Planet Earth

The Year in Science: Archeology 1997

The Wreck Route

By Shanti MenonJan 1, 1998 6:00 AM


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The trick to finding untold sunken treasure may be to explore familiar spots where no one’s thought to look before. That’s what worked for Bob Ballard, anyway. Ballard, a former Woods Hole oceanographer, now heads his own Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Connecticut. Using a nuclear submarine this past year, he and his team scoured an unexplored area of the Mediterranean seafloor and discovered a graveyard of eight ships, including one of the earliest known from the Roman era.

Ballard, who had previously tracked down the Titanic and the Bismarck, realized that the deep sea, his specialty, had been overlooked in the study of antiquity. Archeologists had assumed that ancient mariners feared deep water. They figured that trading ships bound for Rome from Carthage, in what is now Tunisia, would make the short crossing to Sicily or Sardinia and hug the coastline the rest of the way. The third route, cutting straight across the Tyrrhenian Sea, would be the least likely place to find ships. I thought maybe this prediction was a self-fulfilling prophecy, says Ballard. If you only look in shallow water, you’re only going to find the wrecks in shallow water. It’s somewhat like the drunk looking for his car keys under the lamppost because that’s where the light is. The ancient mariner certainly knew the straight route. The question was, would he take it? He’s an entrepreneur, he’s a capitalist, and so a quicker route means fresher fruit, or certainly a better return on the investment. So I decided to search on that line.

In June, 80 miles northwest of Sicily’s western tip and at a depth of 2,500 feet, the Navy’s nr-1 research submarine, equipped with a powerful sonar designed to hunt Soviet subs under Arctic ice, started finding ships over 20 square miles of seafloor. They found ships almost every other day, says Ballard. We had to tell them to stop, because they were finding them faster than we could follow up with the mapping exercises. These boats weren’t smashed by rocks, like shallow shipwrecks. They had simply succumbed to the waves that washed over their decks during storms, sunk slowly to the bottom, and landed gently on the seafloor, where mud gradually covered them. While marine organisms nibbled away at any fleshy remains, and tiny wood-boring insects ate sails and wood uncovered by mud, some of the ships’ cargo and buried timbers remained undisturbed. It’s just sitting there, says Ballard. Which is sort of amazing, that it’s been waiting around for two millennia. You come in on it, and it’s like ‘Well, finally, someone’s found us. Where ya been?’

Five of the eight ships (which were identified by their cargo) came from the Roman era, from the last century b.c. and the first few centuries a.d. Another was a medieval Islamic vessel carrying glass lamps used in mosques, and the other two were from the nineteenth century. Using Jason, a remote-controlled submersible, Ballard retrieved timbers; copper and bronze pots; terra-cotta amphorae and jars, which probably carried things like wine, oil, preserved fruit, or sauce made from fish, a popular relish; and even delicate glass lamps. One Roman ship carried huge blocks and columns of granite, of the sort used in building temples.

The granite blocks, of course, had to remain in the deep, as did the bulk of the ships’ cargo. This expedition wasn’t geared toward excavation, says Ballard. Though other wrecks certainly lie along this well-traveled route, he plans to move on to the eastern Mediterranean next, while archeologists ponder the objects he has retrieved. I think the deep sea may contain more history than in all the museums of the world combined, he says. I think we’re just discovering the pyramids of the deep.

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