Two weeks of diving uncovered centuries of sunken ships, and researchers are deciphering the clues contained in each.
A spate of shipwrecks recently found near a group of Greek islands has given researchers new insights into how trade routes and sailing technology evolved in the Eastern Mediterranean. And with more exploration planned, additional discoveries are still likely.
Over a stretch of two weeks in September, tips from local fishermen and sponge divers led a team of Greek and American archaeologists to the precise locations of 22 shipwrecks in a 17-square-mile area around the Fourni archipelago in the eastern Aegean.
The find is remarkable both for the sheer number of wrecks in the small area and the range of time periods the vessels came from.
The earliest wreck dates to the Archaic Period (700-480 B.C.), while the most recent is from the Late Medieval Period (16th century A.D.). Ships from the Classical Period (480-323 B.C.) and the Hellenistic Period (323-31 B.C.) were also found, though a majority—12 of the 22—sailed and sank at some point during the Late Roman Period (300-600 A.D.)
“It’s an extremely rich area,” says Greek director George Koutsouflakis, an archaeologist with the Hellenic Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities.
Finding 22 shipwrecks in only two weeks is incredibly rare, but more discoveries in the area are likely—the team has surveyed only 5 percent of Fourni’s coasts, and local fishermen have given them many more tips.
All the ships were merchant vessels traversing a route that connected Anatolia, Samos, and the Black Sea region to Rhodes, Cyprus, and even Egypt. Wooden ships generally decompose underwater or get eaten by seaworms. But their cargo—ancient clay storage jars called amphorae—survive. Each ship was carrying several hundred amphorae. By assessing the size and shape of the jars, archaeologists can infer where and when they were made.
Residue or DNA analysis will confirm what they contained, but the primary goods are not in doubt.
“We know from comparable shipwrecks and terrestrial sites that the three major goods would have been olive oil, wine, and fish sauce,” says Jeffrey Royal, a co-director from the Florida-based RPM Nautical Foundation ……
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