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Deep-sea archaeologists look for secrets in ‘Shipwreck 7’

It all began about 30 years ago, when archaeologist Nikos Tsouchlos was fishing under the western waters of the Pagasitic Gulf near Volos in northeastern Greece. That’s when Tsouchlos, director of the Institute of Underwater Archaeological Research (IENAE), discovered an old shipwreck. In 2000, the institute had undertaken an initial research trip into the waters, but didn’t find the specific shipwreck they had in mind. They did, however, find another eight. That’s how interest stirred in «Shipwreck 7,» a project close to Telegraphos Bay some five nautical miles south of the village of Amaliapolis. The shipwrecks and their treasures are dated to the end of the fourth century AD, in the later Roman period. Preliminary studies The IENAE research team arrived at the Pagasitic Gulf in September 2003. Initially, underwater research was focused on the topographical location of the shipwreck and the hoisting up of four amphorae from submerged ships. Preliminary studies showed that this first shipwreck was likely an important one. It was well preserved, and it illuminated the history of the time’s nautical activity and economy. As a result, communities near the site got very interested in the IENAE group. The Municipality of Sourpis, the regional cultural association, the prefecture of Magnesia, the villagers of Amaliapolis and others expressed their support in various ways. So, in 2004, after much bureaucracy and repeated postponements and delays, the institute’s research unit arrived in Amaliapolis at the beginning of October. A 20-meter-long ship called Elizabeth was donated to support the IENAE group’s research. Sourpis offered to pay to power the ship. After this was settled, machines and diving equipment were loaded onto the Elizabeth. Orion, an inflatable boat measuring 6.5 meters in length, was donated. Another, smaller inflatable boat owned by IENAE was also added, completing the catalog of boats for the research. Final preparations The work begins. The team has placed a suction conveyor over the excavation to keep it clear of sand and now tests the suction’s operational capacity. The first week of the research has been devoted to measuring. Architects and topographers working together to assemble a topographical plotting of the shipwreck need more precise figures. Already, it has taken several dives and hundreds of measurements to place white markers on the ocean floor. The data are then logged into computer files. A great deal of effort, time and money was needed for projects such as setting up the location of the shipwreck, finding stable points, incorporating the shipwreck into the geodesic system (which measures the size and shape of the earth), and the site’s photogrammetry, or the process of making scale drawings and maps from photographs. A boon helped the preparations go smoothly. The archaeologists may joke that the shipwreck excavation may be a controlled disaster, but it is also a very delicate undertaking: Researchers must methodically record and document everything that has collected on the seabed over time. Several details must be recorded analytically, since they hold valuable information: the placement and orientation of each artifact, the type of material (mud, sand, etc) used, the stratigraphic layering and the homogeneity of the artifacts in the various layers. At sunrise, the group is on their toes. There’s only time for a quick breakfast. The equipment is loaded onto the boat, which leaves at about 8 a.m. The journey to the cape lasts about 45 minutes. This is used to finalize the program of the day and pick diving pairs to go to the excavation. The boat gets closer to the cape and turns. Under the guidance of Michalis the captain, the group removes the buoy from the mooring. The group arrives at the shipwreck and lowers a metallic basket, which is tied to the outside of the suction conveyor, into the water. The basket is used to sift the artifacts from the dig. Small artifacts which have escaped from the suction conveyor are also occasionally collected from the basket. The first day The first group that dives into the water connects the air supply to the suction conveyor, which is anchored near the excavation site. The air compressor continues to operate. A flexible tube juts from the surface. The excavation begins. The group had initially discovered a series of packed vessels, found just as they were when they sunk to the ocean floor. Now, numerous measurements are taken and then photographed and filmed. The new information is recorded in a diary and logged into a computer. In the evening, the team processes the information and shapes future plans for the various stages of the excavation. Above on the ship, however, there is pandemonium. A team member above the water’s surface observes the excavation below via a camera situated on the seabed. On the stern, another person is busy with air pressurization, which has dropped. Another person fills flasks. Inside the boat’s cabin area, the team watching over the investigation is working on the diary and plans. The diver responsible for the air has the oxygen, and he’s waiting for the divers to arrive at their stations. Work lasts until late in the afternoon, until the last divers arrive and the air is disconnected from the suction conveyor. The basket is released from the tub of the suction and pulled onto the research boat. The cables are untied and fall into the water. One of the inflatables is fastened to the stern, while another follows with a handler. The Elizabeth heads north to Amaliapolis. Even though the sun reddens the horizon, dolphins appear and begin to play. It’s a good omen. Everyone is exhausted, but everyone is also still standing – some on the stern, others on the bulwark. They guide the Elizabeth until they reach the little island of St George at the entrance of the gulf in front of Amaliapolis. At the port, materials are transferred from boats to cars. In the evening, there will be discussions about the day’s results and the program for the next day. Everyone is very tired, but the anxiety about the investigation is greater. Anticipation about tomorrow’s discoveries keeps everyone vigilant. The 2004 research period lasted until the end of October. Everyone is satisfied with the results of the excavation until now. The exploratory division of the research team found portions of the amphorae and their contents, scattered on the ocean floor. Seven different types of amphorae were raised to the surface. These are important discoveries, giving hope the research will continue. (1) Christos Ligouridis is an archaeologist.