New methods help find and preserve ancient wrecks

A new search is under way to find the wreckage of an ancient Persian fleet on the seabed off the coast of Greece. In cooperation with the Center for Maritime Research that has found over 30 wrecks within five years, the Ephorate of Coastal Antiquities, with the help of American and Canadian experts, will resume their search in June in the areas of Kili and Artemisio, off Evia’s northern tip. Despite the ephorate’s modest budget (this year’s is unchanged from last year’s at 400,000 euros), exploration will be expanded to cover the seabed off the coast of Inousses island in a pilot program on the 3D imaging of an ancient wreck. Archaeological maritime exploration has contributed to the development of technology for preserving wrecks found in the sea and to methods of preserving antiquities. For example, for the first time ever an archaeologist has been able to dive to a depth of 480 meters in the Aegean. Paraskevi Micha made the dive recently with the operator of the bathyscape near the island of Kythnos, where a few months ago an impressive, headless bronze statue had been recovered, possibly dating from the fourth century BC. They remained for two hours on the seabed, filming the area. Later the operator went down again in the bathyscape and brought up amphorae using two mechanical claws. A conference on the subject was held in late March by the Culture Ministry for Greek and foreign experts. Traditional techniques and materials such as camphor and silicon have helped preserve antiquities found on the seabed, according to Wayne Smith, a professor at the University of Texas. Dimitris Sakellariou of the Center for Maritime Research explained how sediment accumulates on the seabed in Greek waters, and how sound waves can trace the presence of wrecks. These sound waves help date the findings and enable conclusions to be drawn on the amount of damage caused by, for example, fishing. Another effect on wrecks is the action of microorganisms, the most dangerous of which is the Terendo navalis worm that sticks to the timber of old ships and is capable of reducing it to the consistency of soap. Thousands of microorganisms thrive in Greek waters, not only because of its geographical position but its water temperatures. Another way to protect wrecks is by the use of geofibers. Anastasia Pournou of the Technical Institute of Athens described the use of this material, which was first used in Greece in 1995 on a 16th century wreck near the island of Zakynthos. Archaeologists found the hull, cannon parts, coins and pottery from this Spanish ship, which had been carrying a cargo of hazelnuts. Two years later, it appeared that the decision to cover the hull with geofiber had been correct. In 2000 experts repeated the experiment, but the results have not yet been recorded. Preserving an ancient artifact is something like looking after a sick patient, explained ephor Katerina Delaporta, and methods are constantly being revised, as with a Viking ship in Stockholm. For years it was thought that the methods being used were the best, but 30 years later it was found that they harmed other parts of the ship. Greece’s seas are scattered with ancient wrecks. Mapping carried out for years by the Ephorate of Marine Antiquities, according to sources, recommendations and ancient traditions, and with bibliographic help, show over 1,000 of them lying on the Greek seabed.

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