Tuesday, April 20, 2010

History: Minoan Shipwreck

The January/February addition of Archaeology magazine, in print and online, featured a fascinating article about the excavation of the first Minoan shipwreck ever found.

The Minoan culture existed on the Greek island of Crete from approximately 2,700 to 1,450 BCE. Named for their first ruler, Minos, the Minoans flourished as sea traders, sometime sea raiders, and fishermen. Minos (there were probably several kings with that name and in fact there is some debate that it may be a title like "Pharaoh" and not a proper name) was known as the "master of the seas" according to the article. It also notes that he rid the waters around his kingdom of pirates which is ironic given his people's propensity for freebooting. But all we had until now was contemporary artwork (like the mural above depicting Minoan ships off the island of Thera) to give us an idea of what these mighty sea peoples transports must have looked like.

Enter archaeologist Elpida Hadjidaki, a local gal from the Cretan port town of Chania. Elpida is also an experienced diver and in 2003 she received a grant from the Institute of Aegean Prehistory to begin an intensive reconnaissance for ancient ships off her native island.

As so often happens in these situations, her team turned up nothing. At least not what they were looking for. Frustrated and running out of time, Elpida decided to go on a hunch. She headed to a site that had previously been investigated by the famed Jacques Cousteau and started poking around. As luck (which is an archaeologist's best friend) would have it, some likely signs were found just days before Elpida's expedition was set to shut down.

One of Elpida's team was sent on an exploratory dive and within half an hour he returned to the surface with the news that he had found a whole bunch of these: Hundreds of ceramic vessels known as amphora, used generally for holding wine or oil, were packed together in a pattern that would indicate they once rested in the hold of a ship. The team had hit their mark at last and first mapping of the site and then excavation began, expanding as the volume of the find became apparent.

The ship, undoubtedly a merchant vessel, was no longer in existence. Only its contents remained. All the same, Elpida and her team were able to determine that the vessel was between 32 and 50 feet long by the way the amphora were situated. The article notes that the jars were found uniformly upside down. This led the team to believe that the ship capsized. That possibility would also explain the inability to find any of the wooden hull (ship's wood will frequently remain safe from rot when in very cold water or buried in sand).

According to speculations now being made by other experts in Minoan civilization, the ship is probably a fair representation of the merchant vessels of the day. Unlike war and raiding ships, it seems to have lacked oars and would have been powered by wind probably with a single, square-rigged sail. These smaller ships would have been used for short ventures to and from other islands. I would add that they were probably quite vulnerable to pirates, such as the Phoenicians, as well.

The excavation is ongoing, and fascinating. So far upwards of 200 amphora have been brought up with approximately 80 virtually in tact. If you'd like to read the entire article find it here. It's worth your while to click over not only for the details but for the stunning underwater pictures.


Daggar said...

'Minos' might be a title, huh? Fascinating.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Daggar! "Might be" being the operative words. It's one of those debates that sometimes cause little dust-ups among historians (and then usually go away without being resolved).

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That is pretty cool. Thanks for the info and the link, Pirate Queen!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! It must be way beyond cool for Elpida and her team.