In the past, discovering underwater shipwrecks relied on word of mouth or spotting them at low tide. However, modern technology has made this process much easier.
With powerful tools such as sonars, remote sensing devices, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), magnetometers, remote-controlled robots and submarines, and modern scuba diving equipment, researchers can locate ancient shipwrecks with relative ease.
Despite these advancements, the discovery and recovery of shipwrecks still requires time, patience and skill.
It is worth noting that many shipwrecks can end up overlooked and forgotten simply because of the dynamic and unpredictable nature of the water. Ebb and flow, tides and waves, they can all affect the remnants that lie beneath.
Due to the conditions underwater, shipwrecks are not always well-preserved, and can be scattered in pieces due to the water’s movements, making it difficult to identify them.
Additionally, the remnants themselves are often fragile and brittle due to centuries spent submerged. Proper preservation requires careful handling and storage in a controlled environment to prevent further damage.
In certain cases, underwater archaeologists rely on the knowledge of the locals, who possess invaluable information about the water bodies that archaeologists are studying.
For instance, during the excavation of multiple ancient shipwrecks in Fourni, Greece, the archaeologists worked in close collaboration with the local fishermen who provided significant assistance.
Thanks to their familiarity with the waters, the archaeologists were able to discover and study a total of 23 shipwrecks. Without the assistance of the locals, such a remarkable feat would have been impossible to achieve.
Without maritime archaeology, many wondrous shipwrecks would remain forever entombed in their watery graves. One of the most famous achievements of underwater archeologists is the recovery of the Swedish warship “ Vasa”.
This luxurious warship was constructed in 1627, and at the time it was the most powerfully armed vessel in the world. However, it had a number of constructional flaws, and it sank almost immediately after being launched, sailing a distance of only 1,300 meters (1420 yards).
The Vasa remained submerged at the bottom of the Stockholm harbor for centuries until maritime archaeologists recovered it in the 1960’s. Remarkably intact, the ship was recovered in one piece, along with the remains of 15 individuals and thousands of artifacts.
Another achievement of this branch of archaeology is the recovery of a Late Bronze Age shipwreck that lay submerged near Turkey’s Cape Gelidonya. It sank around 1200 BC, and lay submerged at a depth of 27 meters (89 ft).
Its depth did not dissuade the discoverers, who laboriously retrieved it in 1960. They found that it was of Mycenaean Greek provenance, and was full of ancient trade goods, including merchant weights, pottery, copper and tin ingots, and copper scraps.
Another similar excavation occurred near Uluburun in Turkey. A local sponge diver discovered a massive ancient shipwreck by chance in 1982.
He informed the authorities, who recognized the archaeological importance of these remains. From 1984 to 1994, eleven campaigns were conducted in attempts to salvage the ship.
In the end, the underwater archaeologists prevailed and brought to the surface a 14th century BC shipwreck which was bound for royal Mycenaean ports, filled to the brim with exquisite riches.
Recovered, amongst many other things, were copper and tin ingots in great numbers, Canaanite jars, glass ingots, olive jars, African black-wood, oil lamps, cosmetics, jewels, gold, silver and many other goods.
Needless to say, it was an arduous and challenging process that took many years.
There is no doubt that maritime archaeology is a crucial branch of archaeology, offering unique insights into the past and deepening our understanding of ancient maritime voyages.
By excavating shipwrecks, we learn about ancient sailing techniques, shipbuilding methods and the navigation practices of our ancestors.
More importantly, the underwater archaeologists can help with the retrieval of more modern shipwrecks, many of which are important to history due to their scale and the great loss of life experienced when they sank.
Notable examples include the Titanic, the Mary Rose ship and several World War II vessels whose locations are known and documented.
By recovering and researching ancient shipwrecks, archaeologists help piece together the puzzle of their sinking, and bring to the light of day the fate of these seamen and the reasons for which they perished.
Recovering shipwrecks is never a straightforward process and there isn’t a universal method that works for every situation.
Instead, researchers carefully study the wreck site, the condition of the remains, their position and the body of water in question before creating a plan that involves multiple steps.
In the past, a popular method for recovering shipwrecks involved two hulks, essentially ship hulls without sails, and a network of ropes with anchors.
The ropes would be lowered into the water and attached to the submerged shipwreck, and then the hulls were filled with water to sink them down, while the ropes were tightened.
As the water was pumped out of the hulls, they would rise up and bring the shipwreck with them. However, this was a lengthy process and success was not guaranteed.
Ancient Origins / ABC Flash Point Archeology News 2023.