Ancient Mariners of the Mediterranean

Ancient Mariners of the Mediterranean

With 95 percent of the seafloor not yet explored, oceanographers and maritime archaeologists look to the deep waters of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas for shipwrecks that can be used to tell the story of ancient civilizations throughout the region.


6 - 12+


Anthropology, Earth Science, Oceanography, Social Studies, Economics, World History

National Geographic Television and Film

The study of oceanography brings many different fields of science together to investigate the ocean. Despite increased research and advances in technology, the depths of the ocean remain mostly unexplored. Archaeology is the study of human history using the material remains, or artifacts, of a culture. Artifacts help reveal a particular group’s culture, including their economies, politics, religions, technologies, and social structure. Maritime, or underwater, archaeologists study artifacts and sites submerged in lakes, rivers, and the ocean. While many land-based archaeological finds have already been studied, the ocean depths contain countless new sites and artifacts yet to be discovered.

As ancient people began to develop civilizations, or urban settlements with complex ways of life, extensive trade routes formed throughout the Mediterranean. The eastern Mediterranean and Aegean seas formed an important crossroads of trade and travel in the ancient world. By exploring shipwrecks from this region, researchers learn more about the people who lived there throughout history, as far back as 1000 B.C.E., when Greek civilization was on the rise. Oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard works with maritime archaeologists to explore ancient shipwrecks throughout the Mediterranean. By studying these ancient wrecks, the history and culture of the region’s ancient civilizations can be better understood.

Finding and excavating ancient shipwrecks in the deep ocean requires the use of advanced technology, including sonar and ROVs. Once wrecks are located using sonar, ROVs with cameras are used to observe them. One way to determine the historical time period the shipwreck came from is to identify key artifacts. In the ancient world of the Mediterranean region, one such key artifact is an amphora, a clay jar that was used to transport goods like olive oil, grain, and wine. By viewing video footage captured by the ROVs, expert archaeologists observe the shape and style of the amphorae to determine approximately where and when they were used. The shape of an amphora’s base can vary from well-rounded or barrel-shaped to conical. Its neck can appear separate from the base or as one continuous piece. An amphora’s handles can fall vertically or be more rounded. The stamps and designs, such as ribbing, used on amphorae indicate different regions and time periods in which the jars and their contents came.

Using archaeological evidence, including amphorae, scientists determined that most of the shipwrecks found in the Mediterranean region are from the C.E., being no more than 2,000 years old. That makes shipwrecks like the one Ballard’s team discovered in the deep Aegean Sea such a remarkable find. Based on the ribbed, conical-shaped amphorae from the wreck, the ship was likely transporting goods to and from the Greek island of Samos during the Archaic period of Greece (seventh century B.C.E.), says archaeologist and ceramics expert Andrei Opait. This was two hundred years before the Classical period of Greece (fifth century B.C.E.), when Plato and Socrates were living and Greek maritime power dominated the region. If Opait’s theory is correct, the wreck would be the oldest ship ever discovered in the Aegean Sea. According to Ballard, this shipwreck is just one of thousands yet to be discovered in the depths of the Mediterranean.

Fast Fact

  • The average depth of the Mediterranean Sea is 3,000 meters (9,840 feet), with its deepest point at approximately 5,000 meters (16,400 feet).

Fast Fact

  • When broken down into its Greek root words, the term “archaeology” literally means “study of the ancient,” from arkhaios, meaning ancient, and logia, meaning study of.

Fast Fact

  • The excavation of the Cape Gelidonya shipwreck off the south coast of Turkey in the 1960s was an important event for the field of maritime archaeology for three main reasons: It was the first excavation where the supervising archaeologist, George Bass, both dove to and excavated a site; it was the first time where land-based archaeological techniques were adapted for the underwater environment; and it was the first shipwreck to be entirely excavated.

Fast Fact

  • The Nautilus Expedition uses state-of-the-art remote sensing and satellite communication technology to connect researchers across the globe. These technologies allow researchers at sea aboard the E/V Nautilus to send data and high-definition images to the Inner Space Center (mission control) in Rhode Island within 1.5 seconds.
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Angela M. Cowan, Education Specialist and Curriculum Designer
Julie Brown, National Geographic Society
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Katy Andres
Julie Brown, National Geographic Society
Alison Michel, National Geographic Society
Winn Brewer, National Geographic Education
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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