Underwater find: Hellenistic shipwreck found in Gulf of Evia

As the diver fanned the sand away with his hand, a patch of the ancient ship?s hull was abruptly revealed, the dull brown of its 2,000-year-old wood peeking from within the small gap freshly opened in the seabed. This rare finding, made in recent weeks by a collaborative archaeological team from the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities (EUA) and the Hellenic Institute of Marine Archaeology (HIMA), represents one of the most important shipwreck discoveries in Greek waters in recent years.

Project leader George Koutsouflakis, in an exclusive interview with Athens Plus, reports the wreck is that of a late-Hellenistic merchant ship that sank in deep water off the southern coast of Euboea (Evia) after crashing into a rocky islet in the late 2nd or early 1st century BC.

In addition to the hull material, a diverse range of large and small artifacts from the cargo and perhaps from the crew have also been uncovered, including two main types of transport amphorae, tableware, a stone basin (lekane), ships? nails, bronze statue fragments, furniture elements and roof tiles.

The excavation of the Hellenistic wreck, designated Wreck No 6, is the latest step in the investigation of the site, which was first examined in 2007 during the EUA?s and HIMA?s ongoing Southern Euboean Gulf Shipwreck Survey.

Information at that time from three divers, Theodoros Stamou, Mohadam Golipur and Ioannis Baklis, led archaeologists to a windswept area on the north side of Styra ? the largest of seven small islands 4-5 kilometers from the present-day Euboean port of Styra. Initial reports described only a scattering of ancient pottery on the seabed but this was enough to suggest that more evidence might lie beneath the sand.

This year, Koutsouflakis and co-directors Angeliki Simosi (EUA), Elias Spondylis (EUA) and Chryssanthi Papadopoulou (HIMA) undertook a trial excavation of Wreck No 6 to begin to understand the site?s stratigraphy and to determine its potential as an informative wreck site.

The ultimate goal of the 2010 excavation, as in every archaeological shipwreck investigation, was to find evidence not only of the ship?s contents, but also of the ship itself.

The 2010 season began in mid-June and lasted about one month. The team spent the first 12 days in continuation of their underwater survey, which to date has identified 15 potentially significant wreck sites within the southern Euboean Gulf. The next 18 days were devoted to the excavation of Wreck No 6, lying on a slope in about 40-47 meters of water.

The area of the wreck site is exposed to prevailing northerly and easterly winds, which may have contributed to the Hellenistic ship?s demise. The ship appears to have lost control, crashed into the island?s rocky shore and sunk onto the downward-slanting seabed in a general N-S orientation with its stern downhill from its bow.

The large concentration of semi-buried amphorae that marks the site extends about 10 by 4-5 meters, thus approximately indicating the ancient ship?s minimum dimensions.

Koutsouflakis suggests the ship may have been a medium-sized vessel between 10 and 15 m long. Such modest merchantmen, usually equipped simply with broad, square sails (unlike triremes and other fighting ships, which also employed rowers with oars), were common in ancient times, although much larger cargo-carrying ships with vast tonnages were also known. In medieval and early modern times, small and medium-sized sailing boats generally known as caiques still often represented the main form of transport for commercial goods and passengers between many Greek islands and the mainland.

To gain access to the hull of Wreck No 6, assuming any of it was still preserved, the EUA-HIMA archaeologists dug two trial trenches at the upper and lower extremities of the site. After some days of measurement and careful recording with photography and scale drawings of the overlying artifacts, followed by their removal for later cleaning in the laboratory, the sand within the two small trenches was gradually vacuumed out using airlifts connected by hoses to a compressor standing on the deck of the team?s research vessel moored above. Because of the wreck site?s great depth, excavators were limited to 20 minutes of ?bottom time,? which is calculated from the time a diver begins to descend from the surface until he or she begins to ascend at the end of the dive. This means archaeologists spent only about 15 minutes during each shift actually working on the wreck, after which they had to make two decompression stops at designated 9 m and 6 m stations below the dive boat, where they literally ?hung out? on suspended, trapeze-like bars for another 18 minutes.

