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First Minoan shipwreck – an unprecedented find off the coast of Crete

Crete has seduced archaeologists for more than a century, luring them to its rocky shores with fantastic tales of legendary kings, cunning deities, and mythical creatures. The largest of the Greek islands, Crete was the land of the Minoans (3100-1050 B.C.), a Bronze Age civilization named after its first ruler, King Minos, the “master of the seas” who is said to have rid the waters of pirates. According to Thucydides, he also established the first thalassocracy, or maritime empire. The Minoans were renowned for their seafaring prowess, which opened trade routes with the powerful kingdoms of Egypt, Anatolia, and the Levant.

Depictions of ships abound on Minoan seals and frescoes. They are detailed enough to show that the vessels were impressive: generally, they had 15 oars on each side and square sails, and were probably about 50 feet long. But little more was known about actual Minoan seafaring–until Greek archaeologist Elpida Hadjidaki became the first to discover a Minoan shipwreck.

Hadjidaki, a self-described “harbor girl,” was born and grew up in the Cretan seaside town of Chania. An experienced and passionate diver trained in classical archaeology, she received funding from the Institute for Aegean Prehistory in 2003 to search for early ships near Crete. “I always wanted to find a Minoan shipwreck,” she says, “so I started looking for one.”

For nearly a month, she and a team of three sponge and coral divers aboard a 20-foot-long wooden fishing boat trolled up and down the island’s shores. Together with George Athanasakis of Athens Polytechnic University, they used side-scanning sonar and detected some 20 “targets,” or anomalies, that Hadjidaki sent her divers to investigate, often reaching depths of 400 feet. One by one, they turned out to be a depressing array of natural geological formations and portions of the seafloor ripped up by the nets of deep-sea trawlers, as well as a World War II airplane, a 19th-century shipwreck, and several pairs of shoes.

On the second-to-last day of the survey, Hadjidaki decided to ditch the technology and go on gut instinct. She knew that in 1976, Jacques Cousteau had brought a team to the small island of Pseira, a Bronze Age port about one and a half miles from the northeastern coast of Crete in the Gulf of Mirabello. He was in search of Atlantis, thought by some to be associated with the nearby island of Thera. Cousteau had found Minoan pottery underwater near the shore, and suggested it came from ships sunk in the harbor by the volcanic eruption that destroyed Thera in 1650 or 1520 B.C. (The finds are now believed to be from houses on Pseira that fell into the sea during an earthquake.)

Intrigued, Hadjidaki and the team headed to a spot about 300 feet off Pseira, near where Cousteau had been. “I thought, why don’t I go there and check it out myself?” she recalls. “But I said, I’m not going to go where Jacques Cousteau dived. I’m going to go to the deeper part.” First, she asked team member Giorgos Klontzas to venture down. Hadjidaki anxiously prepared to wait on the boat for five hours, the average total time of a single dive plus stops to decompress. But Klontzas returned only half an hour later. “He came up with his hands full of ancient pots,” she beams. “And he said to me, ‘There’s a whole world of them down there.’ So I jumped into the sea and said, ‘Let’s go!’ “Sure enough, cups, jugs, and amphoras lined the seafloor, and over the next couple of days the team brought several more samples to the surface.

In 2004, she expanded the team and mapped the site. The following year, large-scale excavation got underway. “Everything was buried in sand between rocks,” Hadjidaki says. “As we excavated, we found more and more and more.”

To date, Hadjidaki’s team has raised some 209 ceramic vessels, about 80 of which are nearly whole and clearly identifiable as types of amphoras and large jars that would have transported liquids, possibly wine and olive oil, though no residues remain. A handful of artifacts, including cooking pots, jugs, a few cups, and fishing weights, likely belonged to the ship’s crew.

Philip Betancourt, a Minoan pottery expert who codirected excavations at Pseira from 1986 to 1996, has examined the finds from the site. Even though no wood from the ship survives, he is convinced they belong to a wreck because they are an unusually large group of ceramic vessels that all date to the same period (Middle Minoan IIB, 1800-1700/1675 B.C.) and were all made on east Crete. “One doesn’t get an assemblage like that,” he says, “except from a very specialized context–in this case, a shipwreck.” Furthermore, the pottery that was still in place was found upside down, which seems to indicate the ship completely capsized and wound up with the hull uppermost and the cargo down. “This may help explain why no wood was preserved,” he says.

Hadjidaki has closely studied the arrangement of the finds, working with team architect Dimitri Timologos who drew underwater maps based on the artifacts’ location. On the maps, she can trace a narrow trail of pottery about 100 feet long at the northern end of the wreck, where she believes the ship started to founder. The trail broadens into a roughly oval-shaped concentration that extends over an area 50 by 65 feet, from which she estimates–by the distribution of objects–the ship to have been between 32 and 50 feet long. Hadjidaki thinks it was similar to, but larger than, one depicted on a serpentinite seal stone excavated at Pseira in 1991. It shows a ship with a beak-shaped prow, high stern, and single mast connected to the vessel by ropes (but no oars, as in earlier representations of Minoan ships).

