Shipwreck holds clues to lives of ancient mariners

Deep-water discovery lends credence to Greek legends of fearless ocean odysseys.

For centuries, scholars have debated whether Homer's tales of epic, perilous sea voyages were based on the real lives of ancient mariners. The prevailing view has long rested on the side of safety: that ancient cargo ships rarely took to the high seas, but kept instead to the shallow waters along the coastlines.

But the discovery of more than 2,000 wine jugs, plus boat pieces, and even dinnerware among the remains of a 2,300-year-old shipwreck may prove to be the modern vindication of Homer's heroic tales and show that ancient seafaring peoples were more daring than originally thought.

Most ancient ships have been found in shallow waters, leading many scholars to believe that the captains, sailing without compasses, stayed in view of coastlines.

But this shipwreck was discovered more than 200 miles off the Cyprus coast, and two miles below the surface - the deepest ever found, says Brett Phaneuf of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology of Texas A&M University in College Station, who is helping analyze the find. "More important than the depth is its distance from the shore," he says.

In spring 1999, Nauticos Corporation, an ocean-exploration company based in Maryland, was using a deep-sea robot to search the Mediterranean for an Israeli submarine that disappeared 33 years ago.

What the robot found wasn't scraps of steel, but a sprawling field of amphorae - large clay jugs - most of them intact. There was also a metal cauldron and several lead anchors.

Detailed video and sonar imagery was taken of the site, but the discovery was kept secret until the submarine was found and the wreck analyzed by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.

Researchers believe the ship was a Hellenic trader carrying wine and other items from the ancient trading center of Rhodes and the nearby island of Kos to Alexandria, Egypt.

Mr. Phaneuf describes it as "a supertanker of the ancient world" that was plying the open sea sometime between the time of Alexander the Great and Cleopatra.

From the amphorae strewn across a mound 80 feet long, the ship has been dated tentatively at 2,300 years old.

As many as four similar wrecks are thought to lie nearby, and archaeologists suspect more could be found by thoroughly searching the route.

"If the wrecks are all from the same general period, they may provide detailed information about long-distance trade over open water at a specific moment in history," according to an article in Archaeology, the magazine of the Archaeological Institute of America.

The article continues: "If the wrecks span many centuries, they may provide new and important evidence about trade between Crete, Cyprus, Turkey, and Egypt over a broad span of time. This would be the first evidence of sustained open-water traffic in the ancient world."

It shows that we tend to underestimate ancient peoples, Phaneuf says. "They invented geometry, they had great astronomy, they were not timid, and they understood that getting their goods to market quickly, efficiently, and in bulk helped turn a profit," he says. "They were not timid. They struck out across open seas."

Some experts insist there should never have been any doubt about the prowess of ancient Greek mariners.

They estimate the vessel was probably similar in appearance to the Kyrenia II, a replica of a 4th-century BC Greek trading vessel discovered a mile off the coast of Cyprus in 1965.

Glafkos Kariolou, the son of a pioneering Greek Cypriot diver who discovered that wreck, has skippered the replica from Cyprus to Greece and insists it is "completely wrong" for any modern scientist to assume the ancients could not cross open seas.

They "possessed an ocean of maritime information" he says. Many archaeologists believe ancient Greek mariners 500 or 600 years before the Christian era were sailing to Cornwall, England to bring tin and zinc back to Greece.

Because of the latest wreck's location and its cargo of Greek wine, it is thought the ship was bound for Egypt when it perished, possibly as a result of structural failure, collision, or storm-tossed seas.

Because it is so deep, most of the amphorae are well preserved, and the great depth and cold of the sea may even have preserved a portion of the ship's hull, according to the report in Archaeology.

Squatting upright among the tightly packed amphorae is a large, intact metal cauldron that Archaeology described as "the world's oldest and longest continuously deployed sediment trap."

Thomas Dettweiler, general manager and executive vice president of Nauticos says: "Who knows what kind of tools or utensils we'll find down there that will give us new understanding and answer many questions about ancient civilizations."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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