Published: March 2002

Golden Age Treasures

By George F. Bass
Photographs by Courtney Platt
After soaking in seawater for centuries, porous artifacts such as clay pots become embedded with salt. To preserve the items, excavators submerge them in salt water until preliminary evaluation is completed (above). Then the artifacts are repeatedly bathed in fresh water, which gradually leaches out the salt. Without such treatment the salt would crystallize within the artifacts' pores, cracking or destroying the object—and whatever messages they might be sending about life in the ancient world.

"Do you think their families ever knew what happened to them? Do you think anyone ever knew?"

Jon Council posed these questions while he and I hovered in a submersible just above the remnants of a small merchant ship that sank more than 2,400 years ago. "There were no radios then," he continued. "No air-sea rescues. Who would know?"

Outside our acrylic cocoon in the Turkish Aegean, archaeologist Elizabeth Greene carried an amphora, or two-handled jar, to a lifting basket and placed it inside. Like a lumpy brown glacier, a cargo of similar jars extended 30 feet (nine meters) up a rocky gully behind her. Another archaeologist vacuumed sediment from the site by fanning sand into the mouth of a nearly vertical suction pipe. Farther away two divers took careful measurements with meter tapes and recorded the data with pencils on plastic slates, while another broke away concretion, the thick layer of cement-like calcareous deposits that build up on objects lying on the seabed. They worked quickly, efficiently, for at this depth each diver had only 20 minutes to complete the morning's assigned task.

 In four decades of diving with scuba gear on shipwrecks, I'd been too busy carrying out similar tasks—measuring, recording, excavating, and raising artifacts—to be thinking of the mothers, wives, and children whose loved ones may have disappeared long ago, their cries for help unheard.

Now, in the summer of 2000, it took Jon, who is not an archaeologist, to distract me from the technical aspects of my trade. He piloted the two-person submersible Carolyn, giving us the luxury of spending hours on this site as observers and giving him the chance to ask me questions about the wreck.

But this was not just any wreck. Four years earlier Tufan Turanl? had called me at the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, or INA, based at Texas A&M University. Tufan was on board INA's research ship, Virazon, directing divers in our annual underwater survey along the Turkish coast.

"We've found a wreck from the fifth century b.c.," he reported. "It's about 140 feet [40 meters] deep, with several dozen beautiful amphoras visible in the sand." He recalls, still voicing surprise, that only ten minutes into the conversation I interrupted: "I've heard enough. That'll be the next wreck INA excavates."

Although I've uncovered the remains of ships from the Bronze Age to medieval times, and although INA has located more than a hundred ancient shipwrecks along the Turkish coast, I had never even seen a wreck of the fifth century b.c. INA was already excavating a Byzantine shipwreck off Turkey's coast, so it was not until 1999 that we could begin the three-year excavation of Tufan's discovery.

In the meantime the wreck took on even greater importance. From photographs of the cargo, Mark Lawall, an amphora expert at the University of Manitoba, dated our wreck to the third quarter of the fifth century b.c., during the Golden Age of classical Greece.

Was ever there a time in human history when architecture, philosophy, sculpture, drama, and politics reached near perfection in so few years? Under the inspired political leadership of Pericles, Athens controlled an empire that stretched from one side of the Aegean to the other. In Athens, Phidias was supervising sculptors who carved the friezes of the Parthenon. Another great artist, Polyclitus, imparted ideal proportions for the human body in his statues of athletes, while dramatists like Euripides and Sophocles vied for prizes, the Tony Awards of the time—a time recorded by Herodotus, the father of history, and Thucydides, the better historian. And all the while Socrates annoyed the public by asking people if they really knew what they were talking about.

But none of this could have happened without ships. Athens could not even feed her people without the grain brought from abroad by sea. The strength and prosperity of the Athenian empire, initially formed as a defense against the Persians, were based on naval might and maritime commerce. The policies of Pericles fostered not only the arts but commercial enterprises as well.

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