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  • The study of oceanography brings many different fields of science together to investigate the ocean. Despite increased research and advances in technology, the depths of the ocean remain mostly unexplored. Archaeology is the study of human history using the material remains, or artifacts, of a culture. Artifacts help reveal a particular group’s culture, including their economies, politics, religions, technologies, and social structure. Maritime, or underwater, archaeologists study artifacts and sites submerged in lakes, rivers, and the ocean. While many land-based archaeological finds have already been studied, the ocean depths contain countless new sites and artifacts yet to be discovered.


    As ancient people began to develop civilizations, or urban settlements with complex ways of life, extensive trade routes formed throughout the Mediterranean. The eastern Mediterranean and Aegean seas formed an important crossroads of trade and travel in the ancient world. By exploring shipwrecks from this region, researchers learn more about the people who lived there throughout history, as far back as 1000 BCE, when Greek civilization was on the rise. Oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard works with maritime archaeologists to explore ancient shipwrecks throughout the Mediterranean. By studying these ancient wrecks, the history and culture of the region’s ancient civilizations can be better understood.


    Finding and excavating ancient shipwrecks in the deep ocean requires the use of advanced technology, including sonar and ROVs. Once wrecks are located using sonar, ROVs with cameras are used to observe them. One way to determine the historical time period the shipwreck came from is to identify key artifacts. In the ancient world of the Mediterranean region, one such key artifact is an amphora, a clay jar that was used to transport goods like olive oil, grain, and wine. By viewing video footage captured by the ROVs, expert archaeologists observe the shape and style of the amphorae to determine approximately where and when they were used. The shape of an amphora’s base can vary from well-rounded or barrel-shaped to conical. Its neck can appear separate from the base or as one continuous piece. An amphora’s handles can fall vertically or be more rounded. The stamps and designs, such as ribbing, used on amphorae indicate different regions and time periods in which the jars and their contents came.


    Using archaeological evidence, including amphorae, scientists determined that most of the shipwrecks found in the Mediterranean region are from the CE, being no more than two thousand years old. That makes shipwrecks like the one Ballard’s team discovered in the deep Aegean Sea such a remarkable find. Based on the ribbed, conical-shaped amphorae from the wreck, the ship was likely transporting goods to and from the Greek island of Samos during the Archaic period of Greece (seventh century BCE), says archaeologist and ceramics expert Andrei Opait. This was two hundred years before the Classical period of Greece (fifth century BCE), when Plato and Socrates were living and Greek maritime power dominated the region. If Opait’s theory is correct, the wreck would be the oldest ship ever discovered in the Aegean Sea. According to Ballard, this shipwreck is just one of thousands yet to be discovered in the depths of the Mediterranean.


    1. Why is the discovery and exploration of ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean such an important part of understanding the history and culture of the ancient world?


      In the ancient world, ocean trade and travel was the safest, fastest, and most economical method to move goods, people, and ideas from one place to another. The Mediterranean and Aegean seas were at the crossroads of trade and travel throughout the region. As a key component of early civilizations, maritime culture and history are revealed through shipwrecks and are essential to understanding how these ancient civilizations lived.

    2. Of the shipwrecks that have been discovered throughout the Mediterranean, most are from the Common Era. What are two of the ancient civilizations that would have traded and traveled using these ships?


      Roman, Byzantine

    3. Alexander the Great reigned over the Greek Empire after the Archaic and Classical periods of Greece. In which period and century of Greek civilization did Alexander the Great live?


      Alexander the Great lived in the Hellenistic period of Greece during the 4th century BCE (Before Common Era).

    • The average depth of the Mediterranean Sea is 3,000 meters (9,840 feet), with its deepest point at approximately 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). 
    • When broken down into its Greek root words, the term “archaeology” literally means “study of the ancient,” from arkhaios, meaning ancient, and logia, meaning study of.
    • The excavation of the Cape Gelidonya shipwreck off the south coast of Turkey in the 1960s was an important event for the field of maritime archaeology for three main reasons: It was the first excavation where the supervising archaeologist, George Bass, both dove to and excavated a site; it was the first time where land-based archaeological techniques were adapted for the underwater environment; and it was the first shipwreck to be entirely excavated. 
    • The Nautilus Expedition uses state-of-the-art remote sensing and satellite communication technology to connect researchers across the globe. These technologies allow researchers at sea aboard the E/V Nautilus to send data and high-definition images to the Inner Space Center (mission control) in Rhode Island within 1.5 seconds.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    amphora Noun

    large, oval-shaped storage vessel with two handles, often used in antiquity.

    archaeology Noun

    study of human history, based on material remains.

    Encyclopedic Entry: archaeology
    artifact Noun

    material remains of a culture, such as tools, clothing, or food.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Artifact
    BCE Adjective

    (Before the Common Era) designation for the years before the year 1, or 1 CE.

    CE Adjective

    Common Era. CE designates the years following 1 BCE, including the current year.

    civilization Noun

    complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Key Components of Civilization
    oceanography Noun

    study of the ocean.

    Encyclopedic Entry: oceanography
    ROV Noun

    remotely operated vehicle.

    sonar Noun

    method of determining the presence and location of an object using sound waves (echolocation).

    technology Noun

    the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.


This material is based in part upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-1114251. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.