With only about one-third of each approximately 40-minute dive devoted to excavation, therefore, many dives were required to accomplish the project?s underwater objectives.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, more dives will be necessary in coming seasons, if the Hellenistic wreck turns out to be well preserved and worthy of full exposure.

The results of the initial 2010 excavation of Wreck No 6 have already been greater than expected.

A 3-square-meter section of the ship?s wooden hull was exposed and documented just a few days before the season?s end, then promptly backfilled with sand to preserve it in situ until further investigation can be conducted in 2011.

Ironically, this portion of the hull was discovered not within either of the two trial trenches, but about 6-7 m away from the main artifact concentration. Archaeologists had been investigating an isolated bronze object projecting from the seabed when ancient wood was revealed beneath. Small samples of the wood have been collected for identification.

Among the artifacts recorded on the wreck are transport amphorae of the Brindisi type, dated to the 2nd and the first half of the 1st century BC. Both large and small containers of this type were found, indicating that these late Hellenistic jars ? intended primarily for carrying olive oil ? were made in two distinct sizes: one holding about 40 liters and the second only about 20-25 percent of the larger version.

Three similarly dated amphorae from the island of Kos, with distinctively angled handles made of two side-by-side coils of clay, have also been identified. Items of Hellenistic tableware and several small jugs recovered from the wreck await further cleaning and analysis.

The jugs were excavated in the lowermost trial trench. Their usual function as tableware, in combination with their find-spot apparently near the ship?s stern, indicate these jugs ? along with the stone basin ? may have been part of the crew?s personal equipment. A protective stern cabin on the ship may also be attested by ceramic roof tiles found in the area.

Particularly intriguing are the metal objects recovered from Wreck No 6, including many iron and bronze nails, probably detached from the ship?s wooden hull planks and other constructional timbers, two feet ? heavily encrusted but probably of iron ? from a typical Hellenistic dining couch, and several small fragments of bronze drapery from life-size male or female statues.

Although much work remains to be done on Wreck No 6, the project?s excavators are already weighing the possibility that large bronze statues may have been carried aboard the ship. Alternatively, the ship may have been a coasting vessel that called in to local ports collecting scrap metal as valuable raw material for later resale.

The ship?s route at present remains unknown but the nearby ports of Styra, Eretria and Chalkis represent possible destinations or previous ports of call.

The Brindisi-type amphorae among the cargo may point to a southeastern Italian origin for the ship but these amphorae were also produced in a recently identified, still unpublished pottery workshop in the northern Peloponnese, according to project leader George Koutsouflakis.

Furthermore, the question of secondary use of transport amphorae clouds the entire issue of assigning ships? origins based on distinctive amphora types found among their remains. The Brindisi amphorae could have been produced on the Adriatic coast of Italy and may once have held Italian oil but also might have been refilled later at some other Mediterranean port and reloaded onto a merchant ship not necessarily of Italian origin.

The archaeological team assembled by the EUA and HIMA for the Southern Euboean Gulf Shipwreck Survey consisted of 35 specialists and students from five countries: Greece, Cyprus, the United States, Romania and the Czech Republic. With 18-22 team members working together at any one time during the excavation of Wreck No 6, the team was fortunate to have a large, 18-meter specially equipped dive boat brought in from Crete, the Aghios Georgios, complete with recompression chamber and specialized diving equipment. Sponsors of the 2010 season include the Bodossaki Foundation, Baklis Bros SA and APNEA.

Although limited to a trial excavation, the 2010 season succeeded in answering important questions concerning the Hellenistic wreck?s state of preservation and laid the groundwork necessary for an ongoing investigation.

The site?s visible remains were gridded for controlled recording and excavation, a large-scale photo mosaic of the wreck was completed, and enough data have already been collected to allow team members to now begin constructing a three-dimensional plan of the wreck using a computer-based ?photo modeler.?

The excavators lost only two working days this summer to rough seas and, if Poseidon smiles upon them, they hope the 2011 season, when they will temporarily discontinue the survey and concentrate solely upon the excavation, may be equally smooth sailing.

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