The shipwrecks of Astypalaia give up their treasure troves

When a fisherman from Astypalaia discovered a dark green object in the sea at a depth of more than 35 meters about two years ago, he had no idea it would make his fortune. For days he tried to solve the mystery, diving down repeatedly, risking his life in the deep water to bring up 40,000 ancient coins. Then he called the police, and eventually collected a reward of 120 million drachmas (350,000 euros), approved by the Central Archaeological Council. Ekaterini Delaporta, director of the Ephorate of Marine Antiquities, told Kathimerini: «It was a highly significant shipwreck of a boat that was lost off Astypalaia in the third century AD, which was apparently carrying a large consignment of cash, presumably for military purposes. This shipwreck led to research over an extensive area and brought to light many similar naval tragedies.» Next to the safe – unfortunately destroyed by the fisherman in his attempt to solve the mystery – was a lead sarcophagus of Syro-Palestinian craftsmanship. It is thought to have belonged to a Roman officer who died in the Middle East and was being brought home for burial. The second shipwreck was carrying a large consignment of everyday clay pots, which represent the first record of the full range of household pots used in the Roman era. Unfortunately, many of these pots have been damaged by «visitors» who were probably seeking money and who broke the jars and pots in their search for the coins. The third shipwreck dates to the post-Byzantine era (10th-12th centuries). It was carrying amphorae and was found on a rocky islet off Astypalaia. The fourth one, also found nearby, sank in the third century BC. It was carrying exceptionally fine amphorae from Kos, containing wine or oil. The remaining shipwrecks, all carrying amphorae, were found off Leipsoi and Leros. One good piece of news from this research is that part of the hull of the boat carrying the consignment of money was retrieved. As Delaporta explained at the time: «Immediately after this boat struck the rock, it was buried beneath the sand. At the moment it is exceptionally difficult and costly to winch it up, since a major operation would have to be mounted to prepare the infrastructure to receive the hull. We have to find a tank to submerge the craft in, because when the soaked wood emerges from the water into the atmosphere it will disintegrate.» The Ephorate of Marine Antiquities recently carried out this important project in concert with the National Center for Marine Research, which deployed the oceanography vessel Aigaio and its bathyscaphe Thetis. The crew members and a team of archaeologists spent two weeks in the eastern Aegean, diving in the bathyscaphe to map shipwrecks in the area. Their collaboration will continue until they map all the shipwrecks in the Aegean and Ionian seas. So far the guides to these shipwrecks have been fishermen and anonymous chronicles from Roman times. There have been systematic records of shipwrecks since the Byzantine era. But as the sea is a difficult place to research, cooperation with ordinary people who make their living from the sea is imperative.