GRAVEYARD OF ANCIENT SHIPS
FOUND DEEP IN MEDITERRANEAN
EMBARGOED: For release 11 a.m. Wednesday,
July 30, 1997
WASHINGTON -- Using a remotely operated
vehicle and a nuclear submarine deep on the bottom of the
Mediterranean Sea, a team of oceanographers, engineers and
archaeologists led by Robert Ballard has discovered the
largest concentration of ancient shipwrecks ever found in the
deep sea, one of them dating to before the time of Christ.
The cluster of eight ships, along with thousands of
artifacts spanning more than 2,000 years of human history,
lies 2,500 feet (762 meters) beneath an ancient trade route --
almost a half-mile (805 meters) below the surface. They include
five ships from ancient Roman times lost between about 100 B.C.
and 400 A.D., one Islamic ship from the 18th or early 19th
centuries, and two modern ships lost in the 19th century.
The discovery -- including retrieval of more than 100
artifacts -- was announced Wednesday at the National
Although cloaked in perpetual darkness, the water
surrounding the ships is crystal clear, said Ballard,
of the Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Conn. He said the
discovery launches a new era in archaeology -- study of
mankinds maritime past by exploration of the deep sea.
A sunken ship is a moment in time encapsulated at
the bottom of the ocean, put into suspended animation, said
Ballard, whose previous underwater exploits have included
the discovery of the wrecks of the RMS Titanic and the
German battleship Bismarck. Most shallow-water
shipwrecks tear up on rocks, become encrusted with coral,
or are looted by divers and fishermen. These deepwater sites
are covered only by a very fine dusting of sedimentation and
have never been touched by humans -- until now.
The researchers used the U.S. Navys nuclear
submarine NR-1, commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Charles
Richard, to locate the sites. Capable of searching vast
regions of the ocean bottom for long periods of time, NR-1
uses long-range sonar that can detect shipwrecks at much
greater distances than sonars previously used by
oceanographers. It also was equipped with a remotely
operated arm that was used to recover the heavy anchors.
The remotely operated vehicle Jason, from Woods
Hole Oceanographic Institution, was used to explore and
bring up the 115 artifacts, carefully selected by the
archaeologists to help in dating the ancient wrecks. At
several sites Jason was placed on an automated path that
enabled it to survey shipwrecks with a precision never
attained before in the deep sea. The pilot of Jason also was
able to maneuver within inches of delicate artifacts, including
fine glassware, and gently pick them up and transport them
to an elevator device that took them to the surface without
You come in with your robot, this most advanced
technology on the planet, almost like a spaceship, and youre
hovering over a picture of antiquity two millennia old, said
Ballard. Its a breathtaking, unbelievable scene.
The oldest of the wrecks is of particular importance
as one of the few and one of the earliest shipwrecks from
ancient Roman times ever found, dating from the late 2nd or
early 1st century B.C. It lies undisturbed, with most of the
finds intact. The visible remains suggest a vessel about one
hundred feet (thirty meters) long, with two cargo holds fore
and aft of the mast. The remarkably varied collection of
artifacts includes an array of kitchen and other household
wares, fine bronze vessels, two heavy lead anchor stocks,
and at least eight different types of amphora intended for
wine, olive oil, fish sauce and preserved fruit, said Anna
Marguerite McCann of Boston University, director of the
Three other wrecks probably date to the first century
A.D. One of them carried a heavy cargo of high-quality
marble or granite building stones roughed out from a quarry
to be finished on site. Carefully packed in at least two layers
in a roughly square central section of the hold, they include
monolithic columns as well as some large, irregular blocks --
and a large supply of kitchen ware.
Sampling the splendidly preserved cargo of cooking
wares in this wreck is like shopping in a Roman kitchenware
outlet, said John Oleson, a project archaeologist.
The researchers believe the ships, strewn over a 20-square-
mile (32-square-kilometer) area, were sunk by sudden,
violent storms that frequent the Mediterranean during certain
times of the year, turning parts of the region into Bermuda
Triangles of lost ships.
Before these discoveries, no major ancient shipwreck
sites had been discovered and explored by archaeologists in
water deeper than 200 feet (61 meters), an area that
represents less than 5 percent of the worlds oceans.
Technologies used by the Ballard team can reach 20,000 feet
(6096 meters) -- the depth of 98 percent of the oceans.
The explorers were a collection of scientists from
different fields working together for the first time to establish
the new field of deepwater archaeology, and they represent a
unique collaboration of government, high-technology and
the humanities. The oceanographers and engineers were led
by Dana Yoerger of Woods Hole. The archaeology team was
headed by McCann of Boston University; conservation was
directed by Dennis Piechota of Object and Textile
Conservation, Arlington, Mass.
The project was funded by the U.S. Navys Office
of Naval Research and the Navys Office of Deep
Submergence Systems, National Geographic Television, the
National Geographic Societys Committee for Research and
Exploration, the Institute for Exploration, the J.P. Kaplan
Fund, Sun-Star Electric Inc. and private donors. Additional
support for members of the archaeology team came from
Boston University, the University of Victoria, British
Columbia, the Joukowsky Foundation and private donors.
National Geographic Television is producing a film
about the expedition that will air on its EXPLORER series
on TBS in early 1998. National Geographic magazine is
preparing an article. Some of the artifacts will be on display
at the Societys Explorers Hall July 31 through Aug. 31.
Ballard, formerly of Woods Hole, is now president
of the Institute for Exploration, which is dedicated to
pioneering the new field of deep-sea archaeology. He is
already planning his next expedition -- to the Black Sea.