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Images: Shipwrecks Offer Clues to Ancient Cultures

The Mediterranean Sea was the interstate highway system of the ancient world. Ships carried goods and foodstuffs produced and traded by early great civilizations. Not all ships made it back to port, however, and their wrecks offer artifacts that provide clues to the ancient world.

Ancient ship hulls were filled with clay jars called amphorae—the cargo containers of the B.C. world. (Illustration by E. Paul Oberlander, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

New deep-diving robots expand scientists’ ability to find ancient shipwrecks. The ships’ wooden hulls decompose, but their ceramic amphorae will be preserved, holding clues to ancient civilizations. Above, a vehicle developed at WHOI called SeaBED was used to survey and systematically photograph a shipwreck off the Greek isle of Chios.

(Photo by Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

This photomosaic of a wreck from about 350 B.C. is composed of 350 individual photos systematically taken by a robotic vehicle called SeaBED. The wreck was found off the coast of the island of Chios. (Mosaic courtesy of Brendan Foley, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

These ceramic vessels provide clues to who was trading what with whom and when. Foley collaborated with Maria Hansson at Lund University in Lund, Sweden to sample traces of ancient DNA from inside the amphorae to determine what they held. The 3-foot-tall amphora on the right was made in Chios and contained olive and oregano (probably used as either flavoring or a preservative). The origin of the amphora on the left is still unknown, but its DNA analysis showed that it contained terebinth, a resin from a shrub related to pistachios.

In the future, autonomous underwater vehicles, such this WHOI-developed vehicle called REMUS, could be deployed right from shore to search for shipwrecks, avoiding the need to use costly ships. (Photo by Chris Linder, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Using modern technology to explore an ancient shipwreck off the Greek isle of Chios, a research team recovered ceramic amphorae. The team included (from left) Theotokis Theodoulou and Dimitris Kourkoumelis from the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Maria Hansson from Lund University in Sweden, and Brendan Foley from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. (Petros Vezirtis, Hellenic Ministry of Culture)