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In Ancient Wreck, Clues to Seafaring Lives: NY Times

Reprinted with Permission

In an Ancient Wreck, Clues to Seafaring Lives

March 27, 2001Two Thirds of the Search Area Covered


In Homer’s epics, mariners tell of sailing far and wide across the Mediterranean, of braving fierce storms, of traveling for days on end with no land in sight.

But modern scholars had doubts. Distrust about the actual routes grew with the discovery of numerous old wrecks in shallow waters. In time, the ancient sailors were viewed as hugging the coasts, mostly keeping in sight of land. The heroic tales were probably fabulous, many scholars argued, and the mariners more timid than their boasts.

Now, the discovery of an ancient wreck in the middle of the Mediterranean is strengthening the old claims. The wreck site, some 200 miles from Cyprus and nearly two miles deep, has been tentatively dated as 2,300 years old; it lies amid a graveyard of similar hulks. Clearly Greek in origin, it is the deepest ancient ship ever discovered.

The find was accidental. In early 1999, a robot tethered to a surface ship by a long cable was being directed to hunt the icy darkness of the deep Mediterranean for a lost submarine. Suddenly, it lit up thousands of amphorae – the clay jugs of antiquity used for storage. The pile of ancient debris also held several anchors, pitchers, a serving bowl and a large metal cooking pot.

The discovery team believes that the ship was a Hellenistic trader sailing between Rhodes and Alexandria, and that the clay jars were carrying wine.

“This was a supertanker of the ancient world,” said Brett A. Phaneuf of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology of Texas A&M University, who is helping analyze the find.

The discovery was kept secret until the submarine was found and the ancient wreck analyzed. It is unveiled in the current issue of Archaeology, the magazine of the Archaeological Institute of America, a scholarly group based in Boston.

“The deep sea is giving us increasing evidence of how the ancients were sailing everywhere,” said Dr. Anna Marguerite McCann, a marine archaeologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “This is exciting. I’m sure there’s a lot more down there.”

The deep wreck is well preserved. Its jars are mostly intact and beyond the reach of fishing trawlers, which often damage artifacts. At the site’s edge, a wooden frame or deck beam, and a segment of planking, protrude from sediments. The finders hope more wood lies intact under the mud, amphorae and ballast stones.

The Nauticos Corporation – the ship’s finders – and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology are planning to return to the site for more detailed exploration and analysis.

“We’re talking about a wreck dating to somewhere between Cleopatra and Alexander the Great,” said David W. Jourdan, the president of Nauticos. “There are some very unique things down there.”

Perhaps as many as four similar wrecks lie nearby, mute evidence of old tragedies in middle of the Mediterranean.

If the ancients are to be believed, their ships often prowled the open sea, and sank there as well.

In “The Odyssey,” Homer recounts many feats, including how Odysseus once sailed from Crete to North Africa – a stretch of at least 200 miles over open water.

The Phoenicians, based in what is now Lebanon, during the first millennium B.C. sailed west more than a thousand miles to found Carthage and set up an ingenious system of way stations in the western Mediterranean – in Sardinia, Ibiza and Spain. That led some scholars to argue that the Phoenicians often sailed out of the sight of land.

Greek colonists traveled so far and so frequently that Plato likened them to “frogs round a pond.” Even the Bible tells of many voyages across open waters, including Paul’s to Rome.

Doubts about the veracity of such claims arose mostly in the middle of the 20th century as scuba divers found large numbers of ancient wrecks in shallow waters, and scholars began to deconstruct ancient literature. After all, the experts noted, the old mariners had no compasses.

Dr. Elizabeth Lyding Will, a leading authority on ancient amphorae who taught classics and archaeology at Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts, said that for decades she hewed to the coastal interpretation.

“I fell for the line that the ancients were afraid,” she said in an interview. “So much that’s in Greek and Latin literature is not reliable.”

Her skepticism was reinforced, she added, because most ancient wrecks were being found “along the coast.”

Echoing the coastal view was Lionel Casson, a professor of classics at New York University. “Usually skippers of galleys stuck to the shore, sailing from one landfall to the next,” he wrote in “The Ancient Mariners” in 1991. “When they had to travel at night they steered by the stars, but such travel was strictly exceptional.”

Evidence to the contrary started to emerge from the sea in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. A pioneer was Robert D. Ballard, the finder of the Titanic, who was aided by Dr. McCann. He used robots and a submarine to explore what was thought to be a trade route over open water between Carthage and Rome and found that the region was indeed littered with wrecks and artifacts. Similar finds in time emerged.

In retrospect, some experts say, the coastal interpretation now seems like the old joke about the drunk who lost his keys. Asked why he was looking so intently only under the street lamp, the drunk mumbled, “That’s where the light is.”

