Category Archives: Famous Shipwrecks

Working Apace & Waiting on the Greeks

According to the latest post from John Fardoulis, up to three excavation teams are working each day on the Antikythera wreck site for a total of four and a half hours (at 90 minutes per team). The photo below is the first underwater picture from the site and shows the water dredge being worked by an archaeologist. We see fish and gravel…no artifacts. Previous reports indicate that items have been found but any pictures of this material is to be released by the Greek authorities.

Nice photo of the water dredge in action at the Antikythera site. Note the dredge hose is pinned down with a No.10 nail so the archaeologist can gently fan sand into it. Slow going but a tribute to the care that is being taken on this important site. Photo Brett Seymour
Nice photo of the water dredge in action at the Antikythera site. Note the dredge hose is pinned down with a No.10 nail so the archaeologist can gently fan sand into it. Slow going but a tribute to the care that is being taken on this important site. Photo Brett Seymour

“The underwater excavation is currently in full swing, with multiple 2-3 diver teams making the most of their bottom time each day. A very detailed map has been created for the site by an underwater robot at the beginning of summer and last year, meaning that everything retrieved from the shipwreck can be plotted on this blueprint, which helps us better understand the shipwreck by studying the spatial relationship between objects.”

Additional pictures are being posted at the Antikythera Gallery at http://wp.me/P5zmjV-38

 

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“Artifacts Have been Found”

It’s not much, but some news is coming out of the Antikythera project ahead of official announcements from the Greeks. Lead technical diver Phil Short reports: “Work on site this year has located numerous artefacts and excavation and recovery continue. Publication of artefact images is restricted by the Ephorate of Antiquities until their press release but will follow.”

In the meantime, the residents of the island are very much involved in the project. According to Short: “The Mayor of Antikythera commissioned information boards of the ‘Return to Antikythera’ project to display throughout the town including this one with the spear recovered in 2014 taken by Brett Seymour of the U.S. NPS for project sponsor Hublot.”

Phil Short and Antikythera poster. Photo: WHOI
Phil Short and Antikythera poster. Photo: WHOI

Phil Short’s wife, Gemma Smith, is the only woman tech diver on the project. She recently did a “fly over” over the site by a remotely operated vehicle. It was used to map locations of the artifacts before their removal.

Gemma Short posted this Facebook pic of her Antikythera flyover Photo: WHOI
Gemma Short posted this Facebook pic of her Antikythera flyover Photo: WHOI

From this we can infer that artifacts are being located and then mapped “in situ” (mapped ‘in place’ before removal) – indicating the very conservative excavation approach being used by the lead investigators – entirely appropriate on a wreck of this importance.

In the meantime, preparations are underway for the Anitkythera exhibit at the Antiquities Museum in Basel, Switzerland. Andrea Bignasca, at the museum, reports the arrival of the “Odysseus” statue which will be a part of the exhibit. There will be a full disclosure of the current project finds on September 25th at the Museum when the exhibit opens.

Statue of Odysseus arrives in Basel. Photo Andrea Bagniacai, Antiquities Museum
Statue of Odysseus arrives in Basel. Photo Andrea Bognasca, Antiquities Museum

Let’s hope we hear from the Greeks well before then!

Antikythera: The Dig Begins

Alexander Sotiriou, lead diver, fieldwork organiser & technical diving instructor checks mixed gas breathing systems. Photo: WHOI
Alexander Sotiriou, lead diver, fieldwork organiser & technical diving instructor checks mixed gas breathing systems. Photo: WHOI


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.

Archaeologist in mixed gas rig. Not the easiest way to wield a trowel. Photo: WHOI
Archaeologist in mixed gas rig. Not the easiest way to wield a trowel. Photo: WHOI

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!”

Technical Diver Gemma Smith over the Antikythera site. Photo: WHOI
Technical Diver Gemma Smith over the Antikythera site. Photo: WHOI

‘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.”

John Fardoulis. Photo: ARGO, Evita Simoni
John Fardoulis. Photo: ARGO, Evita Simoni

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!

Theotokis Theodoulou. Photo: ARGO Evita Simoni
Theotokis Theodoulou. Photo: ARGO Evita Simoni

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

Foley, standing left, watches as technicians assemble hoses for the dredge. Photo: WHOI
Foley, standing left, watches as technicians assemble hoses for the dredge. Photo: WHOI

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 Week: The Return to Antikythera

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.

Demetrios Kondos disovers the Greek statues on the sea bed off Antikythera Credit: http://www.lookandlearn.com/blog/12271/greek-statues-rescued-from-the-aegean/
Demetrios Kondos disovers the Greek statues on the sea bed off Antikythera Credit: http://www.lookandlearn.com/blog/12271/greek-statues-rescued-from-the-aegean/

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.”

Brendan Foley of Woods Hole is the American co-leader of the project
Brendan Foley of Woods Hole is the American co-leader of the project

“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 assembled crew in 1900 including the greek singer divers. Credit WHOI
The assembled crew in 1900 including the greek singer divers. Credit WHOI

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

A diver uses an air lift during the 1970 Cousteau dive on the Antikythera reck. Credit: http://antikythera.whoi.edu/history/1976-cousteau/
A diver uses an air lift during the 1970 Cousteau dive on the Antikythera reck. Credit: http://antikythera.whoi.edu/history/1976-cousteau/


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.

The fabled Antikythera mechanism found during the 1900 dives. Credit: WHOI
The fabled Antikythera mechanism found during the 1900 dives. Credit: WHOI

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.

