10,000 feet under the sea: salvage team finds wreck of ancient vessel

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Tom Dettweiler clearly remembers the day he and his team discovered what is almost certainly one of maritime archaeology's more important finds.

Tom Dettweiler clearly remembers the day he and his team discovered what is almost certainly one of maritime archaeology's more important finds.

A bright spring day, clear skies, a fresh wind coming off the eastern Mediterranean and a sense that on the sea-bed 10,000ft below was something a little out of the ordinary.

"We had been getting this whole series of strange sonar messages from the sea-bed, whose signature was not what you would expect from a modern shipwreck," said Mr Dettweiler, whose team had actually been contracted to search for a missing Israeli submarine.

"We had two vessels and I said to Bruce, who was running the ROV [remotely operated vehicle], to go and have a look. He came back to me later that afternoon and spoke to me in a completely deadpan voice.

"He told me: 'Sorry Tom, there was no submarine'. I told him not to worry and that there would always be another chance. Then he told me he had found an old ship ... It was then that we started getting very excited."

What they had actually found, sitting on the sea bed, 200 miles south-west of Crete in an area known as the Herodostus Abyssal Plain, was the remains of a Greek trading vessel laden with thousands of jars and amphorae used for carrying wine and olive oil. Most are intact, even though the wreck is thought to be 2,300 years old.

David Jourdan, president of Nauticos Corp, a deepwater exploration unit based in Maryland, USA, whose team found the wreck, said: "Archaeologists are estimating its date somewhere between 200 and 300BC, so that would be somewhere between the time of Alexander the Great and Cleopatra.

"I suspect that if we continue to search along this route we will find many more of them which would really add to the body of knowledge about the trade route at that time."

The discovery, revealed yesterday in Archaeology magazine, was made in May 1999 using sonar, and then filmed with remote-controlled cameras. Since then, the team from Nauticos has been in liaison with archaeologists who believe the find adds to the growing body of evidence which challenges the theory that sailors of this period never ventured into the open seas.

They believe the vessel was travelling directly between the Greek islands of Kos and Rhodes to the markets in the Egyptian port of Alexandria.

While the wooden ship itself has rotted away, its cargo of clay jars and other items remain laid out over a 60ft area in a perfect skeleton of where the vessel would have come to rest on the sea-bed. The remote video also showed up a metal cauldron which has been collecting sediment for 2,000 years. It is, in effect, the world's longest, continually used sediment trap.

Brett Phaneuf, a research analyst at the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University, where the video footage has been examined, said the wreck was important not so much for what it contained but where it had been discovered.

"It shows that sailors at these times did not just hug the coasts but went out into the open water," he said. "When you think of it, it makes sense. The Greeks would have been aware of the profitability of getting their goods straight to the market. The idea has grown up that sailors hugged the coast because all these shipwrecks have been found close to the shore. The point is that until now we have not had the technology to search in the deeper water.

"This is smack, bang in the middle of the sea, as far from land as you can get. These guys must have been pretty fearless, they would have been setting out from port, driven only by wind, around 1,600 years before the first compass.

"But then they had probably been doing this and following these routes for centuries, even millennia. We know that there are other wrecks where this one was found."

The Nauticos team, which also eventually found the missing Israeli submarine, the Dakar, which disappeared 31 years ago with the loss of 69 lives, intends to return to the site of the Greek wreck.

The question now is whether to restrict study to observations made from the surface, or risk disturbing the pristine site and try to recover some of its cargo. Mr Jourdan said: "What we would like to do is return to the site with the full archaeological team, study the wreck in much more detail and, under the guidance of the archaeologists, retrieve some of the artefacts that are there.

"We could even try and raise the entire wreck. That would be a real challenge."