Shipwrecks Offer Clues to Ancient Civilizations

By Villano, Matt | Oceanus, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Shipwrecks Offer Clues to Ancient Civilizations


Villano, Matt, Oceanus


Brendan Foley hunts, for shipwrecks, but he s not searching for gold or jewels. The sunken treasure he pursues comes not in chests, but mostly in curvaceous clay jars called amphorae--the cargo containers of the B.C. world. Holding remnants of goods and foodstuffs produced and traded by ancient civilizations, they are rare and valuable puzzle pieces, strewn and preserved on the seafloor, which scientists could piece together to reconstruct the agriculture, technologies, economies, art, and geopolitics of long-lost eras.

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"Ships carry not only economic goods, but the ideas of people," said Foley, researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). "Even today, something like 85 percent of all goods are carried across water at some point, and that proportion was higher as you go back in time, because there were few roads and no airplanes."

Some proportion of those ships that set sail never made it back to port. So Foley believes the sea is full of shipwrecks too deep to be discovered by human divers. Over the past decade, advances in deep-sea vehicle engineering and DNA sequencing are giving scientists new abilities to search for, survey, and analyze these potentially fruitful archaeological sites, he said. Put another way, technological leaps forward are opening new vistas for scientists to make leaps into the past.

What launched the Bronze Age?

In particular, Foley has set his sights on the Mediterranean Sea during the Bronze Age, a period from about 3,000 to 1,000 B.C. when human civilization swiftly blossomed. The era was named after a technological advance--the development of metallurgy to produce bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, to make more durable goods. But this relatively brief period in the span of human history also spawned advances in cities, art, architecture, agriculture, written language, and long-distance seaborne trade spanning Egypt, Phoenicia, Greece, and island states throughout the Mediterranean Sea, such as Crete, Santorini, and Cyprus.

Ironically, original artifacts made of the very metal that named the era are much more likely to be found under water than on land, Foley said. "All the great bronze artwork in the National Museum in Athens, Greece, was found under water-some of them from shipwrecks; some of them may have been thrown in lakes or just off shore in advance of invasion. Bronze on land isn't preserved, because it's valuable and easily melted down and converted into something else: shields and swords, or later on into cannons or church bells."

"We shouldn't be parked on land and confining our search. There's too much to find out there," he said, pointing on a map to a blue expanse of the Mediterranean.

"This area is a cradle of civilization," he said. "With new techniques and tools for marine archaeology, we can start to look for answers to questions such as: What technological developments enabled the flowering of civilization? What was the nature of contact among ancient peoples? How, when, and where did trade networks first develop? How did trade affect cultural development throughout the Mediterranean world?"

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It's hard to categorize Foley, whose research combines archaeology, oceanography, and technology.

"Really, what I want to learn is the roots of our civilization--why we became what we are today," he said.

Piecing together a picture of the past

Foley began working with archaeologists from the Hellenic Ministry of Culture in Greece in 2005, obtaining a list of wrecks that have been reported over the years by fishermen, divers, and other researchers. Many of these shipwrecks, ranging from 700 B.C to 400 A.D., are located near the islands of Chios and Oinousses in the eastern Aegean just off the coast of Turkey.

During that first summer, Foley and a team of Greek archaeologists aboard the research vessel Aagaeo dove on only a handful of wrecks. …

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