Dispatch 7: Silk Purses from Sows’ Ears

September 6, 2000

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

Yesterday’s problem has led to today’s promise. Two days ago, the sonar unit on Argus, the expedition team’s remotely operated imaging vehicle flooded. The team has since gamely tried to visually inspect targets. But they’ve been harder to find with the near-sighted ROV.

Finally, Ballard changes tact. Yesterday, he ordered that the team re-deploy the DSL-120, the side-scan sonar “fish”.

Why? While reviewing sonar sea floor map data gathered during the team’s initial survey, Ballard glimpsed another ancient river channel. It lies at the far eastern edge of the expedition’s permitted survey area. Ballard hopes to map this ancient feature. Perhaps signs of ancient settlement will be found there.

At 3:55 a.m. this morning the sonar display in the control room begins to light up with targets. Data-logger Sam McMurtie later tells me that over the next hour and a half a constellation of 30-odd targets over a 22-kilometer [13.6-mile] survey area are identified. Could this be a large-scale settlement?

What intrigues Ballard most is the targets’ location relative to the ancient landscape’s topography. The targets sit on the rim of a bowl overlooking an ancient river valley.

[Land-based archaeological work by the expedition’s chief archaeologist, Dr. Fredrick Hiebert from the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, has shown such a topographic feature to be prime real estate for late neolithic peoples.]

It’s now 10:20 a.m. [Normally a decent hour of the day, but in the non-stop pace of the expedition, it could just as easily be 3 o’clock in the morning.] Ballard is in a belowdecks computer room. His restless energy momentarily tamed, he sits with his large frame folded in a plastic chair, a can of Coke propped on a knee.

“Well it could be trash—but goddarn, it’s very systematic trash,” Ballard says. “Trash is random. This isn’t. This has a complete topographic logic. That’s how we found them. We followed the logic.”

“I’m going in with Argus if it’s got glaucoma. I don’t care,” Ballard says.

Ballard speculates that if those targets represent what he hopes they might be—in best-case scenario, an array of uncommonly well-preserved structures and artifacts left by peoples from pre-flood settlement—their significance would be “staggering”.

I ask Ballard how such a discovery would compare to others in his career? He names just one other find: his 1977 discovery of unique ecosystems along deep-water hydrothermic vents of the Pacific Ocean floor.

“Titanic shrinks by comparison,” he says softly. ”Maybe I’ll shed it finally. I’ll be more than glad to shed it.” He stands up to leave.

“Then again it could all be wild imagination running,” Ballard says, heading toward the door. “It could lead to the biggest down of the expedition.”

That’s a pretty big risk, isn’t it? I ask.

“I’ll take it,” Ballard replies.

—Sean Markey

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