|28 January 2012
Underwater archaeology: The elusive Minoan wrecks
Brendan Foley, a marine archaeologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, USA, and his colleagues at Greece's Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, made a four-week survey of the waters around Crete last October as part of a long-term effort to catalogue large numbers of ancient shipwrecks in the Aegean Sea. The grand prize would be a wreck from one of the most influential and enigmatic cultures of the ancient world - the Minoans, who ruled these seas more than 3,000 years ago.
A Bronze Age wreck called Ulu Burun shows how the remains of a single ship can transform archaeologists' understanding of an era. Discovered in 1982, about 9 kilometres southeast of Kash in southern Turkey, it dates from around 1300 BCE, a century or two after the Minoans disappeared. It took ten years to excavate, and researchers are still studying the nearly 17 tonnes of treasures recovered, including ebony, ivory, ostrich eggs, resin, spices, weapons, jewellery and textiles, as well as ingots of copper, tin and glass. What really stunned archaeologists was that the artefacts on this one vessel came from at least 11 different cultures.
The Ulu Burun sailed at around the time that Tutankhamun ruled Egypt, yet "it is far more important than Tutankhamun's tomb as a contribution to our understanding of the period", according to Shelley Wachsmann, an expert in ancient seafaring at Texas A&M University, USA.
The earlier Minoans set the stage for such a widespread trading network through their domination of the eastern Mediterranean, and what archaeologists crave is a Minoan equivalent of Ulu Burun - a long-distance trading ship packed with valuable cargo that would reveal how different cultures interacted.
Robert Ballard, an oceanographer based at the University of Rhode Island in Narragansett, has pioneered deep-sea exploration and discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985. Ballard has spent years searching for ancient wrecks and has learned the importance of finding areas beyond the reach of the fishing trawlers which scour the sea floor, destroying archaeology in the process. Historians once assumed that the number of wrecks in the deep sea was negligible, but in the 1990s Ballard found eight ancient wrecks far from shore, between Sicily and Sardinia. "The ancient mariner was not afraid of going out to sea," says Ballard. Like Foley, he believes Minoan ships are waiting to be discovered.
Foley estimates that hundreds of thousands of ships must have sunk in ancient times - thousands in the Bronze Age alone. That could shift marine archaeologists into an era in which they can use statistical data gathered to build up a bigger picture of trade routes, migration and warfare throughout history. "We'd rather find 500 ships than excavate one," says Ballard.
Edited from Nature (25 January 2012)
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