Is this the Bermuda Triangle of the ancient world? Or the home of the mythical, alluring Sirens? Archaeologists have discovered 22 shipwrecks, some as old as 2500 years, piled up among a group of tiny islands in the Aegean.
Magical or mundane, the carnage found in an area of just 44 square kilometres among 13 small islands in the eastern Aegean represents an extraordinary window into the past.
Such carnage brings to life the ancient myth of the Sirens — alluring but dangerous spirits who took on the guise of beautiful young women, seducing sailors onto treacherous rocks with their songs.
Not even the Ancient Greek’s greatest hero — Odysseus — was able to resist their enticing voices.
But, as always, there is a more practical explanation.
While one island has the ominous name of “Man Eater”, the cluster of sparsely populated outcrops offered an endless series of bays — a rare safe anchorage for ancient mariners and their unwieldy, heavily laden vessels. Particularly in rough weather.
“This is a wonderful discovery,” says Flinders University maritime archeologist Dr Wendy van Duivenvoorde. “Normally you find a shipwreck here and there, from different periods — but finding 22 that are quite close in space will give a beautiful cross section of history.”
The Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities and the US-based RPM Nautical Foundation report they had been surveying the Fourni archipelago between the islands of Samos and Icaria when they found the ship graveyard.
“The concentration of ancient shipwrecks is unprecedented,” says Peter Campbell, project co-director from the US based RPM Nautical Foundation. “The volume of shipwrecks in Fourni, an island that had no major cities or harbours, speaks to its role in navigation as well as the perils of sailing the eastern Aegean.”
On their very first dive, the team were surprised to find a Roman shipwreck. Five days later, they’d found nine more. At the end of the 13-day survey, the tally was 22.
This represents a 12 per cent boost to the total number of known shipwrecks in Greek waters — and a massive amount of work for maritime archaeologists.
“In a typical survey we locate four or five shipwrecks per season in the best cases,” director of the survey George Koutsouflakis said. “We expected a successful season, but no one was prepared for this. Shipwrecks were found literally everywhere.”
The wrecks were at a variety of depths. Some were shallow, while others required the use of robotic vehicle and deep-divers.
“Most of the wrecks crashed into cliff faces and there is a trail of artefacts from shallow down to the deep area where the bulk of the ship settled,” Mr Campbell says.
“The conditions are beautiful, it is wonderful diving. Very clear waters, a lot of marine life, and the artefacts are easy to spot.”
The rocky bottom, however, means most of the ship’s timbers and organic artefacts have long since been eaten away.
“Discovering is one thing, doing follow-up studies is a whole different ballgame,” says Dr van Duivenvoorde. “They may not even go down the path of examining all the wrecks. They may just map them and monitor them.”
The Fourni archipelago sits on an ancient east-west shipping lane across the Aegean Sea, connecting Greece to Turkey and the Middle East.
The researchers have spoken to local sponge divers and fishermen, and have identified several more sites for future examination.
“This discovery is great for the people of Fourni — they could turn this into an underwater park for tourists and divers. It has all the qualities of an underwater museum,” Dr van Duivenvoorde says.
WINDOW TO THE ANCIENT WORLD
The cargoes of the wrecked vessels represent more than exotic and luxury goods. They also represent an exchange of ideas between distant ports in the Black Sea, Cyprus, Middle East and Egypt.
“What is astonishing is not only the number of the shipwrecks but also the diversity of the cargoes, some of which have been found for first time,” Greek director George Koutsouflakis said in a statement.
Sample objects were recovered from each identified wreck to help date and locate its origins.
Initial assessments date the oldest wrecks to between 300 and 700BC. Over half are believed to come from the later Roman Empire — 300AD to 600AD.
So what cargoes are divers likely to find?
“There could be anything,” Dr van Duivenvoorde said. “There could be food products — think of olive oil or wine, wool, Fish oils was a big commodity...
“From the personal items we find we can learn a great deal about the ship crews, where they came from, how they lived.”
The sites so far surveyed have been mapped to create 3D site plans, to identify and prioritise further excavations.
And as for the Bermuda Triangle idea?
“Archaeologists are always a bit wary of Bermuda Triangle references!” Mr Campbell says. “There's perfectly natural explanations for these phenomena.”
In this case, the islands themselves aren’t even all that dangerous.
“Given the 22 wrecks and the date spread of the finds, it equals about one wreck per century — a pretty safe bet for sailors,” Mr Campbell says. “These wrecks were likely caught by a sudden storm or equipment failure, such as a broken rudder that prevented control of the ship.”
But many more wrecks are expected to be found. Only 5 per cent of the archipelago has so far been examined.
“We had to actively stop looking for new wrecks, but still found more,” he said. “If we had been trying to just identify wrecks- instead of 3D map each site and take samples for analysis and conservation- then we easily could have found many more.”
Courtesy: Herald Sun