Skip to comments.Vast and Deadly Fleets May Yield Secrets at Last (Freedom Over Tyranny Alert)
Posted on 04/20/2004 8:06:37 AM PDT by presidio9
The Persian Wars may be famed in history, but few artifacts and material remains have emerged to shed light on how the ancient Greeks defeated the Asian invaders and saved Europe in what scholars call one of the first great victories of freedom over tyranny.
It is well known that a deadly warship of antiquity, the trireme, a fast galley powered by three banks of rowers pulling up to 200 oars, played a crucial role in the fierce battles. Its bronze ram could smash enemy ships, and armed soldiers could leap aboard a foe's vessel in hand-to-hand combat with swords and spears, an innovation that merged land and sea tactics in a bloody new form of combat.
Yet no wreck of a trireme has ever come to light, and questions abound about the ship's design and operation, leaving much room for scholarly debate and wishful thinking.
Now, the first big expedition has gotten under way to look for the lost fleets of the Persian Wars, seeking to bring triremes back to life and retrieve some of the vast treasure of arms and armor believed to have gone down with the warships.
A team of more than two dozen Greek, Canadian and American experts is seeking the remains of 1,000 or so triremes, both Greek and Persian, as well as hundreds of support vessels. The hunt is alluring, they say, because the sea is far more likely than land to have preserved artifacts from the Persian Wars. The victorious Greeks, who named them, saw the series of battles as a defining moment: the defeat of a ruthless state that had enslaved much of the known world from the Balkans to the Himalayas.
The team hopes to illuminate the battles and solve trireme mysteries. For instance, modern experts built a 120-foot copy, but neither it nor recent theorizing and experimentation have explained how the ancient warships moved so rapidly.
"That means somewhere there is a mistake," said Katerina Dellaporta, director of underwater antiquities for Greece and a leader of the project. "They were very, very steady in naval battles and very fast."
Last year, the team, working off Mount Athos in the northern Aegean, found tantalizing hints of what may be the first of five sunken fleets. Next month, the experts plan to return to the site and survey the seabed for the remains of ancient ships, arms and armor. Especially, they hope to find the bronze rams from trireme bows, which are considered more likely than wood to have survived ages of neglect.
"This is the most exciting underwater archaeology project I could imagine," said Dr. Robert L. Hohlfelder, a team member who is a historian at the University of Colorado. "The potential is so great. This is the big prize in the Mediterranean."
The venture, a collaboration between the Greek government and the Canadian Archaeological Institute at Athens, has attracted top investigators from some of the best American undersea groups, including the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M.
Experts see the work as challenging because of strong currents, recovery uncertainties and fierce storms in the Aegean that can strike unexpectedly. In fact, gales rather than enemy action destroyed three of the five ancient fleets.
"We're playing for high stakes," said Dr. Shelley Wachsmann of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, who heads the project along with Ms. Dellaporta. "We may come back with nothing or we may find the remains of a major historical event described by the father of history."
The Persian empire, originating in present-day Iran, acquired its vast armadas by conquering maritime powers, including Asiatic Greeks, Phoenicians, Egyptians and islanders. Any finds could throw light on "a gallery of trireme types from all over the eastern Mediterranean," said Dr. John R. Hale, an archaeologist from the University of Louisville who is on the team. "Discoveries could greatly advance our understanding of warship evolution."
The searchers say the hunt reverses the typical patterns of marine archaeology. Usually, the finders of a sunken vessel struggle to understand its past. In this case, however, the general history is already known, and the researchers are using it to hunt for the lost fleets and to flesh out the details of the pivotal wars.
Some of the five fleets are in deep water, where wreckage may be fairly well preserved. Those in harbors and coastal shallows are assailed by waves, boats and scuba divers.
The Greek government has given a high priority to locating and protecting all historic wrecks in Greek waters not just those from the Persian Wars partly because of the rising threat of piracy, said Ms. Dellaporta. She noted that many people could now afford to buy tethered undersea robots with lights and strong grippers, opening up the abyss to both legitimate and illicit work.
"There are big dangers," she said in an interview. "Before, looters would only do scuba diving. But now, the technology allows everybody to have access to deeper waters."
Modern knowledge of the Persian Wars begins with Herodotus, known as the father of history. He was a boy at the time of the epic battles in the fifth century B.C. and sought to document them in his masterwork, "The Histories." His narrative centered on the huge size of the invading forces millions of men in one case, he said, not including eunuchs and concubines and the cagey defenses of the outnumbered Greeks.