Coins from the Antikythera wreck. Credit: http://www.namuseum.gr/object-month/2012/oct/oct12-en.html
Coins from the Antikythera wreck. Credit: http://www.namuseum.gr/object-month/2012/oct/oct12-en.html

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.

Roman General Sulla looted Greece and Asia Minor - but the wreck post dates his campaign by some ten years Credit: Wikipedia.
Roman General Sulla looted Greece and Asia Minor – but the wreck post dates his campaign by some ten years Credit: Wikipedia.

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.”

"The Philosopher" one of the bronze heads recovered in 1900. Image courtesy of the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (K. Xenikakis). Copyright Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports/Archaeological Receipts Fund.
“The Philosopher” one of the bronze heads recovered in 1900. Image courtesy of the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (K. Xenikakis). Copyright Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports/Archaeological Receipts Fund.

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.

Diver with the tip of the bronze spear recovered last year. Part of the new statue? Credit: WHOI
Diver with the tip of the bronze spear recovered last year. Part of the new statue? Credit: WHOI

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.

Technical Diver Gemma Smith will be Foley's dive buddy. Credit: Gemma Smith
Technical Diver Gemma Smith will be Foley’s dive buddy. Credit: Gemma Smith

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Hear the Brendan Foley interview on the next edition of The Archaeology Hour at :

http://archaeologyhour.podomatic.com

North Carolina Wreck Puzzles Officials

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.

Partially covered octant lies beside a large ceramic jar. This would date the site the mid 18th C. (Credit: Wood Hole Oceanographic Inst.)
Partially covered octant lies beside a large ceramic jar. This would date the site the mid 18th C. (Credit: Wood Hole Oceanographic Inst.)

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.”

Ballast stone and brick (similar to the Brown's Ferry Vessel) and at left a late 18th-early 19th C bottle. (Credit: Wood Hole Oceanographic Inst.)
Ballast stone and brick (similar to the Brown’s Ferry Vessel) and at left a late 18th-early 19th C bottle. (Credit: Wood Hole Oceanographic Inst.)
Bottles have shape consistent with late 18th C date. (Credit: Wood Hole Oceanographic Inst.)
Bottles have shape consistent with late 18th C date. (Credit: Wood Hole Oceanographic Inst.)

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.”

The archaeology hour podcast can be found at:

http://archaeologyhour.podomatic.com

Erebus Ice Dive Makes Total Sense

Wearing an insulated diving suit and hooked up to a surface supply of oxygen, a member of the Parks Canada Underwater Archaeology Team prepares to enter the water during a training session.  Copyright Parks Canada
Wearing an insulated diving suit and hooked up to a surface supply of oxygen, a member of the Parks Canada Underwater Archaeology Team prepares to enter the water during a training session. Copyright Parks Canada

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

 

 

Erebus Ice dives begin in April

 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen receive the Erebus Medal from John Geiger, CEO of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and Dr. Paul Ruest, President of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, for their contributions to and support for the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition which led to the discovery of HMS Erebus during an event at the Royal Ontario
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen receive the Erebus Medal from John Geiger, CEO of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and Dr. Paul Ruest, President of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, for their contributions to and support for the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition which led to the discovery of HMS Erebus during an event at the Royal Ontario

The Canadian Government announced this morning that divers from Parks Canada will dive on the wreck of the recently discovered HMS Erebus in April, months ahead of the originally planned season to begin in July. The archaeologists will be supported by a military operation and will place divers under an ice cap over the wreck site that normally thaws for a few weeks after July each year.

The announcement states, “As part of an effort to unlock the secrets of Her Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Erebus, and to learn more about the fate of the Franklin expedition, Prime Minister Stephen Harper today announced that Parks Canada and Royal Canadian Navy divers will join together for Operation NUNALIVUT and conduct approximately 11 days of intense ice diving and underwater archaeology in April.”

There is no explanation for the advanced schedule but archeologists and historians worldwide welcome the new effort to study this important time capsule of early 19th century British exploration. The Erebus was lost in 1845 as its leader, Sir John Franklin sought to discover a north west passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Years of searching for the HMS Erebus and its companion ship the HMS Terror proved fruitless – until local legend pointed Park Canada archaeologists to a stretch of water where remote sensing equipment found the wreck.

The Archaeology Hour has an interview scheduled with lead archaeologist Marc-Andre Bernier on Sunday March 6th. Results will be reported immediately on the podcast’s blog and a full audio interview will appear on an upcoming edition of the enhanced podcast.

More information on the Erebus discover can be found in our earlier report at http://wp.me/p5zmjV-R

The announcement was made following at the Royal Ontario Museum where the “Erebus Medal” was presented to the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen by John Geiger, CEO of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and Dr. Paul Ruest, President of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society. The award was made for contributions to and support for the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition which led to the discovery of HMS Erebus.

The Prime Minister said. “Operation NUNALIVUT will showcase to the world the extraordinary abilities of Canadian Armed Forces ice divers and Parks Canada’s underwater archaeologists. I wish all participants the best as they embark on winter dives beneath the Arctic ice to learn more about HMS Erebus.”

The Prime Minister added that the award, “…recognizes our commitment to discovering one of our country’s greatest maritime mysteries. This discovery would not have been possible without the incredible efforts of the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition made up of government, private and non-profit partners, including The Royal Canadian Geographical Society. I had the privilege to take part in the search last summer during my annual northern tour and was impressed by the professionalism and dedication of the searchers plumbing Canada’s frigid northern waters. ”