Archives For Ancient Shipwrecks


CC Courtesy of Harold Meerveld on Flickr

Engineers and archaeologists have successfully raised a 600 year old sailing cog from the depths of the Ijssel River in the Netherlands. The 55 ton vessel, along with a barge and punt, had been deliberately sunk to alter the flow of the river to make it more navigable and easier for ships to dock on the Ijssel’s banks. Then, as now, maritime trade was essential to the Dutch economy and any impediments to riverine traffic directly affected the economic well-being of the area’s inhabitants. As such, medieval maritime engineers devised a plan to divert the flow of silt from the river’s banks making docking along the bank easier. The engineers strategically sank the cog, barge and punt to achieve their goal. The river quickly silted up over the vessels which created the anaerobic environment essential to the state of preservation they are currently in.

The vessels were rediscovered in 2012 and a lifting platform was built to raise the vessel from the seabed. As is the case with many scuttled vessels, the cog had been stripped of all items of value, however, archaeologists hope to study the techniques in the construction of the vessel. Now begins the lengthy preservation process which involves slowly removing salt from the vessel’s timbers and eventually drying it out. If successful, then the vessel would be a smaller version of England’s Mary Rose or Sweden’s Vasa.

Cleopatra’s Needle

October 14, 2014 — Leave a comment

London Needle

For nearly a century and a half, an Egyptian obelisk has graced the Victoria Embankment along the Thames River in London. Flanked by a pair of sphinxes, the obelisk was gifted to the United Kingdom by Muhammad Ali, the ruler of Egypt and Sudan, in 1819 in honor of two British victories in Egypt including Admiral Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile. While the gift was a magnanimous one, the cost of transporting it to the UK proved prohibitive and the obelisk lingered in Egypt until 1877 when £10,000 was donated by a philanthropist to ship the monument to London.

Carefully ensconced in an enormous iron cylinder outfitted with a rudder, deckhouse and dubbed Cleopatra, the 69 foot, 224 ton red granite obelisk began its long journey to London from Egypt. Tragedy struck the needle and its tow vessel Olga on October 14, 1877 when a storm struck in the Bay of Biscay. As the towed cylinder began to buck and roll amidst the storm’s swells, six crew were dispatched from the Olga to steady the Cleopatra. Sadly, their boat capsized and the men were all lost. The Olga was able to rescue the six men aboard the Cleopatra and the needle was abandoned to the vagaries of the storm in a sinking state.

Four days later the Cleopatra was discovered adrift by Spanish trawlers and was salvaged by the steamer Fitzmaurice out of Glasgow. After paying off the salvage claim, the Cleopatra finally arrived in the UK on January 21, 1878 after a harrowing and deadly journey. The needle was erected on September 12, 1878 and has attracted tourists and Londoners alike ever since.

London Needle

Cleopatra’s Needle Arrives

University of Malta/CNRS/COMEX

University of Malta/CNRS/COMEX

Several months ago, marine archaeologists located the wreck of an ancient sailing ship off the Maltese island of Gozo. Further work on the site revealed 20 grinding stone along with 50 amphorae, an ancient piece of stoneware used to transport liquids and semi-solids. Although the wreck was discovered several months ago, the archaeological team just revealed the identity of the cargo as being Phoenician stoneware and grinding stones. University of Malta researchers believe the wreck was traveling between Sicily and Malta when it sank around 700 BC. Situated at nearly 400 feet below the surface, the wreck is at the outer limits of diving equipment. The team believes there may be more artifacts yet to recover and plan to continue working on the undisclosed site.

Ramming Speed

April 4, 2013 — Leave a comment
battering ram

Athenian Trireme
CC Image Courtesy of Yannis on Flickr

Nearly 50 years ago, British divers off the coast of Libya discovered a metal object that turned out to be a 44 pound bronze ram from a Greek or Roman warship. Only recently, though, has a thorough analysis of the object, dubbed the Belgammel Ram, been conducted and the results have been published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. Dr. Flemming of the UK’s National Oceanography Centre brought together a scientific team with skill sets ranging from radiocarbon dating to metallurgy to 3-D imaging.

