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Underwater Archeologists Find 22 Shipwrecks in Fourni, Greece

January 25, 2016

Earlier this fall in September in the eastern Aegean Sea, researchers found an amazing 22 shipwrecks within a two-week expedition. The wrecks were found in a 17 square mile area around Fourni archipelago, which consists of thirteen islands and islets located between the islands of Samos and Icaria. The joint Greek-American expedition was ranked as one of the top archaeological finds of 2015.


It was the first time that an underwater archaeological expedition was organized to the Fourni archipelago. The team consisted of archaeologists from the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities and RPM Nautical Foundation. The team was able to locate the site with the assistance of local sponge divers, fishermen, and free divers. Financial support was provided by the Honor Frost Foundation, a UK charity that supports research in the eastern Mediterranean through an endowment from pioneer maritime archaeologist Honor Frost.

“Surpassing all expectations, over only 13 days we added 12 percent to the total of known ancient shipwrecks in Greek territorial waters,” Peter Campbell, of the University of Southampton and co-director from US based RPM Nautical Foundation, told Discovery News. It is highly likely that more discoveries in the area will be made, as the team has surveyed only 5 percent of Fourni’s coasts.

9a24df410547f0d468366d42581afc18“It’s an extremely rich area,” says Greek director George Koutsouflakis, an archaeologist with the Hellenic Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities. He explained, “In a typical survey we locate four or five shipwrecks per season in the best cases. We expected a successful season, but no one was prepared for this. Shipwrecks were found literally everywhere. What is astonishing is not only the number of the shipwrecks but also the diversity of the cargoes, some of which have been found for first time.”

The reason for the excitement over the find was not just the remarkable number of wrecks in a small area, but also the range of the time periods of the wrecks. The earliest wreck dates to the Archaic Period (700-480 B.C.), while others date from the Classical Period (480-323 B.C.) and the Hellenistic Period (323-31 B.C.). The majority (12 of the 22), however, were during the Late Roman Period (300-600 A.D.). The most recent wreck was from the Late Medieval Period (16th century A.D.).

All 22 wrecks were merSONY DSCchant vessels sailing a common trade route that connected Anatolia, Samos, and the Black Sea region to Rhodes, Cyprus, and even Egypt. While wooden ships generally decompose underwater or get eaten by seaworms, the cargo survive in clay storage jars called
amphorae. Each of the 22 ships was carrying several hundred amphorae. By assessing the size and shape of the jars, archaeologists can infer where and when they were made. DNA analysis and residue will be able to determine what the amphorae contained. “We know from comparable shSONY DSCipwrecks and terrestrial sites that the three major goods would have been olive oil, wine, and fish sauce,” says Jeffrey Royal, a co-director from the RPM Nautical Foundation.

To map the shipwrecks, the underwater archaeologists used photogrammetry to create 3D site plans. Representative artifacts were raised from each wreck site for scientific analysis and rare amphorae will be put on display in Greek museums. However, even if the amphorae themselves are common, the finds still have huge value, says Campbell. “A data set such as this could really change perceptions about ancient trade,” he says. And with more expeditions to Fourni planned for the future, that data set may well continue to grow.  “We know where amphorae were made and when they were made, so they can help paint what some of the major trade routes were over time,” says Mark Lawall, an expert on Greek transport amphorae who was not on the expedition team. He said that “over the years, for instance, amphorae have helped build the case that Greek trade involved “huge ships and highly structured financial systems to support that shipping.”

Among the more unique finds ancient-shipwrecks-fourni-750x347from Fourni were rare teardrop-shaped amphorae from Samos dated to the Archaic Period, four-foot-tall fish sauce amphorae from the Black Sea region that date to the second century A.D., and carrot-shaped amphorae from Sinop, thought to date to the third to seventh centuries A.D.

“It was quite exciting to find actual wrecks carrying these—very exciting and very rare,” Campbell says. “These ships were very much international melting pots. They might have had wood from Lebanon, fasteners from Greece, amphoras from Levant and a crew made up of many different cultural groups.” Ships generally departed filled with amphorae from their point of origin but then acquired others as they made cargo drops from port to port—a fact that could make it hard to determine exactly where the individual Fourni ships came from.

Although the archipelago itself wasn’t a destination for traders, sudden storms in the area were particularly devastating to sailors. “Ikaria and the west coast of Samos have no himage_3422_2-Fourni-Shipwrecksarbors or anchorages, so Fourni is the safest place that ships could stop in the area,” Campbell said. During the Classical Period (480-323 B.C.), many merchant crews consisted of 10-15 sailors. However, by the Late Roman Period (300-600 A.D.), various advances in technology had reduced the number of required crew down to between five to seven. The famous Greek and Roman warships called “triremes” required manpower to row the oars, while the smaller merchant ships used sails and wind-power. According to archeologists, some of the ships around Fourni appear to have encountered sudden storms and strong winds that smashed them against cliffs and rock formations in shallow water.

Peter Campbell explained, “You can look at the spatial patterning of the sites and reconstruct a plausible story about what happened. It looks like some of them were anchored behind cliffs to shelter from a northwest wind, but this made them vulnerable to a southern wind that drove them against the cliffs.” In these storms around Fourni, the ancient sailors’ chances of survival would have been slight. “Of the 22 wrecks we studied, there were probably four where they might have had a chance to swim to a beach or shore. But most of the spots were next to sheer cliffs. There’s no way they would’ve survived in a storm,” said Campbell.

Campbell posted a Youtube clip of the expedition. For more information, read sources used in writing this blog, including the National Geographic article and the Smithsonian Magazine article.

Unfortunately, smugglers haHT_shipwreck_01_jef_151105_4x3_992d already plundered some of the wrecks before the team arrived. Local fishermen and free divers reported seeing strange activity near certain sites. Conservation is key for the Greek government, and all governments seek to protect their national historic sites. With the team’s help in pinpointing exact locations for 22 of the area’s shipwrecks, it has made it easier for Greek authorities to supervise the sites. The archaeologists also hope that the knowledge gained during excavations will give local communities a stronger sense of connection to their history. According to Campbell, “An engaged local population is the best form of protection.”

Indiana University actually offers one of the world’s most famous underwater science program that teaches submerged cultural resource management. The IU Center for Underwater Science is administered by the School of Public Health. Director Dr. Charles Beeker, is a Professional Archaeologist, PADI Master Instructor, and the Director of both the Center for Underwater Science and the IU Academic Diving Program. Dr. Beeker discovered the 1699 shipwreck of Captain Kidd in 2007, and IU students in the Center for Underwater Science gain valuable experience working with the government of the Dominican Republic on conservation of the dive site, especially the Living Museums of the Sea (LMS). LMS is an environmental and park management model that aims to protect submerged cultural resources and associated biology.

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