Divers are now over the site at Antikythera. They are making the last preparations before digging into the sands over the wreck – overburden that may at last reveal more of the contents of a wreck that has astonished the world with magnificent marbles and bronzes from ancient Greece.
Monday and today will see setup of excavation controls over the wreck site. On land, archaeological excavation is relatively simple. The site is squared off on a grid, usually one meter squares aligned with a north-south axis, soil is then removed with shovels, then trowels and artifacts carefully noted as to location and depth. The soil is then carted off in a wheel barrow to be screened for smaller artifacts and organic remains such as seeds, pollen etc. It’s a simple process that can be learned in a few weeks.
But add 40-60 meters of water over the heads of the workers and everything changes. A lot. The past ten days or so have seen the Antikythera teams of Greeks and other nationals haul tons of equipment to the little island and then assembly it for one of the most technologically demanding dives ever mounted in Greek waters. Most of the gear and the preparation concerns the safety of the crew and archaeologists.
The underwater environment means life support – in this case mixed gas rigs that have to be assembled and checked. The original dive in 1900 killed one diver and injured two more. They were diving on air and had minutes on the bottom. This time a team of technical divers will hand-hold the archaeologists. They will have 90 minutes of bottom time but will need to decompress for another hour or more to avoid the ‘bends’ – gas bubbles in the blood. We have chosen one technical diver to follow, Gemma Smith – but it takes an entire team of such experts to keep the archaeologists safe.
Smith, with others, has now completed test dives on the site. She reports on her Face book page, “Absolutely buzzing after my first ever dive on the site of the Antikythera shipwreck. An hour’s bottom time at 60m rigging the site, ready for the archeology to begin tomorrow, and I’m so excited to see what we find!”
‘Rigging the site’ means setting up the control grid and bringing down the dredging equipment from the surface. On Sunday diver, photographer John Fardoulis reported, “Lead divers will set up moorings and lower dredging equipment near the wreck, which is expected to take place tomorrow and Tuesday, subject to weather. Everything’s going to plan, and a lot of preparation is required before excavating can begin.”
Wednesday will see the first handfuls of sand sucked into the water dredge – probably worked by archaeologist Brendan Foley of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, one of the leaders of the project alongside Dr. Theotokis Theodoulou of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports. The dredge will be held above the surface of the sand. The archaeologists will fan sand up from the bottom and into the current of water being sucked into the dredge. It will obviously be a slow and meticulous process!
Excavation will take the form of trenches within the grid squares. If material is encountered, the trenches will most likely be expanded until the entire square is excavated. This is clearly not work that will be completed in one or two seasons. The Archaeology Hour will report on updates as they are received. In the meantime you can hear an interview with Foley prior to leaving for the the project at http://archaeologyhour.podomatic.com
Brendan Foley (bending at left) inspects progress as teaches prepare cables for the water dredge. Note essential high tech component by the cable in the foreground – Duct Tape (work in the vacuum of space and underwater!)
You can connect with the project’s own blog at http://antikythera.whoi.edu/blog/
This weekend scientists, divers and support staff will begin to converge off the Greek Island of Antikythera to mount a technologically advanced excavation of an ancient wreck that in 1901 yielded an astonishing array of marble and bronze artworks along with coins and a navigational computer that continues to astound experts.
Sponge divers discovered the Antikythera wreck in 1900. In the following year they raised bronze and marble sculptures and parts of sculptures that amazed the art world and scientists then, and ever since.
Last year Greek and American archaeologists returned to the site to inspect and map it. They had the advantage of the latest available technology from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and other sources. What they found astonished them. In an exclusive interview with the Archaeology Hour, the project’s American leader, archaeologist Brendan Foley, spoke about what lay deep beneath them. “We were able to fully map the site and produced a three dimensional image of the sea bottom. We were shocked to discover the wreck was much larger than earlier work had indicated – 30 to 50 meters (90-100 ft) long! The hull timbers were 11 cm (approx. 41/2”) thick. This would make the wreck bigger than the pleasure barges Caligula built for his artificial lake and they were the largest Roman era ships known.”
