A rich Greek archaeology frontier lying on the seabed

By Eleni Colliopoulou - Agence France-Presse

The recent discovery of the remains of a shipwrecked fourth-century BC vessel, nicknamed Kythnos I after the Greek island near which it was found, is the latest example of the archaeological riches still submerged in Greek waters. It also demonstrates the technological advances that underwater archaeology has made in this country in recent years. Greece has no shortage of skilled archaeologists. But when it comes to underwater research, the Ministry of Culture has only recently begun mixing academic knowledge with high-tech wizardry. Collaboration with the National Center for Maritime Research (ELKETHE) and increased state funding from 2000 onward have enabled the Culture Ministry to open a broad - and still potentially untapped - archaeology frontier under the waves. ELKETHE, which operates under the Development Ministry, has given the Culture Ministry access to its specialized resources, including a 42-meter (138-foot) oceanography boat (the Aigaio), a submersible (the Thetis), two remotely guided craft and a team of expert divers. «This collaboration has spurred on efforts to chart underwater archaeological treasures, as did three laws on protecting such finds and preventing their pillage,» said Katerina Dellaporta, who is the ministry's director of underwater antiquities. The ministry and the research center have pooled their resources and located more than 30 shipwrecks from Classical, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine times, at depths that reach 550 meters (1,804 feet). So far, ministry archaeologists have recovered objects from only a few of these wrecks. In March 2004, two groups of amphorae were discovered at a depth of 45 meters (148 feet) off the coast of Samos, in the eastern Aegean Sea. They came from a ship believed to have sunk between the third and second centuries BC. Two days later, the sonar picked up another pile of amphorae at a depth of 67 meters (220 feet) off the coast of Chios. The second group of storage vessels dated from between the fifth and fourth centuries BC. In September 2004, the discovery of an ancient bronze statue in a trawler net off the island of Kythnos in the western Aegean led ministry experts to examine the area more closely. A few months later, armed with a geophysical study carried out by a 16-strong team of experts in March, the crew of the Thetis submersible found a concentration of amphorae at a depth of 495 meters (1,624 feet) belonging to the ship, subsequently named Kythnos I. Despite intensive fishing in the area, the amphorae were preserved in seabed mud and remained in good condition. This summer, the ministry team will relocate to the waters off Evia, an island in the eastern Aegean, in a bid to pinpoint the remains of the Persian fleet of King Darius, wrecked by a storm in the fifth century BC during a seaborne invasion of Greece. The search will be carried out with the assistance of the Canadian Archaeological Institute of Athens. Another group of researchers, the Hellenic Institute of Marine Archaeology (IENAE), has been providing expertise in underwater archaeology for the past 30 years, thanks to both state and private funds. The institute was founded in 1973, at a time when Greece had no equivalent state authority in the field. In 1975, the center joined the team of renowned French explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau for a search of Greek waters. The Culture Ministry's own underwater antiquities department was formed only a year later. IENAE's most important discoveries to date include two shipwrecks from the 23rd and 13th centuries BC, found in the 1990s in the Gulf of Argolid in the northeastern Peloponnese.