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
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
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
"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