“This raises the question of what else may be on the ship. At this point of course we simply do not know – but the speculation has been exciting indeed!”
In 1900 the Greek sponge divers were working in hardhat rigs that allowed them only minutes of bottom time in which to rig marble horses and bronze statues for recovery. One died of the bends (nitrogen gas bubbles in the blood) and two were paralyzed.
The next few weeks over the wreck safety for the archaeologists will be a major factor. The dive teams will consist of a ‘technical diver’ well versed in the new diving technologies to be used, and an archaeologist. Both will be diving on closed circuit mixed gas systems that will allow them to spend as long as 90 minutes on the bottom.
“There will still be a need for an hour or so of decompression to prevent bends, “said Foley, “so each dive will take almost three hours. With this amount of time we expect to complete a great deal of excavation.”
In 1953 explorer Jacques Cousteau located the wreck with the help of MIT technology
Wizard’ Doc Edgerton. Cousteau returned in 1976 to excavate with an airlift and recovered some small bronzes.
“The depth would make an air lift difficult to handle – and we want to handle the excavation and possible finds as delicately as possible,” said Foley. “So, instead, we will used a water dredge – similar to an air lift except that we will hold it above the excavation layer and fan sand into it with our hands. This will allow for delicate retrieval of finds and help a great deal with visibility.”
Delicacy and caution will be essential considering the nature of what the sands of Antikythera may reveal. One object from the 1900 dive that has garnered more attention than any other is the ‘Antikythera mechanism,” a fused clump of finely crafted gears that is thought to be a highly sophisticated navigational computer.
According to Foley, “In its original state the metal components of the mechanism were thin sections of copper alloy. After thousands of years on the sea bottom they would now have the consistency of Fimo craft clay – very fragile indeed.”
It is not surprising that the wreck would have such a sophisticated device aboard. The massive craft appears to have been loaded with amazing art treasures from Greece. Coins found on the ship by Cousteau date it to 70-67 B.C. They were produced by the Roman mint at Pergamum.
This was in the same general timeframe that Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix mounted an expedition into Greece and Asia Minor in 87 BC. This was close to a decade before the sinking of the Antikythera wreck, according to the coin dating. It was long thought that the ship might have been bringing treasures back to Rome for Sulla.
Foley’s working hypothesis is that the ship may have been a large grain carrier. “The marble and bronze artworks would have been difficult to stabilize inside the hull and would have made it difficult to trim the vessel. It makes sense that a grain carrier might have been used and that grain sacks could have been used to pack around the statuary.”
Last year divers found a seven foot long bronze spear not associated with any of the recovered bronzes. This leads Foley to believe that other major bronzes may still be found. Earlier recoveries also included separated heads, arms and feet that may also be from buried bronzes.
Certainly the ship was important, but there is still doubt as to who ordered it to be packed with such fabulous treasures. “We know some of Sulla’s ship’s sank north of Antikythera – but we do not think this is one of his ships at this time, “ said Foley.
Foley will be very much hands on during the project. He will be one of the divers. His dive buddy is Gemma Smith, one of the technical divers. For Smith the dive will be especially satisfying, she is in the midst of a long career as a technical or scientific diver – despite being told early in her career that she would never qualify in this demanding field.
Hear the Brendan Foley interview on the next edition of The Archaeology Hour at :
The Archaeology Hour podcast is now live on Podomatic and you can follow it by opening the link and downloading the broadcast. The pilot edition features interview with Marc Bernier of Parks Canada on the HMS Erebus expedition lead-up (a results interview will follow) and a second feature with Irene Morfini, one of the two young archeologists who have made a major new tomb discovery in Egypt. The broadcast also features pieces by Rob Steele on archaeological travel to Belize, a piece by Elle Shepard on the exhibition of the 1600s ship Vasa in Sweden, and some off-beat archaeological news from Brannon Lamar.
New Archaeology Hour broadcasts are to follow shortly. They will feature British Museum coin expert Vincent Drost on the Seaton Down Roman coin hoard found in England, Archaeologist Bruce Terrellon a mystery ship found in six thousand fathoms of the coast of North Carolina and more contributions from Steele, Shepard and Lamar.
