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.