Deep secrets of the Aegean and Mediterranean

Awaiting discovery in their blue depths, the lost history of navigation is being brought to light in the Aegean-Mediterranean Underwater Research Project (ASAP).

Geographically situated to be the cradle of world civilization and of the history of man, Anatolia was also a pioneer in the development of navigation in the region. And adjacent to it, the Aegean, a sea of islands with hundreds of sheltered coves and natural harbors along its coast, was eminently suitable for ancient navigators. But the hazardous shallows that lie between those coves and islands spelled the end of many of a ship.
Now, the Aegean-Mediterranean Underwater Research Project (ASAP) is studying history in the depths using the latest techniques and methods in underwater research. The marine studies being conducted in this project, sponsored by TÜBİTAK (the Technical and Scientific Research Council of Turkey), Dokuz Eylül University and the Izmir Branch of the Chamber of Maritime Commerce, are being realized by permission of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Underwater shipwrecks are our point of departure for tracing the development of navigation, which involves ships, the most complex structures in the history of technology. The studies carried out in 2006 using the Piri Reis Research vessel of the Dokuz Eylül University Institute of Marine Sciences and Technology, set out from Karaburun on the Aegean. When Turkish underwater archaeologists made dives into the depths of the Aegean and Mediterranean to search for vestiges of past peoples, their initial find was a Byzantine shipwreck dating from the 7th century A.D. The ruin, reached in a dive 40 meters below the surface, was scattered over a broad area swept by powerful currents. All that was left was a limited number of amphorae.
The second stop on our journey to the North Aegean was the Ayvalık area (Mysia), which is made up of a number of islands large and small. Here, another Byzantine shipwreck, this one dating from the 11th-12th century A.D. and the best preserved in the Aegean to date, lay waiting to be discovered in all its glory. The first thing that struck our eye was a heap of amphorae, a virtual mountain of them at a depth of 23-35 meters, resting magnificently against a slight incline. Initial observations indicated close to 3000 of them in a heap of four or five layers. The pottery sherds spread under the heap and up to the edge of a large rock were an indication that the wreck of this ship, which had sunk some 900 years ago, was  scattered over an area of almost 250 square meters. On the ship, which sank after running aground in a storm, were amphorae resembling those we had encountered not only in the Aegean but also in the Marmara, the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. Only detailed studies in the years ahead will reveal what was being transported in those amphorae.
Off a small island immediately south of Ayvalık yet another Byzantine shipwreck turned up on the sandy bottom. The remains of this ship, thought to have sunk in the 12th-13th century A.D., were scattered over an area of almost 100 square meters and, unlike the other wreck, a large pythos (earthenware vessel) lay at the base of a rock.

From Ayvalık we turned north. When we reached Bozcaada, a key point at the entrance to the Dardanelles, another surprise  lay in wait for us. Facing us stood a sponge fisherman, Kerim Kılavuz. Considering that all the shipwrecks excavated so far in Turkey have been found with the help of sponge fishermen, the information he was going to provide became even more crucial. Sure enough, the importance of this new friend became abundantly clear when we met up with a tile shipwreck in the shallows northeast of Bozcaada. This wreck, in a region of powerful and cold surface currents, consisted of a heap of ceramic tiles along a line 2-4 meters below the surface. In the pile, which had congealed into a solid mass over the years, were hundreds of roof tiles - flat, grooved, and triangular. Departing again from this area with its ruins of what we assumed to be a Byzantine ship that had run aground here in a powerful current during a storm, we turned south and headed back to the second shipwreck.
After anchoring the research vessel Piri Reis in a tiny cove on the southeast of the island, we made another dive, this time encountering literally thousands of shattered plates at a depth of approximately  3-5 meters in the cove. Besides plates of various sizes, fragments of bowls large and small as well as tiles were also scattered over the area. In addition to the sherds on the seabed, a large number of intact plates were also in evidence, some of them concealed under the sand. Mostly all of the same color, they were also decorated with the same pattern. These plates, which we assumed were being carried as cargo on an 18th or 19th century Ottoman period ship, had been largely destroyed over time since the ship had sunk in a shallow area very near the shore.

This final shipwreck of the season concluded our work in the Northern Aegean for 2006. Our new target was further south, in the Mediterranean. We arrived at Kumluca in the Cape Gelidonya region, which had been investigated in detail in the 1960’s. Our first find here was a sunken sarcophagus, at a depth of 15-20 meters, one of the most interesting shipwrecks after the amphorae, tile and plate wrecks described above. A diver from the village of Çavuş helped us discover this find in a perfect display of Turkish good will and helpfulness. Consisting of a total of seven perfectly formed sarcophagi, it made a magical impression. No further examples of such shipwrecks, which we dated to the Byzantine period based on the three anchors we assumed belonged to the ship, have been found to date.

Depending on the support of sponsors and on the technical equipment acquired and to be acquired for the project, the work originally begun in 2005 and confined to the Aegean Region is going to continue long term in the deep waters of the Mediterranean. The members of the team researching Turkey’s maritime past are proud of having chalked up a first in this project carried out by the Aegean-Mediterranean Underwater Research Project (ASAP). They continue to set sail for new horizons in the hope of finding more lost navigators of the Aegean and Mediterranean and an opportunity to observe the reflections in our day of Anatolia’s centuries-old maritime culture.