Major new story to be featured in the near future will be an exclusive interview with Brendan Foley, American partner with the Greek Government in the upcoming (next week!) excavation of the long fabled Antikythera wreck. Found in 1900 by Greek sponge divers, the wreck produced a fabulous hoard of marble and bronze statuary. Cousteau returned to the site in the 1950s and 1970s – but it took Foley’s team to discover that the wreck was far larger than originally thought. If the weather holds breathtaking finds may soon be revealed by the sands of Antikythera after more than two thousand years.
A new blog posting this coming weekend will feature an interview with Foley and the podcast will follow that shortly.
The ‘early 18th century’ wreck recently discovered off the coast of North Carolina may not be what it appears to be. The wreck was discovered by Duke University biology researchers using Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute equipment to search for a lost instrument buoy. An early press release labeled it as early 18th century or possible Revolutionary period (a pretty wide span of time in any event). Examination of photographs from the site, beneath 6,000 feet of water on the continental shelf, tell an even more confusing story.
Bruce Terrell, chief archaeologist of NOAA’s Marine Heritage Program, told the Archaeology Hour yesterday: “We can clearly see what appears to be an octant in one photograph. Yet in other photographs we can see bottles that appear to have a form normally dated to the early decades of the 19th century. Obviously we have issues when it comes to dating the wreck.”
Terrell notes other questions raised by the evidence in the photographs. “There is very little rigging hardware to be seen. The hull structure of the vessel is gone completely but from the size of the ballast pile and the rigging hardware we can see it appears to be a very small ship; maybe 40 to 60 feet long.” This might indicate a Bermuda sloop or a small coasting schooner. Coasting vessels typically hugged the coastline and operated in shallow waters and riverine areas – this site is 180 miles out on the Blake Plateau.
The current information draws immediate comparisons with the wreck of another small coasting vessel found by sport divers in the Black River, South Carolina in 1971. This reporter spent a month working on the vessel in the 1980s and later on its reconstruction at the Georgetown Rice Museum where it is now on display. This vessel also appeared to be a small coasting schooner dated to the mid 18th century – and it also contained an octant.
Sir Isaac Newton in vented the quadrant in the 1690s, the octant appeared in the 1730s. Philadelphia inventor Thomas Godfrey and English mathematician John Hadley invented it simultaneously. The instrument enabled navigators to take sightings of both the sun and stars. It’s presence on the North Carolina wreck points to a mid-18th century or possibly earlier date for the wreck. The dating contradiction arises from bottles that appear in another photograph of the site. The shapes of the bottles appear to be typical of the very late 18th or early 19th century. “It is highly improbable that two wrecks are mixed here, “said Terrell. “This is not very likely in 6,000 feet of water.”
Clearly, more information is needed from the site. It is likely that more research will be done as the site adds important new information to North Carolina’s maritime history. “I am not sure what will happen next, “ says Terrell. “The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is the Federal Agency responsible for the continental shelf and the decision on next steps will come from them. Hopefully an archaeologist will be appointed and a survey of the site will be completed.”
In an exclusive interview with the Archaeology Hour, Marc-Andre Bernier, Chief of the Archaeology Division of Parks Canada has announced the timetable for the historic dives beneath seven feet or more of arctic ice on the remains of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition ship the HMS Erebus. The first team for the project will be on-site later this week on April 4th to prepare for the investigation. “A national defense team will set up the camp starting on the 4th, “ said Bernier. “Our archaeologists Ryan Harris and Jonathan Moore will be there to get us close to the wreck itself – not right above it but close enough to make the diving operation easier. Then the rest of the team will arrive around April 10th and will work until the 17th or 18th.”
