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
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
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."
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
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
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.
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,
Archaeology is "a luxury, like music or art," Ward
"It's hard," she said, "to
make it pay for itself without
losing some of its foundations."