Robot maps ancient Greek shipwreck
and World Science staff
Researchers say they have used an underwater robot to map the remains of a sunken ancient Greek merchant ship off the Greek coast.
The team accomplished in two days what it would take divers years to do in researching the 4th-Century B.C. ship and its cargo, researchers said.
“Our technologies allows us to learn about the past in ways that we couldn’t achieve otherwise,” said Brendan Foley, an archaeologist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass. and a member of the team. “We’re not looking for footnotes any more. We’re looking to write new chapters, and are convinced that in 10 to 15 years using these methods, we will have changed history.”
The project, the first in a new collaboration between U.S. and Greek researchers, shows the potential of new technology in underwater archaeology, the scientists added.
Greek researchers discovered the wreck in 2004 during a sonar survey. The wooden ship sank off Chios and Oinoussia islands in the eastern Aegean Sea in 60 meters (about 200 feet) of water, too deep for conventional SCUBA diving. Its most visible remains are a cargo of 400 ceramic jars, called amphoras, filled with wine and olive oil.
The researchers said they made a high-precision survey of the site using a new robotic vehicle called SeaBED, developed by Hanumant Singh and colleagues at Woods Hole. Researchers from the center had previously devised underwater robots that explored the Titanic and Bismarck, other famous wrecks.
Researchers programmed the robot to “fly” over the shipwreck site in precisely spaced tracks and map the site using a technique called multibeam sonar, while a digital camera collected 7,650 images over four dives.
This revealed the ship’s ceramic cargo and marine life, including bright yellow sponges and colorful fish, the archaeologists added. The ship was left untouched.
Robotic technology is the only way to reach deep shipwrecks like the one at Chios, the researchers said, but it’s also useful for shallower wrecks. Most human diving time on such sites is consumed with basic mapping using low-tech tools like tape measures and clipboards, whereas robots can map the sites in a few hours.
“Diving archeologists will be freed from routine measuring and sketching tasks, and instead can concentrate on the things people do better than robots: excavation and data interpretation,” said Singh. “With repeated performances, we’ll be able to survey shipwrecks faster and with greater accuracy than ever before.”
The Chios wreck images are being assembled into “photomosaics” that will depict minute features of the shipwreck with unmatched detail, the researchers said.
Wrecked cargo ships provide a wealth of information on ancient trade networks. This wreck is “like a buried UPS truck,” explained David Mindell of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass, also a member of the research team. “It provides a wealth of information that helps us figure out networks based on the contents of the truck.”
Chios Island was famous throughout the classical Greek world for its wine. Athens was its largest customer, but Chios sold its products as far as the Crimea and Cyprus. Foley said the cargo is the largest assemblage of Chian amphoras found to date, and provides valuable data on the volume of ancient trade.
Despite devastating Peloponnesian War of the late 400s B.C. and the Athenian empire’s subsequent break-up, Chios was still trading around that time, he pointed out. The research program is scheduled to last ten years or more and is focused on uncovering sites dating to the dawn of civilization in the Mediterranean, the Bronze Age (2500 to 1200 B.C.), and the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures and their trading partners.
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