“We plan to continue the non-disturbance survey started when the ship was discovered last year,” Bernier told The Archaeology Hour. “We are still determining what our future methodology will be so this is still something of a pre-disturbance project with three phases. We will be examining the exterior of the hull, then the perimeter close to the hull and finally the inside of the hull. “The deck looks like it has been shaved by the ice in places and some sections have been opened almost like a can opener. The rigging has been pushed off the sides a distance of some three or four meters. The inside of the hull will be accessible through some large openings. At this stage we plan to insert a laser device from 2G Robotics here in Canada. It will create a three dimensional image of the interior in a few minutes.”
The Parks Canada team hope to complete their surveys and photographic mapping of the site by the end of the month. “We do have another window in mid August to mid September when the ice cap melts—but conditions then would not be as good for underwater video and photography,” said Bernier.
Once a full understanding of the wrecksite has been developed the Parks Canada team will begin the process of removing artifacts and pieces of the wreckage. It is only then that the mystery of the final hours of the ill-fated expedition may be answered.
Sir John Franklin sailed from England on May 19th, 1845 with 134 men and two ships the Erebus and the Terror. The HMS Erebus was the ‘space shuttle‘ of its day—the most technologically advanced and well supplied vessel of discovery ever launched. The goal was to finally discover the Northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the shortest route from the rich trade sources of the far east to the factories and shops of England. The Erebus had both steam and sail power, a reinforced hull, seawater to drinkable water systems, heated cabins and three years of supplies that Franklin thought could be extended to seven years in an emergency. Included in the food supplies were over seven thousand pounds of tobacco and 200 gallons of wine and almost ten thousand pounds of chocolate. There was also a new invention that the British Navy thought would stave off scurvy and ‘debilitation” – eight thousand tins of canned meat and vegetables.
Two whaling ships were the last to see Franklin’s expedition as it sailed off into barely charted waters of Lancaster Sound of northern Canada — and on into the frozen wastelands of the supposed Northwest Passage. It seemed there was no way Franklin could fail. The ships, the men were never seen again. After 1847 the British Government and private sources sent further expeditions to find Franklin. Men died and ships sunk in the crushing grip of the Arctic winter ice, but still nothing at all was found of Franklin, his men or his two wonderfully equipped ships. Still later searches found tantalizing traces of the lost expedition, but nothing that told why such a well equipped and planned project would fail so spectacularly.
Some 140 years later archaeologists finally unearthed the burials of three men from the expedition on Beechey Island. William Braine, John Hartnell of the Erebus and John Torrington of the Terror had died of scurvy (vitamin C deficiency — and lead poisoning.) It may have been that the cans of tinned food laid waste to the men. When they left England, the seeds of disaster were already stored inside their ships.
“We still do not know what the final months and weeks of the expedition were like,” said Bernier.”From Inuit accounts we know that there were men aboard the ship but we do not know if they attempted an overland retreat, abandoned the idea and returned to the ship, then perhaps even left again. We do know that Inuits reported at least one corpse inside the ship before it sank.”
Several expeditions were sent find Franklin, or at least determine what had happened to him. It was learned that some of the crew had attempted to trek south, hauling a boat with them. Later searchers found traces of the boat and the bones of some of the men. Even so, the full story has yet to be revealed. Perhaps the hull of the Erebus, and the dead known to be in it, will finally speak.
As the archaeologists of Parks Canada probe the icy time capsule that is the wreck of the Erebus, the answers the world, and especially the English, have been waiting for since that fateful day in May of 1845 may at last be found.
It’s going to be very tricky. A river bottom near downtown Columbia, S.C., covered with Confederate era munitions dumped by the Federal Army in 1865. You might imagine that, being underwater for that long, there would be little danger involved in handling rebel grenades and shells and cannon balls. No so. In the 1970s divers found a similar dump behind the Confederate Powder Works on the banks of the Savannah River at Augusta Georgia. A lot of the shells were inert, the water had leached away the powder inside years before. Then again, a lot of them were very much alive—and even more volatile than when they were first made. Colonel Washington Raines, the man who built the Powder Works, was famed for the quality of his gunpowder. When such gunpowder sits undisturbed it ‘matures’ becoming more volatile over time. As the Augusta divers discovered, the powder inside the intact shells they recovered was still capable of exploding.
