Archives For Ancient Shipwrecks

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.

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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.

Robert Ballard Cyprus

CC Image courtesy of Erik Charlton on Flickr

Legendary underwater explorer Robert Ballard has added two more shipwrecks to his already incredible list of discoveries (RMS TitanicBismarck, USS Yorktown and John F. Kennedy’s PT 109). Ballard and his team spent two weeks off the Cypriot coast exploring the Erastosthenes Seamount, a 120km by 80km undersea mountain that was previously above water. The expedition’s chief goal was to survey the seamount’s geology through the use of submersibles and high definition cameras. Ballard plans to return in several weeks after the Nautilus is equipped with a new sonar system that will allow him and his team to map the seamount. Previously the seamount was believed to contain only limestone, but the expedition located a formation of volcanic rock that doesn’t fit the area’s geologic profile. Additionally, the team found a curious methane source on the formation which requires further investigation.

It was in the process of completing their geologic mapping that the team discovered the two wrecks. One ship is believed to have sunk 2,300 to 2,500 years ago and carried cargoes between Greece and Cyprus. Among the artifacts photographed at the scene are a variety of ceramics, two anchors, a possible bun ingot and several other unidentified objects. The second ship appears to be an Ottoman war galley and an 18th century flintlock pistol and black rum bottles were located amongst the wreckage. One question left unanswered by the expedition is the speculation that Ballard’s team was searching for a WWII-era wreck containing a gold cargo. There exists little grounds for such speculation, though, as Ballard is known for not seeking to directly profit from his underseas exploration.

Prior to this month’s expedition, Ballard helped Turkey locate the two Turkish pilots lost when their F-4 crashed under mysterious circumstances near the Syrian border.