Scholars typically give Herodotus good marks for fairness, even while casting doubt on his numbers, suggesting that some were exaggerated to magnify the Greek victories.
In all, he described five sea disasters that befell the attacking Persians the first in 493 or 492 B.C. at Mount Athos, which resulted in the failure of the first invasion. The Greeks of Athens, fearing a new foray and wealthy from a windfall with silver mining, greatly expanded their trireme fleet. Then, in 480 B.C., Herodotus reported, the reorganized Persians suffered four other naval disasters as they drove through the Aegean to enslave the Greeks.
In the last, at the island of Salamis off Athens, King Xerxes of Persia reportedly watched as his ships fell into disarray, moaning that his men fought like women.
The exploratory team's initial focus was Mount Athos, partly because its inaccessibility was seen as better protecting any artifacts. The mountain rises more than a mile from a promontory in the northern Aegean, and the seabed around it quickly plunges to great depths.
Herodotus reported that a sudden storm there destroyed 300 Persian ships and more than 20,000 men, forcing the invaders to retreat and regroup. The Persians were so traumatized by the catastrophe that in preparing for their second invasion they dug a canal, which archaeologists have traced, to send ships through the neck of the peninsula and bypass Mount Athos.
Last October, the explorers surveyed the seabed for two weeks, often battling bad weather. The team used a 200-foot Greek vessel of the Hellenic Center for Marine Research equipped with a sonar, a submersible and a tethered robot to probe the dim waters. The chief scientist, Anastasios Mitrousis, coordinated the hunt over more than 60 square miles.
No wrecks of the correct date came to light. But the team did find an intriguing clue. The net of a local fisherman had pulled up two Greek bronze helmets of the right age. The expedition relocated the site, and more than 300 feet down, its robot spied a small jar, apparently home to an octopus that had partly filled it with found objects.
One proved to be an elongated bronze spike from what was apparently the bottom of a long spear, its hollow socket still holding some of the wood shaft. In ancient Greece, such a spike counterbalanced the heavy iron spearhead and was a secondary weapon.
To the team, the discovery of the rare artifact in the same area as the helmets suggested that a sunken warship lay nearby and, perhaps, debris fields of other wrecks.
"We're pretty excited," said Dr. Dana Yoerger, an expert from Woods Hole who was on the expedition and who helped find the rusting hulk of the Titanic nearly two decades ago. "We've just scratched the surface of the area, and it's given up those three objects already."
Next month, the team plans to return and conduct a detailed sweep of the region using more powerful equipment and a more comprehensive search pattern meant to spot debris fields. Though hopes are high, team members remain cautious about the challenges ahead.
Dr. Hale, of Louisville, who is writing a book about the Athenian navy, "Lords of the Sea," said the Mount Athos site could prove so rich that distinguishing the remains of the Persian fleet from other wrecks could prove difficult. For millennia, he noted, the rocky area has menaced ships.
Another complication is that the fate of lost triremes is uncertain, he added. Some scholars believe that they were unballasted and always floated when broken up, allowing their recovery or disintegration far from the disaster site. Dr. Hale said that idea conflicted with the testimony of Herodotus and Thucydides, another Greek historian, who in describing lost triremes routinely used the Greek word for "sink," as in the sun sinking below the horizon.
Dr. Hale added that even if swamped triremes did sometimes float, the prows of broken ones might have sunk, pulled down by the weight of the ram's bronze sheath. And as ships broke up, especially in fierce storms, they would probably have spilled hosts of valuables.
"Their cargo of weapons, armor, tools, coins and treasure, sacred talismans, containers for provisions, plates and drinking cups, insignia granted by the king, seal stones, tablets and all the rest," he said, "would have plunged immediately to the bottom of the sea."
Given the dearth of modern evidence about triremes, even scant finds, he added, would throw light on "one of the most extraordinary shipbuilding traditions in human history."
Scholars now debate everything from trireme size to construction methods to the rowers' seating. But they generally agree that the warships were fast. A trireme could average 9 to 10 knots, or 125 miles in a day, Dr. Hale said, "and that included letting the crews go ashore for lunch."
Ms. Dellaporta, the head of underwater antiquities, said the likelihood of the team's making major discoveries from the Persian Wars was high, around Mount Athos and the four other sites that it plans to investigate.
"It's very obvious they are there," she said of lost triremes and artifacts. "But we have to look for them."
Herodotus has also been called the father of liars.
I've heard that several times myself. They also make it a point to let you know their ancestors were Christians. Makes me think the Iranians have a good shot at this democracy stuff someday.
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