The ram had been previously established as not the primary ram found at the waterline of a ship, but rather a secondary ram termed a proembolion which would have “served to break the oars of an enemy ship.” Through the use of radiocarbon dating, the team established that the ram had originally been attached to a ship dating from 100 BC to 100 AD. 3-D imaging by Dr. Jon Adams of the University of Southampton revealed decorative images of tridents with a bird motif on the ram. Additionally, metallurgical sampling of the ram helped further archaeologists understanding of casting techniques from ancient times. Following the study, the Belgammel Ram will be returned to a museum in Libya.

Egyptian boat

Khufu’s Solar Barge
CC Image Courtesy of Hannah Pethen on Flickr

Egyptian news site Bikya News is reporting that the museum which houses Khufu’s (King Cheop’s) solar barge has suffered a sewage leak that potentially threatens the preservation of the thousands year old barge.

Buried in 2500 BC, the solar barge was one of two barges buried in a pit at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Rediscovered in 1954, the barge was reconstructed and an entire museum built to house the magnificent 143 foot long vessel. The barge was most likely built to serve a ritual purpose in the after-life as its design does not lend itself to practical use on the water.

The Egyptians were not the only ones to provide their dead with boats or ships for the after-life. The Vikings often buried dead chieftains in enormous burial mounds complete with full-sized ships. Today, three of those ships are preserved in Scandinavia and are open to the public.

Portimao shipwreck

Portimao, Portugal
CC Image Courtesy of Juan Antonio Canales on Flickr

Last week, archaeologists began dive operations on a wreck in the Arade River near Portimao, Portugal. Amphora have previously been discovered at the wreck site, pointing to the ship having sunk during from Roman times. The survey of the site is the first in a series of expeditions to the ship planned for the next 3 to 4 years. Archaeologists are hoping to learn more about Portimao’s role in Roman trade routes. Dives are also planned to wrecks discovered in the 1990’s that are believed to be Spanish ships from the 17th century.

The surveying of the wreck site coincides with the deliberate sinking of two decommissioned Portuguese warships to create artificial reefs. Local authorities are hoping to make Portimao a diving tourism site and the warships, which will eventually be joined by two more ships, into an underwater diving resort.

kublai khan

Ha Long Bay
CC Image Courtesy of Aftab Uzzaman on Flickr

Australian news site The Age reports that Australian archaeologists are continuing to assist Vietnamese cultural authorities in the development of their maritime archaeological program. Every month Australian advisers from various universities spend time in Vietnam holding seminars on the tools and best practices techniques necessary for excavation of wrecks located off the Vietnamese coast. Additionally, the advisers are assisting with two specific projects – the porcelain shipwreck found earlier this year off Quang Ngai and the search for Kublai Khan’s 1288 invasion fleet.

Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, founded China’s Yuan Dynasty in 1279 and set off on a campaign of expansion. Khan set his sights on northern Vietnam and in 1288 dispatched an army and fleet to subjugate Vietnam’s Dai Viet dynasty. The Yuan fleet arrived off Ha Long Bay with the aim of re-supplying the Yuan army and maneuvered up the Bach Dang River. Unfortunately for Khan’s fleet, the Dai Viet had prepared for such a contingency. The Dai Viet had placed wooden stakes in the riverbed and prepared fire ships to attack Khan’s fleet. As the tide began to ebb, the Dai Viet released their fire ships in the narrow confines of the river. In an attempt to avoid the fire ships, the Yuan fleet fled down the river and holed themselves on the wooden stakes which had been exposed by low tide.

The destruction of the Yuan fleet effectively ended Khan’s designs on Vietnam and preserved the Dai Viet dynasty. Archaeologists have located some of the wooden stakes and ships from the battle and efforts are underway to excavate and preserve artifacts from Khan’s fleet.

