Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Two Exciting New Underwater Discoveries

The scientific excavation and study of ancients sites around the Mediterranean has been going on for almost 150 years. It's hard not to trip over ancient cities and towns of the Greeks and Romans, not to mention the many other diverse cultures that have thrived throughout history. For centuries the various modern cultures of Europe have been fascinated by the ancient world. This interest was easily fueled by the convenient ruins strung about Europe, especially in cities like Rome and Athens. As far back as the middle ages, we have accounts of ruins and objets d'art being dug up and appreciated. It has not been until relatively recent times, though, that attention was turned away from land and towards the sea. It has never been a secret that the Mediterranean Sea contains countless ship wrecks containing who knows what. Tantalizing clues have occasionally been pulled from the sea floor; the Antikythera Mechanism and the Riace Bronzes come to mind. Scuba diving only became practicable and popular after WWII, so much less time has been spent in dealing with underwater archaeology that traditional land based archaeology. Even today, underwater archaeology is a small specialized field, due mostly to the costs involved.

Two new finds have brought attention to both the ancient world and underwater archaeology. First off, divers off the coast of Squillace, Italy have found what they believe to be the sunken remains of the ancient town of Scylletium. Scylletium was an unremarkable town founded by Athenian colonists probably in the 8th or 7th centuries BCE. Known as the birthplace of the late Roman author Cassiodorus, Scylletium was also claimed by some to be founded by Odysseus. The divers found stones that appear to be man made and are thought to be part of the ancient town.
Another find shows just what kind of archaeological treasures lie beneath the sea. Five Roman ships have been found in what is being called an underwater "museum." The five ships, dating from the 1st to 4th centuries CE, appear to be merchant vessels carrying amphorae and other trade goods. The ships did not capsize when they sank, so their cargoes are relatively intact. The spot where the ships sank seems to be a high traffic area, probably an established trade route. It's finds like this and the one at Squillace that show us how valuable underwater archaeology can be and just how much is out there that has yet to be discovered.