Phoenician Ship Wreck
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Phoenician Ship Wreck:
Teaming up to find ancient mariners

By William J. Broad
The New York Times

The Phoenicians were the master seafarers of antiquity, the first to knit the Mediterranean into a trading state. Contemporaries knew them well. Homer derided them as "greedy rogues," and the Bible praised their ships of oak and cedar as works that "did sing."

But modern scholarship knows little of the vanished people and almost nothing of the empire's basis, its merchant ships. No ships that are clearly Phoenician have come to light and only a few images of the trading vessels have come down through the ages.

Now, however, the cold depths of the Mediterranean have yielded a bonanza that might change all that -- if archaeologists and treasure hunters can agree to work together.

The episode began last month as entrepreneurs based in Tampa, Fla., were searching the deep western Mediterranean for lost gold and silver. in the inky darkness, a half mile down, the team's robot suddenly lit up hundreds of amphoras, the clay storage jars of antiquity. What the robot revealed was clearly a very old shipwreck.

thrilled Greg Stemm, director Of operations for Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., had videotapes of the amphoras studied by nautical archaeologists. They tentatively identified the earthen jars as typical of the Phoenician colony of Carthage around the fifth century -B.C., near the peak of Phoenician influence in the ancient world.

"It's an incredible find," Stemm said in, an interview. "It's the oldest deep wreck ever found. We're very excited."

The discovery is already stirring great scholarly interest because so little is known of the ancient mariners.

During the first millennium B.C., the Phoenicians, sailing mainly out of the area that is now Lebanon, spread colonies along some of the Mediterranean's best land and prospered because of their enormous commercial zeal.

They traded in textiles, dyes, jewelry, glass, wine, perfumes and wood. Rivals often hated them. Plutarch, a Greek scorned them as "a people full of bitterness" and "so strict as to dislike all humor and kindness."

Despite the Phoenicians' early success, subsequent waves of civilization wiped out most traces of their cities and artifacts.

In contrast, the deep wreck appears to be pristine. A striking color video made by the Odyssey team shows a jumble of brown and red amphoras much as they must have lain shortly after the ship, perhaps wrecked by one of the Mediterranean's squalls, settled into the ooze.

The Amphoras are about 3 feet long. Some are broken,, but most seem to be intact dotted by delicate sea fans and inhabited by snake like fish.

Amphoras were the all-purpose shipping vessels of antiquity, holding wine, olive oil, honey, fish sauce and other trade products.

What lies beneath the amphoras and the muck -- perhaps the ship's wooden hull, tools, personal items and coins, which would help pinpoint the date of the sinking -- can only be learned by excavation. The frigidity and low oxygen levels of the deep sea are known to keep many old items remarkably well preserved.

Eager to learn more, and happy to admit the profit motive, Stemm is seeking to team up with Archaeologists to explore the wreck with scholarly rigor and to make the project pay for itself by selling film rights and organizing museum shows.

Surprisingly, considering past enmity, scholars are showing considerable interest in the proposed venture, seeing the wreck as a good test of the feasibility of teamwork.

"It's got tremendous potential as a way to bring archaeology into the business world," said Cheryl Ward, a professor at the Institute of Nautical Archaeology of Texas A&M University. "This is an exciting ship because it is from a time that is poorly known and a culture that is known to us only from land excavations and the accounts of their enemies."

William Murray, chairman of the underwater archaeology committee ,of the Archaeological Institute of America, a top professional group, said he would urge his colleagues to consider the venture seriously.

"If academic archaeologists are going to deal with deep-water shipwrecks, it's going to have to be through cooperative efforts like this," he said. "We need to explore the possibility."

Going farther

For decades, archaeologists and treasure hunters battled one another over shipwrecks in shallow waters. Both sides could visit and excavate the ruins by means of relatively inexpensive scuba gear, which allows divers to go down 100 feet or so.

But advanced technology is moving the action deeper, sometimes miles deeper, into dark areas of icy temperatures and crushing pressures. The high cost of the equipment means commercial interests tend to have the upper hand.

No archaeologist can afford the millions of dollars it takes to probe the sea's sunless depths thoroughly, even though many shipwrecks beckon and much is yet to be learned of humanity's past.

A lucky few have worked with Robert Ballard, an oceanographer and former Navy officer who uses military gear to hunt deep wrecks. Last year he announced the discovery in the Mediterranean of five ancient Roman ships, the oldest dating to about 100 B.C.

Scholars have given mixed reviews to some commercial deep recovery efforts, like the raising of Titanic artifacts. But in their previous excavations, Stemm and his business partner, John Morris, have shown serious interest in learning archaeology and scrutinizing lost ships to illuminate the human past.

A decade or so ago, they recovered a 17th-century Spanish merchant ship from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, and won praise from archaeologists for their care. Their deep-diving robot brought up not only pearls, gold bars and jewelry but wooden beams, olive jars and ballast stones, recording each item's position for analysis.

Striking gold

Stemm and his team stumbled on the new wreck last month while searching for a British warship that sank in the Mediterranean more than 300 years ago when it was transporting a large cargo of coins valued today at up to $500 million.

Their expedition, begun in July and code-named Cambridge, is a cooperative venture between Odyssey, a publicly traded company, and the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth, England, a public institution partly financed by the Royal Navy.

The Odyssey team used a 90-foot boat to tow a sonar over the distant seabed, finding dozens of potential targets. Then a desk-sized robot with lights and cameras was lowered on a long tether to examine interesting sites close up.

The ancient wreck was found Sept. 17. The overall site, nearly 3,000 feet down, was measured as about 50 feet long and 25 feet wide, with at least 200 amphoras visible above the mud.

Over the ages, amphora styles changed from region to region, aiding their dating and identification today. Experts say the newly discovered ones are clearly rare, half body and half neck with small, ear shaped handles.

Stemm said he is already talking with top archaeologists and is confident an alliance will be worked out Less certain, he said, was whether Odyssey could raise the money for the underwater dig, which he estimated might cost up to $4 million.

Preliminary work could begin as soon as the spring, Stemm said. But he stressed that the pace would be determined by archaeological factors, not commercial ones.

In theory, much of the surviving ship and its cargo could be raised and preserved. If so, he said, nothing of the reclaimed ship would be sold individually. "It's too old and rare," Stemm said. "It should be kept together as a collection" that the general public could view, he said, perhaps in a touring exhibition.

Still, the find is likely to stir debate over how to save the sea's lost cultural treasures.

The United Nations, spurred by advances in ocean exploration, is drafting a protection treaty that so far tends to favor scholarly over commercial efforts -- to the chagrin of Stemm who as a member of the U.S. delegation to a recent expert meeting on the proposed treaty argued otherwise.

"The archaeologists can't get access" to the deep's cultural riches, Stemm said. "And we have to find a way to justify the expense."

Ward of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, while supportive of the idea of joint work by scholars and treasure hunters on deep-sea projects, urged caution.

Archaeology is "a luxury, like music or art," Ward said.

"It's hard," she said, "to make it pay for itself without losing some of its foundations."

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