Dispatch 11: Ancient Shipwrecks

September 12, 2000

[Note: Nationalgeographic.com does not research or copyedit dispatches.]

On Sunday, the long-awaited replacement sonar for Argus arrived. Total installation time? “Oh, about 10 minutes. Maybe five,” ROV engineer Craig Elder tells me.

The team wastes little time putting it to work. Following a scheduled personnel transfer at Sinop, the Northern Horizon transits back to the expedition search site, specifically to an area about 8-10 miles [13-16 kilometers] off the coast. The team dives on it’s selected target, deploying the remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) Argus and Little Hercules. The vehicles now operate in tandem for the second time and are performing splendidly, 100 meters [328 feet] below the surface.

As Little Hercules skims above the sea floor, video cameras mounted on Argus, traveling above, display a birds-eye view of the ROV. The smaller Little Hercules, trailing its fiber-optic tether like a leash, looks like a headlight-equipped computer mouse navigating a foggy green sea floor.

At 12:57 a.m. the team spots the tell-tale signs of amphorae-carrying ship wreck. Some 350 clay amphorae—the tin cans and glass bottles of antiquity—lie scattered on the sea floor like an upturned box of Legos. The shipping vessels’ distinct, tapering shape (like carrots with round mouths and handles) inform the archaeologists that the ship originated in the nearby ancient trading center of Sinop. (“We’ve got the kilns [on land]” observes Dr. Fredrik Hiebert.)

Nautical archaeologist Cheryl Ward, who has joined the expedition team for four days, makes a preliminary estimate. The wreck is a 4th century, late Roman ship roughly dating to 350 A.D.

The watch is ecstatic. In the control room, Ballard congratulates his crew. “Alright. Not bad,” he says. “A little too recent. 400 [sic] A.D.”

The team logs and videotapes the site, then moves on to investigate other targets. (The wreck will be more closely investigated at a later time.)

Two-and-a-half hours later, the team finds yet another wreck. This ship appears smaller than the first, but—surprisingly—a number of wooden timbers from the hull remain. [The team has not yet plumbed the wood-preserving anoxic depths.] Ward, the nautical archaeologist, makes a preliminary estimate that the wreck is a Byzantine amphorae-carrying ship dating sometime around 550 A.D.

The shipwreck finds are significant. [“They have the potential to educate us a great deal,” Ward tells me later.]

The archaeologists are thrilled. Ballard doesn’t quite share their enthusiasm. “Rats,” he says. “It was supposed to be a house.”

—Sean Markey

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