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Golden Age Treasures
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Golden Age Shipwreck

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By George F. Bass Photographs by Courtney Platt

A fifth-century B.C. shipwreck off Turkey shines light on Greece’s finest hour.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

“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 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 Turanli 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 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.”

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

In a fifth-century B.C. version of what today would be a computerized inventory, the Athenian comic poet Hermippos wrote verse describing the cargo that merchant ships might have carried from one side of the Mediterranean Sea to the other. Compared with sculpture and architecture from the Golden Age of Greece (approximately 487-404 B.C.), little is known about the workaday ships or their crews. Here in the words of Hermippos, translated from the original Greek, are goods arriving on any given day in Athens:

From Kyrene silphium and ox hide,
From the Hellespont mackerel and salted fish of all kinds,
From Thessaly salt and ribs of beef,
From the Syracusans pork and cheese…
From Egypt papyrus for sails and books,
Frankincense from Syria, and from lovely Crete cypress for the Gods.
From Aftica an abundance of ivory,
From Rhodes raisins and dried figs that bring sweet dreams,
From Euboea pears and plump apples…
Paphlagonia provides divine acorns and shining almonds;
These are the delights of the banquet.
Phoenicia furnishes dates and the finest wheat flour,
And Carthage carpets and colorful carpets.*

*Hermippos fragment #63 noted in Meineke, A. Fragmenta Comicorum Graecorum. Berolini, 1847.

—Barbara W. McConnell

Institute of Nautical Archaeology
Home page for the institute includes links to historical information, projects, and publications.

Studying nautical archaeology
Texas A&M program offers a graduate degree in nautical archaeology. Links list nautical archaeology conservation projects worldwide.


Hammond, N. G. L. The Classical Age of Greece. Barnes and Noble, 1975.

Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth, eds. The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Kagan, Donald. The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. Cornell University Press, 1969.

Pomeroy, Sarah B., and others. Ancient Greece, A Political, Social, and Cultural History. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Powell, Christine, ed. The INA Quarterly, Vol. 26, (winter 1999).

Powell, Christine, ed. The INA Quarterly, Vol 28, (summer 2001).

Steffy, J. Richard. Wooden Ship Building and the Interpretation of Shipwrecks. Texas A&M University Press, 1994.


Ballard, Robert D. Adventures in Ocean Exploration: From the Discovery of the Titanic to the Search for Noah's Flood. National Geographic Books, 2001.

Ballard, Robert D. "Deep Black Sea," National Geographic (May 2001), 52-69.

Bankson, Ross. “Exploring a Sunken Mystery Ship,” World (April 1993), 2-5.

Hidden Treasures of the Sea. National Geographic Books, 1988.

Broadwater, John D. “Yorktown Shipwreck,” National Geographic (June 1988), 804-823.

Bass, George F. “Oldest Known Shipwreck Reveals Splendors of the Bronze Age,” National Geographic (December 1987), 692-733.

Bass, George F. “Bronze Age Shipwreck,” National Geographic (January 1985), 1-3.

“Diving into the Past,” World (April 1980), 6-11.

Keith, Donald H. “Yellow Sea Yields Shipwreck Trove,” National Geographic(August 1979), 230-243.

Bass, George F. “Glass Treasure From the Aegean,” National Geographic (June 1978), 768-793.

Katzev, Michael L. “Last Harbor for the Oldest Ship,” National Geographic (November 1974), 618-625.

Katzev, Michael L. “Resurrecting the Oldest Known Greek Ship,” National Geographic (June 1970), 840-857.

Throckmorton, Peter. “Ancient Shipwreck Yields New Facts—and a Strange Cargo,” National Geographic (February 1969), 282-300.

Throckmorton, Peter. “Thirty-three Centuries Under the Sea,” National Geographic (May 1960), 682-703.


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