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Under the Sea on the Edge of the World: Excavating an Ancient Ship

Imagine yourself about to plunge 150ft.

Date: 11/8/2005
By: Billie Dziech
Phone: 556-1707
Imagine yourself about to plunge 150ft. into water that is a chilly 62 degrees. You’re wearing layers of thick wetsuits, double steel or single aluminum tanks, lead weights, a mask, regulators, gauges, fins, and a buoyancy control device. You’re carrying a writing slate, camera, labels, measuring tape, chisels, hammers, plastic bags, mapping flags, and commercial dive balloons.

Once you’ve made the jump, you have to be sensitive to strong, unpredictable currents that can change directions in a matter of minutes. They aren’t the only danger. When you reach your destination, you remove your fins to avoid stepping on anything fragile, but your feet, like your hands, then become prey for the bottom-dwelling Draconia weever fish that can quickly cause shock from intense pain in a matter of minutes and are thus fatal to divers unable to surface.

Less dangerous sea creatures watch curiously as each member of your two- to four-person team works at an assigned station on what looks like a huge ship covered in 3,000 years of sediment. The residue is carefully removed, bit by bit, with an airlift, a jointed PVC pipe about 40 ft. long and four-five inches in diameter, which acts as a “vacuum cleaner.”

You are searching for messages from the past, artifacts that will reveal something about this long forgotten vessel and the world from which it came. But you haven’t much time for your task. In 18 minutes after leaving the surface, a siren sounds, telling you to prepare to ascend. Two minutes later a slightly different siren call comes from the transponder that delivers the warning and “come-up” signals, and you begin the controlled five-minute climb to 20 ft. underwater, where you have a decompression stop.

At this point you anchor yourself to a trapeze in the strong currents and to six regulators connected to large tanks of medical grade oxygen on board the catamaran above. You’re allowed one morning and one afternoon dive. You decompress for 15 minutes after the first and 20 minutes following the second.

If this scenario had really occurred, you might have recognized Kristine Trego among the next team members to descend. The PhD student in Classics finished her fifth season of underwater excavation this summer. Recipient of a dual undergraduate degree in ancient history and classical languages and literature, she says the only thing she loves “as much as teaching Latin and ancient history to UC undergrads is excavating ancient ships.”

This year she worked with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) at Kizilburun (“Crimson Cape”), which lies off the western coast of Turkey across from the Greek island of Samos. The ship that wrecked off this barren, isolated, and extremely rocky coast was a large Roman stone-carrier (navis lapidaria) from the late 2nd or early 1st century BC.

Buried within it were eight enormous marble column drums, a large marble column capital, two huge blocks of marble, two ornate marble washing basins possibly intended for ritual washing at a religious site, a curved marble stele (grave marker), and an assortment of smaller marble blocks and pedestals.

Other artifacts included small bowls, terra cotta transport vessels that once carried provisions or perishables for sale, a delicate glass goblet stem, lead collars from the ship’s anchors, metal handles from buckets or cauldrons, and over 250 nails from the ship’s hull. Finding the remains of the hull was a “major thrill” because preservation of wooden hulls is extremely rare and crucial to understanding the expertise and advanced technology involved in construction of ancient ships.

Artifacts were excavated, sketched, mapped, and photographed in place. Then they were raised and kept wet to prevent them from drying out and crumbling from having absorbed over 2000 years of salt. After being recorded in a master registry and tagged with a set of numbers and designations, they were catalogued, photographed again, and cleaned of marine growth. Meticulous records must be kept because they are part of Turkish and Aegean cultural history and will eventually go to the Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Bodrum, Turkey.

The campsite where Trego and her companions lived was not the Ritz Carlton. They constructed most of their sparse living and work quarters, with the exception of those already located on the research vessel Virazon, a 51-year-old US Army T-boat purchased decades ago by INA. Computer work was done on the Virazon, where a recompression chamber was located in case anyone experienced decompression or embolism.

Trego said, “The work was demanding. We rose at dawn and worked until dusk. There was little to no protection from the constant heat, wind, and sometimes treacherous storms. All supplies and equipment had to be brought by boat and hauled up the rocks by the team. We all had to have emergency medical training, as well as archaelogical and diving training. All members of the teams kept the camp running. Everyone was assigned tasks that rotated daily, including cleaning toilets to doing dishes. Everyone had to pull a lot of weight so that we could live together for three months on the edge of the world with very little contact with the outside.”

Was it worth it? “Absolutely. Unlike terrestrial digs which are contaminated with debris from succeeding ages, ancient shipwrecks are closed deposits, so they act as time capsules for us to study. The ship that wrecked at Kizilburun is also unique in that it provides a ‘missing link’ in the complex process that transforms quarried stone into elegant monuments that still stand as testament to the brilliance and technological expertise of the ancient Mediterranean world.”

**Photos are courtesy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.

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