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Deep-sea wrecks challenge maritime theory

Broken pottery from the wreck found 1.2 kilometers deep off the western coast of Greece.

ATHENS: Two Roman-era shipwrecks have been found in deep water off a western Greek island, challenging conventional theory about how ancient maritime commerce was done.

Greece’s Culture Ministry said that the two, third-century wrecks, were discovered earlier this month during a survey for a Greek-Italian gas pipeline. They lay between Corfu and Italy, between 1.2 and 1.4 kilometers deep. That would place them among the deepest known ancient wrecks in the Mediterranean.

Angeliki Simossi, head of Greece’s underwater antiquities department, said sunken ancient ships are generally found 30-40 meters deep. Most scholars believe that ancient traders were unwilling to veer far offshore, unlike warships which were unburdened by ballast and cargo.

“There are many Roman shipwrecks, but these are in deep waters. They were not sailing close to the coast,” Simossi said. “The conventional theory was that, as these were small vessels up to 25 meters long, they did not have the capacity to navigate far from the coast, so that if there was a wreck they would be close enough to the coast to save the crew.”

U.S. archaeologist Brendan Foley, who was not involved in the project, said a series of wrecks located far from land over the past 15 years has forced experts to reconsider the earlier theory.

“The Ministry of Culture’s latest discoveries are crucial hard data showing the actual patterns of ancient seafaring and commerce,” said Foley, a deep water archaeology expert at Massachusetts’ Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Jeffrey Royal, director of the Key West, Florida, based RPM Nautical Foundation, said that in many cases – as when winds threatened to push ships onto rocks – ancient mariners made a conscious effort to avoid coastal waters.

“In antiquity, ships didn’t sail around with depth finders and keep track of how deep they were,” Royal said. “It was more how far they were on the surface in relation to land. After 30 meters of depth the boat’s safe, so if it’s 30 meters or 3,000 meters it’s irrelevant.”

A Greek oceanographic vessel using side-scan radar and robot submarines took footage of scattered cargo – storage jars, or amphorae, used to carry foodstuffs and wine – cooking utensils for the crew, anchors, ballast stones and what could be remains of the wooden ships.

The team also raised samples of pottery and a marble vase. The one ship was carrying the kind of amphorae produced in North Africa, and Simossi said it might have sailed from there and headed for Greece after a stop in Italy.

Foley said deep wrecks are very important because they are almost always more intact than those found in shallow water.

“So they contain far more archaeological and historical information than other sites,” he said. “As a result, the deep sea floor of the Mediterranean is the world’s greatest repository for information about the earliest civilizations.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 01, 2012, on page 16.

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