The find in the inky depths of the eastern Mediterranean has now produced the newest and best evidence to date of wide voyaging, archaeologists say. The discovery was made two years ago while Nauticos was looking for Dakar, the lost Israeli submarine that had disappeared three decades earlier. Israel hired the company, a deep-sea contractor based in Hanover, Md., to conduct the hunt.

Thomas K. Dettweiler of Nauticos, which often works for the United States Navy, was managing the search when another expedition ship radioed bad news: the robot sent down to inspect an intriguing target had come up short on the submarine yet again.

“They were really disappointed,” Mr. Dettweiler recalled. “I asked, ‘What was it?’ And when they started describing things, it got very exciting, the size and number of amphorae. They said there were hundreds or thousands of them.”

The team videotaped the site but then had to leave to resume the hunt for the submarine.

After the voyage, Nauticos asked Mr. Phaneuf of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, who is working on his doctorate and has studied ancient amphorae, to help analyze the find.

The wreck site is about 65 feet long and contains an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 amphorae. Most of the large clay jugs have two handles, which eased their carrying. The amphorae of antiquity generally ranged between two and three feet long, and held about seven gallons. Their shapes and markings were distinctive to ease product recognition.

Mr. Phaneuf said most of the wreck’s jugs, based on their distinctive appearance and comparison to surviving examples of old amphorae, apparently came from the ancient trading center of Rhodes and the nearby island of Kos. They date, he added, to around the end of the third century B.C. or the beginning of the second – during the Hellinistic era. That time, after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C., saw the wide diffusion of Greek trade and culture.

Very few wrecks from this period are known and none are in such a good state of preservation, archaeologists said.

The wine of Kos was admired but was a relatively inexpensive grade, shipped and bought in large quantities, Mr. Phaneuf said. The Rhodian was often higher quality. Rhodes during this period controlled most of the sea trade in the eastern Mediterranean, and did so up until the Romans rose to power.

The wreck site also disclosed parts for at least four large anchors, their wooden shafts vanished but leaden collars and stocks visible. In ancient times, anchors were often lost or needing repair, so many were usually kept aboard a single ship.

Mr. Phaneuf said the lost Hellinistic ship, given its cargo and resting place, appeared to be bound from Rhodes to Alexandria in Egypt. Why it sank is unknown, perhaps a storm, accident or ship damage.

He said the Nauticos team found evidence of four more ancient wrecks in the region and briefly videotaped one of them.

Mr. Jourdan, the president of Nauticos, said that if the ships were all of the same era they might represent either long-distance trade gone awry or a lost fleet blown off track. But if the wrecks turn out to span many generations or centuries, he added, they will provide hard evidence of a route for sustained ancient trade across the open sea.

He said the team was trying to keep the exact positions secret “so we can go back with the scientists” to do detailed analyses. Mr. Jourdan added that Nauticos did salvage work on the Israeli submarine last October and that now, with that concluded, it was free to talk about the discovery of the ancient wrecks.

A paper on the Nauticos Web site,, discusses the discovery and future plans. It was written by the company and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.

The two organizations are looking for a corporate sponsor to pay for a return expedition, and they are planning a documentary on the discovery.

The goals of a return include making a detailed photo mosaic of the wreck as a recovery guide. The archaeologists would then salvage one or two of the Rhodian amphorae for analysis.

If the recovered amphorae are stamped with the typical markings, said the paper, “we will be able to date this wreck to within about a 20-year period.”

On a return voyage, the other wrecks will also be examined if time allows, and the joint paper suggests these lost ships may prove even older and more valuable. That possibility, it said, was even “more exciting” than discovering evidence of open-water trade routes.

The dream is a Minoan shipwreck.

In the Bronze Age, before iron was known, the Minoans were an advanced prehistoric culture that ruled Crete and much of the Aegean, and sailed widely on the eastern Mediterranean. They lived roughly between 2,500 and 1,000 B.C. and formed part of the first high civilization on European soil.

No Minoan ship has ever come to light, archaeologists say, and if one did it would be the earliest known shipwreck. The finders of the Hellenistic wreck hope that the Minoans also plied the sea in the region, and that at least one ship went down.

Dr. McCann, a visiting scholar at M.I.T., said the team’s goal of a Minoan shipwreck was tantalizing. “That would be the plum,” she said. “That’s the big thing everybody is after.”

Thousands of amphorae, clay jugs used for storage, and a cooking pot were among the artifacts in the wreckage of a Greek ship that sank 200 miles off Cyprus about 2,300 years ago. The ancient ship, nearly two miles under the surface of the western Mediterranean, is the deepest ever discovered.

Reprinted by permission from © 2001 The New York Times Company. New York Times material may not be used in any manner except for personal reference without the written permission of The New York Times Company.