Odysseus' and the sirens

CC Image Courtesy of Ken & Nyetta on Flickr

The Mediterranean Sea continues to give up the secrets it harbors from Greek and Roman times. This week, archaeologists working in Turkey discovered the well-preserved remains of 2 Roman-era shipwrecks. Excavations have been ongoing in the area since 1995 and are being performed by Italian archaeologists. The site was once the location of a Roman trading city named Elaiussa Sebaste which was founded in the 2nd century BC. One ship is from the Roman Imperial period and the other from around 500 AD. They both contain cargoes of amphorae and marble. Archaeologists hope that further excavations and study will supply insight into Roman trading patterns between Elaiussa Sebaste, Syria, Egypt and the Anatolian peninsula.

Work on a third wreck, this one from around 350 BC, is likely to assist archaeologists in their understanding of Greek shipbuilding techniques. Dubbed the Mazotos Wreck, the ship was discovered in 2006 and archaeological work began in 2007. This year the team found that approximately 45 feet of planking as well as the ship’s keel have been preserved and are useful for study. The ship was carrying ~1,000 jugs of wine when it sank and the remains of its cargo have helped researchers better understand the trade of ancient Greece.

These are not the only discoveries made this year in ancient Greek and Roman maritime archaeology. Earlier this year, surveyors for a gas pipeline discovered a Roman era wreck that dispelled the belief that Roman trading vessels hugged the shoreline and did not traverse open water. Robert Ballard also discovered two wrecks off the coast of Cyprus. With the continuation of exploration operations on the Antikythera Mechanism wreck, there could be even more revelations to come as the year draws to a close.

china naval battle

Lake Poyang from Space
CC Image Courtesy of Richard Petry on Flickr

More than 650 years ago, Lake Poyang, China’s largest lake, was the scene of quite possibly the largest naval battle in human history. As many as a million sailors (although the number is more likely closer to 500,000) fought one another during a series of maneuvers lasting from August 30th through October 4th, 1363. The Yuan Dynasty, founded by Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan, was in its death throes during the mid-14th century and multiple factions vied to fill the resulting power vacuum. Two of the most powerful factions were the Han and Ming and it was these two groups whose navies collided in epic fashion in the fall of 1363.

Determined to capture the strategic Ming stronghold of Nanchang, Han naval forces led by Chen Youling sailed across the waters of Lake Poyang and laid siege to Nanchang. Unfortunately for Chen Youling and his men, the lake shrinks every year during the summer and fall dry months. As the waters receded, Chen’s siege ships became ineffective and gave the Ming time to deploy forces from Yingtian (modern day Nanjing). Led by Zhu Yuanzhang, the Ming fleet relieved the besieged army in Nanchang and assaulted the Han fleet with fire ships. The Han fleet retreated down the lake and in a final battle on October 4th were utterly annihilated after Chen Youling died from an arrow to the head. Many of the Han sailors chose suicide over capture and estimates place the death count as high as 600,000. Perhaps this is why the lake has taken on a mythical role as China’s Bermuda Triangle. Leveraging his victory at Lake Poyang, Zhu Yuanzhang established the Ming dynasty in 1368. The dynasty would last nearly 300 years before falling to the Qing in 1644.

More than 100 years ago, Greek skin divers discovered the remains of an ancient shipwreck nearly 200 feet below the surface of the Aegean Sea near the Greek island of Antikythera. For 2 years, divers utilized crude diving gear to recover items from the wreck. Among the items discovered was what appeared to be a random assortment of cogs and gears. Not until 2006 were scientists able to discern that the object was in fact an ancient computer designed for use as a calendar as well as to show the positions of the sun, moon and planets in the sky. The computer, termed the Antikythera Mechanism, could evn predict the timing of eclipses. The device is believed to have been built in the 1st century BC and the video above shows a Lego recreation of the device.

The diving technology of the early 20th century prohibited a full survey of the site and 2 divers were left paralyzed from the bends and another killed during the work. Apart from a few brief dives on the site, it has remained undisturbed until this year. Scientists with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute are set to begin surveying the site this week after reaching a deal with the Greek government. Using rebreather gear and self-propelled dive scooters, the scientists will be able to dive deeper and go farther than earlier expeditions and hope to learn more about Greek trade patterns and technology from the expedition.