“We were totally stupid, “ one them told The Archaeology Hour (forty years later he still wants to remain anonymous). “We carefully cut one of the smaller shells open without cutting into the powder, we then made a small hole and got the powder out. We shot pictures of the result—it blew up like crazy!”
In the near future work will begin to recover the munitions in the Congaree River near Columbia. As if the danger of an explosion is not bad enough, there is another complication. Tar. Not only are the munitions underwater, sand and mud—there is also a two foot thick layer of tar over the entire deposit as well!
The river, the tar, sand, mud—and live shells. And it all has to be removed. This is going to be a good story! Scuba divers, probably seeking to repeat the finds of the Augusta divers decades ago, first discovered the ‘tarry substance.’ It was most recently reported to authorities by a wading kayaker. South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control decided the mess needed to be cleaned up.
The result is that responsibility for the problem has fallen into the lap of South Carolina Electric & Gas. Eric Boomhower, Director for Public Affairs for SCE&G, told the Archaeology Hour, “The tarry substance is consistent with coal tar created by manufactured gas plants that operated throughout Columbia more than a century ago.
“One of those gas plants, located at Lincoln and Lady Street, was owned and operated by the Columbia Gas Light Company. At the time of closing in 1906, its production was replaced by the output of a new MGP at Huger and Taylor Street (the “Huger Street Site”). Note that the Huger Street Site was operated during its operating history by the Columbia Railway, Gas and Electric Company (a predecessor to SCE&G), thus giving rise to SCE&G’s liability for that former MGP site. In 1925, Columbia Railway Gas & Electric Company merged with the Broad River Power Company Inc. to form the Broad River Power Company. In 1937, the name was changed to South Carolina Electric & Gas Company. It appears that this particular deposit may have originated from the Huger Street Site. “
In accepting responsibility for the problem SCE&G is showing great corporate citizenship. They have hired environmental firm TRC Solutions out of Atlanta, Georgia to handle the decidedly dangerous clean up job.
“TRC’s primary job will be to do the archaeological recovery, they have done this type of work for us before in similar situations,” said Boomhower. “It should be understood though, that our primary concern is the safety of everyone involved.”
While the historical record states that this is the area where Sherman dumped Confederate munitions, Boomhower says that it is by no means certain that live ammunition will in fact be encountered. “If it is—if we encounter anything that has the potential to be live and dangerous—then the bomb disposal experts will immediately take control of the work.”
A further complication is that the Confederate munitions also constitute part of the state’s archaeological heritage. This brings in Jim Spirek, State Underwater Archaeologist at the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (SCIAA). Spirek told The Archaeology Hour, “Historical research suggests this area of the Congaree River was one of several dumping sites of Confederate war materials by troops under command of General William T. Sherman following the capture of the city in 1865.
“Recovery of various Civil War artifacts in this location in the 1930s by the then mayor of West Columbia and later under salvage licenses issued by SCIAA in the late 1970s and early 1980s also provides archaeological corroboration of the historical record. A series of bores was conducted from the Gervais Bridge to the Blossom Street Bridge. The stratigraphy of the river in this area consists of bedrock buried under several feet of sand and mud close to shore with exposed rocks further out in the river, along with sediment filled pockets in deeper areas. The tar like substance (TLS) is approximately two feet thick at its deepest and thins out downstream.
“Presumably the Civil War-era and earlier artifacts rest below or perhaps intermingled with the TLS. More recent artifacts including hubcaps, beer cans, shopping carts, etc. are included in the upper levels of the site stratigraphy, or perhaps scoured in deeper due to periodic flooding.
“At the areas excavated to remove TLS from the river there will be 100% artifact recovery. Artifacts of historic and archaeological significance will undergo conservation treatment. Modern items will be cataloged and then disposed of. Plans call for the conserved items to be curated at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, although some artifacts may be sent to other appropriate cultural institutions for display and interpretation.
In handling possible live ammunition, the ordnance experts will make the call on whether such items will be destroyed by safe detonation or preserved by being defused and rendered inert. These will then be among the ‘conserved items’ that Spirek refers to.
