Shipwreck Holds Clues to Lives of Ancient Mariners ; Deep-Water Discovery Lends Credence to Greek Legends of Fearless Ocean Odysseys

Article excerpt

For centuries, scholars have debated whether Homer's tales of epic, perilous sea voyages were based on the real lives of ancient mariners. The prevailing view has long rested on the side of safety: that ancient cargo ships rarely took to the high seas, but kept instead to the shallow waters along the coastlines.

But the discovery of more than 2,000 wine jugs, plus boat pieces, and even dinnerware among the remains of a 2,300-year-old shipwreck may prove to be the modern vindication of Homer's heroic tales and show that ancient seafaring peoples were more daring than originally thought.

Most ancient ships have been found in shallow waters, leading many scholars to believe that the captains, sailing without compasses, stayed in view of coastlines.

But this shipwreck was discovered more than 200 miles off the Cyprus coast, and two miles below the surface - the deepest ever found, says Brett Phaneuf of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology of Texas A&M University in College Station, who is helping analyze the find. "More important than the depth is its distance from the shore," he says.

In spring 1999, Nauticos Corporation, an ocean-exploration company based in Maryland, was using a deep-sea robot to search the Mediterranean for an Israeli submarine that disappeared 33 years ago.

What the robot found wasn't scraps of steel, but a sprawling field of amphorae - large clay jugs - most of them intact. There was also a metal cauldron and several lead anchors.

Detailed video and sonar imagery was taken of the site, but the discovery was kept secret until the submarine was found and the wreck analyzed by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.

Researchers believe the ship was a Hellenic trader carrying wine and other items from the ancient trading center of Rhodes and the nearby island of Kos to Alexandria, Egypt.

Mr. Phaneuf describes it as "a supertanker of the ancient world" that was plying the open sea sometime between the time of Alexander the Great and Cleopatra.

From the amphorae strewn across a mound 80 feet long, the ship has been dated tentatively at 2,300 years old.

As many as four similar wrecks are thought to lie nearby, and archaeologists suspect more could be found by thoroughly searching the route.

"If the wrecks are all from the same general period, they may provide detailed information about long-distance trade over open water at a specific moment in history," according to an article in Archaeology, the magazine of the Archaeological Institute of America. …