atlas of the Greek and Roman World, Princeton University Press, 148 p.

TIVERIOS M., (2008), Greek colonization of the Northern Aegean, Brill, Leiden, 585 p.

Main ancient authors on Black Sea ports

STRABO (ca. 65 BC – 25 AD), Geography

PLINY the ELDER (23 – 79 AD), Natural History

PTOLEMY (85 - 165 AD), Geography

ARRIAN (95 – 175 AD), Periplus Ponti Euxini

MARCIAN of HERACLEA (5th century AD), Periplus Maris Exteri

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Arthur de Graauw is a coastal engineer with extensive experience in the Mediterranean area. He has compiled a list of ancient ports and harbours with latitude/longitude positioning, based on many ancient and modern authors. The catalogue of ancient ports contains over 4,000 sites. It can be viewed on: [].

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1 ‑ Ancient ports in the Black Sea area
File image/jpeg, 376k
File image/jpeg, 4.0M
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Bibliographical reference

Arthur de Graauw, « Catalogue of potential ancient ports in the Black Sea », Méditerranée, 126 | 2016, 129-144.

Electronic reference

Arthur de Graauw, « Catalogue of potential ancient ports in the Black Sea », Méditerranée [Online], 126 | 2016, Online since 01 January 2018, connection on 22 April 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/mediterranee.8326

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About the author

Arthur de Graauw

Coastal Engineering & Shiphandling, Grenoble, France,

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