This adds even more complexity to the project. SCANA and TRC have submitted a plan to the State for the work. Spirek told us, “Various remediation scenarios were offered by SCANA at a public meeting held in Columbia on 21 March 2013. DHEC preferred the 100% recovery of the TLS by damming the river in three sequential segments. Recently, the US Army Corps of Engineers has asked SCANA and DHEC to reconsider the damming option and to prepare a revised remediation action. Presumably in the next several months SCANA will provide their modified plan to remove the TLS from the Congaree River.”
There is no word yet on what the new plan will involve. It is thought it will be a modification of the earlier “dam and dig dry” plan. In any event, watchers await with considerable interest to see exactly how this sticky, tricky and explosive project will finally be handled. Archaeologically–whether the project were done underwater or on ‘dry’ land or not—standard procedure would require artifacts (possibly cartridges, shells, grenades etc.) to be carefully excavated, photographed in situ, then delicately removed, cleaned and conserved. Whether this is done or not may be the case by case call of a live ordnance recovery expert working alongside the archaeologist.
The Congaree ‘tar’ project will be featured on an upcoming podcast edition of The Archaeology Hour with audio interviews and more background information.
The Canadian military and Parks Canada today (one hour ago) revealed more details on their joint ‘ice dive’ next month on the wreck of the H.M.S.Erebus lost in the frozen wastes of the Canadian arctic in 1848. The initial announcement raised eyebrows when it was revealed that divers would be accessing the wreck while the pack ice over the site would be some seven feet thick.
Lt. Cdr. Stephan Julien spoke during a technical briefing for the press at 11:00am this morning. “Actually the pack ice provides better conditions for diving than open water. We will have a stable platform over the wreck and this will support special equipment that would normally require a much larger ship. We can also land ski-equipped aircraft on the ice, making it much easier to bring equipment in and out.”
Marc-Andre Bernier, the Parks Canada archaeologist in charge of the underwater archaeological aspects of the project also sees advantages on and under the ice. “Last September when the wreck was discovered we were limited by the weather and the diver air supply. At most divers using tanks would have an hour underwater—and then only during good weather. Storms prevented us from diving much of the time. By diving from an ice platform with diverse on umbilicals we can push our dive times to the limit. Also the bad weather meant that visibility was not good – we expect to get better visibility under the ice.”
According to Julien, dive teams will consist of an archaeologist and a military diver, both wearing helmeted suits with a tether, air umbilical and communications lines to the surface. Each diver will also have a back-up air bottle. They will enter through holes drilled in the seven foot ice cap to work on the wreck site. “It is actually all very safe, “ said Julien. “Getting back to the surface is a simple matter of following the tether back to the hole in the ice. “
The April Erebus project will be supported by a strong military presence including the Royal Canadian Air Force, Navy and Army. The US will also represented by an Air National Guard unit from Schenectady New York that will fly a ski equipped aircraft to the site. This kind of support for archaeological operations has occurred before—most notably on the Hamilton and Scourge project in Lake Ontario when two 1812 War period wrecks were examined. Even the Canadian Space Agency will be involved in providing security for the location of the wreck between project operations.
The entire project will be dedicated to developing a better understanding the Erebus site, says Marc-Andre Bernier. “We need to clear kelp from the wreck to improve visibility, then we will have three areas of interest to examine. The hull itself, the perimeter around the hull and the interior of the hull. With kelp removed we will be able to video and photo map the wreck. We will then examine the perimeter and conduct a text excavation in order to understand the nature of the soils and artifact content. Finally we will also use robotics and cameras on rods to look inside the hull and record any contents.”
The Parks Canada approach is very conservative one designed to fully understand the site before any major disturbance results from excavation and removal of timbers. “We do not plan to remove artifacts at this stage but a conservator will be on hand in the event anything of major importance has to be recovered,” said Bernier. More to come on the Archaeology Hour broadcast next month.
A full transcript of the Technical Briefing is provided by Parks Canada and is found at : http://wp.me/P5zmjV-24