In our modern, sleek, technology filled age, archaeology is often looked upon in contempt. The image is either old men in cardigans digging up the English countryside in search of a coin or Victorian gentlemen stealing the cultural heritage of the rest of the world. With the creation of the internet, google maps and Wikipedia it does not seem like there is very much of the world left undiscovered and what is left for archaeology is less Indiana Jones-like thrilling and more like dusty objects being examined by even dustier academics.
Now and then, this stereotype gets blown out of the water. This is exactly what has happened with the discovery of 22 shipwrecks off the coast of the Greek Island of Fourni. To put this in context, these newly discovered wrecks now make up 12% of all shipwrecks ever discovered in Greece’s waters. The joint Greek-British expedition, co-directed by University of Southampton’s own Peter Campbell discovered the 22 wrecks over a 13 day period, dating them to between 700 BCE to 200 CE, with the exception of one wreck from the 16th century.
Using modern survey techniques the archaeologists were able to map out a detailed 3D site plan which has given clues to the reason why the vessels were wrecked, but it is the cargo that has truly caused the most excitement. Due to the nature of the underwater environment, very little of the vessels themselves has survived, often leaving just an imprint in the sea floor rather than the actual wreck. However much of the cargo, mostly housed in terracotta amphorae (clay storage jars) has survived better, and scientific analysis of the residues left on the jars will give definitive answers as to what was being transported.
The large amount of wrecks discovered in such a small area gives the impression that this area was especially dangerous for ancient sailors and should have been avoided, but the truth is most likely the opposite. Wrecks were a sad inevitability of ancient seafaring and the sheer number found dating across a wide period suggests that Fourni was actually part of a major trade route from what is now the Middle East across the Mediterranean. The cargo that the ships were carrying along with the size and nature of the vessels themselves can be compared to see how the trade route developed and changed across the classical times, and could unlock clues as to the growth of the city of Constantinople and the rise of the Eastern Roman Empire, later known as the Byzantine Empire.
An unfortunate reality of these discoveries is that they often lead to a rise in looting and treasure hunting. Maritime Archaeology is no exception, indeed when Scuba Diving became a recreational activity, many of the known wrecks in the Mediterranean were plundered. Not only do such activities steal objects from local communities for private collections, they damage the archaeology, as an object’s placement and relations to other objects is as important as the artefact itself and moving it destroys this permanently. Campbell hopes though that the public discovery will not damage the site but rather encourage the local population to protect against looters, as ‘an engaged local population is the best form of protection’.
The discovery of the 22 Fourni wrecks should not be marred by these worries though, and should be treated more as what Campbell describes as ‘a once in a lifetime discovery’. The excitement for both academics and the general public is palatable, not just for this discovery, but what it could mean in terms of the future. Only a tiny portion of the Mediterranean has been explored and Fourni is a glimpse into the incredible world contained under the water.