Hunt for the ancient mariner

The Minoans were pioneers in long-distance ocean travel, as seen in this sixteenth-century BC wall mural from the Greek island of Santorini, which depicts Minoan ships. But much about that Bronze Age civilization remains poorly known 
J. Hios/akg-images

By Jo Marchant - Nature

Armed with high-tech methods, researchers are scouring the Aegean Sea for the world's oldest shipwrecks.

Brendan Foley peels his wetsuit to the waist and perches on the side of an inflatable boat as it skims across the sea just north of the island of Crete.

At his feet are the dripping remains of a vase that moments earlier had been resting on the sea floor, its home for more than a millennium. “It's our best day so far,” he says of his dive that morning. “We've discovered two ancient shipwrecks.”

Foley, a marine archaeologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, and his colleagues at Greece's Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities in Athens have spent the day diving near the cliffs of the tiny island of Dia in the eastern Mediterranean.

They have identified two clusters of pottery dating from the first century BC and fifth century AD. Together with other remains that the team has discovered on the island's submerged slopes, the pots reveal that for centuries Greek, Roman and Byzantine traders used Dia as a refuge during storms, when they couldn't safely reach Crete.

It is a nice archaeological discovery, but Foley was hoping for something much older. His four-week survey of the waters around Crete last October is part of a long-term effort to catalogue large numbers of ancient shipwrecks in the Aegean Sea. And the grand prize would be a wreck from one of the most influential and enigmatic cultures of the ancient world — the Minoans, who ruled these seas more than 3,000 years ago.

Some researchers believe that quest to be close to impossible. But Foley and a few competitors are using high-tech approaches such as autonomous robots and new search strategies that they say have a good chance of locating the most ancient of shipwrecks. If they succeed, they could transform archaeologists' understanding of a crucial period in human history, when ancient mariners first ventured long distances across the sea.

Archaeologists have precious little information about the seagoing habits of the Minoan civilization, which erected the palace of Knossos on Crete — linked to the Greek myth of the Minotaur.

Minoans far exceeded their neighbours in weaponry, literacy and art, and formed “part of the roots of what went on to become European civilization”, says Don Evely, an archaeologist at the British School at Athens, and curator of Knossos.

Archaeologists are keen to understand what made the Minoans so successful and how they interacted with nearby cultures such as the Egyptians.

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