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High-Tech Research Sheds New Light on Ancient Shipwrecks

A fragment of the Antikythera Mechanism - an analog computer used to predict astronomical events. The mechanism dates back to the first century BCE and was found on the wreck of the Antikythera.
Wikimedia Commons

A century ago, shipwreck exploration was more about treasure hunting than science. Not so today.

Shipwrecks are like time capsules – windows into the technology, cuisine, culture and trade of the past. And they often offer finds - both academic and tangible - not available on land.

Take a typical archaeological site in Greece as an example. The rubble of thousands of years of occupation, with all the different activities of daily life, may be crammed - even jumbled - into the space of several centimeters of soil. Items made of precious materials are often lost to reuse.

In contrast, wrecks are the products of individual, discrete dates and missions. And, because they're underwater, many wrecks have been out of sight (and reach), out of mind since the ship went down. Archaeologists have found wrecks loaded with bronze statues, many of which - on land - would have been melted down for the metal.

But shipwrecks, even so-called treasure wrecks, have more to offer than booty. Technological advances are enabling researchers to mine the wealth of historical information shipwrecks offer. Marine robotics and cutting-edge imaging allow researchers to go deeper and gather information non-invasively. Forensic DNA analysis has provided unprecedented data, rather than educated guesses, about the contents of transport jugs.

Of course, such technologies don't come cheap. And some of the oldest and most interesting shipwrecks are found in the waters surrounding a small nation in the midst of an economic crisis (that would be Greece). To bridge the financial and political divide, Dr. Brendan Foley of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has forged collaborations with Greek archaeologists. The arrangement allows Foley access to wrecks in Greek waters, and provides Greek researchers with technology and training that would otherwise be out of reach. Both Foley and his Greek colleagues say that they continue to learn from each other, and that the end result is a far better understanding of the cultural heritage we all share.

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