Abstract: Deep Submergence Archaeology and Lost Fleets of Antiquity
Lecturer: Shelley Wachsmann
A modern myth has ancient mariners hugging coastlines ‘for safety’ when, in fact the
intersection of land and water represents the greatest danger for shipping. It is here that
vessels are most vulnerable during storms. In fact, the open sea represents relative safety,
where a vessel had a good chance of outrunning the weather. Ships might be
overwhelmed by sea conditions, but their survival rate in open water was always greater
than near shore. Indeed, most ships that sink do so within several hundred meters of a
coastal obstruction. Ancient shore-based piracy gave further incentive to captains to
avoid near-shore sailing even on routes that did follow a coastline. In the Mediterranean
and its subsidiary seas, routes crossing open water were well established by the Neolithic
period, and in some cases even earlier.
Based on studies of records of Lloyds of London dating to the mid-19th century, Willard
Bascom, in his book Deep Water, Ancient Ships reasonably estimates that up to 20
percent of shipwrecks recorded in the documents did so in open water. As Bascom notes,
these percentages should also apply to antiquity.
In recent years the development of oceanographic equipment for working at depths
beyond diver capabilities has opened the hitherto inaccessible deep-sea floor to nautical
archaeology. Although originally developed for military or industrial uses, tools like
sidescan sonar, remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) and autonomous underwater vehicles
(AUVs) have revolutionized the ability of archaeologists to discover, study and record
shipwrecks: tools now are being developed to excavate robotically to a precision equaling
or surpassing work on land and by diving archaeologists. These new developments have
permitted the identification of open-water sea routes, while surveys of deep-water wrecks
have contributed to our understanding of the ancient nautical environment.
The latter part of the lecture will discuss the Danaos Project, which aims at
reconstructing the ancient blue-water route between Crete and Egypt. This sea-lane was
pioneered by the Minoans in the Bronze Age and continued to be a vital cultural conduit
Short bibliography on lecture topic:
Bascom, W., 1976. Deep Water, Ancient Ships: The Treasure Vault of the
Mediterranean. Garden City, Doubleday & Company, Inc.
Persian War Shipwreck Survey (http://nautarch.tamu.edu/pwss/homepage/)