Alexander MacGillivray, director of excavations at Palaikastro, a Minoan town on the easternmost shore of Crete, has also looked at some of the finds. “It’s fantastic to get a glimpse of the cargo from a vessel that plied the eastern Mediterranean when the Minoans first started building their palaces,” he says (see facing page). “At that time, the Cretans were importing many of the raw materials required to fuel their development into one of Europe’s first great civilizations. This was all done by sea–and the Pseira ship is our first example of a Minoan vessel of that time.”

Pseira had two harbors on its southern side facing Crete, both of which were protected by peninsulas where ships anchored. From the main harbor, a grand stone staircase led up to a town that consisted of about 60 buildings. “We don’t know whether the ship was headed from the island, toward the island, or anchored there, accidentally floating out and sinking,” says Betancourt. “But presumably, it had something to do with Pseira, of course, because it’s very nearby.”

The type of clay from which the pottery was made suggests the ship took on cargo from at least two locations on east Crete. Based on the pottery, Hadjidaki and Betancourt believe this ship was not destined for a voyage abroad, but rather was making local stops. “This was probably a very common sight–these relatively small coastal vessels that dealt with local trade east and west along points of the island,” says Betancourt. “The wreck gives us a lot of information on what was likely the normal trade practice of seafaring people.” Jan Driessen, director of excavations at the Minoan settlement of Sissi on east Crete, agrees. “We know from frescoes and other iconographic material throughout Crete that the Minoans were good seamen, that they had large ships of different types,” he says. “The Pseira wreck seems to represent a coast-hopping activity, short trajectories with specific ‘clients.’ It helps us visualize that process of distribution.”

Hadjidaki completed the final season of excavations at the end of September 2009, recovering 60 more ceramic vessels. At press time, the finds were still soaking in fresh water to remove crusty layers of sea deposits. Next, they will be cleaned by conservators, studied by experts, including Betancourt, and join other artifacts from the site at the archaeological museum in Siteia on east Crete. But Hadjidaki already feels a sense of accomplishment. “It’s the only Minoan shipwreck that has ever been found and excavated,” she says with a broad smile. “Period.”

SOURCE

Written by Eti Bonn-Muller

Photos – Vasilis Mentoyiannis, Nike Marder

Filed under: Archaeology, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Is this the field where Richard III lost his kingdom for a horse?

Archaeologists announced today that they have located not just the site of the Battle of Bosworth, but the spot where – on 22 August 1485 – Richard III became the last English king to die in battle when he was cut down by Tudor swords.

Nearby Henry Tudor was crowned Henry VII, with the crown which had tumbled from the dying Richard’s head.

The crucial evidence, including badges of the supporters of both kings, sword mounts, coins and 28 cannonballs, was found in fields straddling Fen Lane in the Leicestershire parish of Upton, where no historian had looked before.

The haul adds up to more than the total found on all other medieval battle sites in Europe.

“It took us five years to locate it, but there it is, there is the battle of Bosworth,” said Glenn Foard, the internationally renowned expert who led the hunt, looking over the landscape of low snow-­covered hills, where on a hot summer day more than 500 years ago the course of English history changed.

The site was located by archaeologists using metal detectors across hundreds of acres, and poring over the evidence of medieval place names to match them to accounts of the battle. Their finds suggest a sprawling fight, with the two armies facing one another in straggling lines almost a kilometre in length.

Frank Baldwin, the chair of the Battlefields Trust charity, said: “This is a discovery as important to us as Schliemann discovering Troy.” The military historian Professor Richard Holmes, who two years ago rode Henry’s route from Wales to the battlefield in full Tudor costume, said: “This is certainly the most important discovery about Bosworth in my lifetime.”

Farmer Alf Oliver was astonished at the discovery in his fields straddling Fen Lane, outside all the parishes which have vied for centuries to claim the honour and three kilometres south-west of the visitor centre on Albion Hill. Fen Lane was once a Roman road linking Leicester and Atherstone, the towns from which Richard and Henry approached the battle.

One of the crucial finds, the largest of the cannonballs nicknamed “the holy grapefruit” by the archaeologists, was found just behind one of Oliver’s barns. Another key discovery was a silver boar no bigger than a thumbnail, battered but still snarling in rage after 500 years. It was found on the edge of a field still called Fen Hole, which in medieval times was a marsh that played a crucial role in the battle, protecting the flank of Henry Tudor’s much smaller army. The marsh was drained centuries ago, but Oliver said it still gets boggy in very wet summers.

After a charge in which Richard came within almost a sword’s reach of Henry, he lost his horse in the marsh, a moment immortalised in the despairing cry Shakespeare bestowed upon him: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

“The fact that this little boar is Richard’s personal emblem, and made in silver gilt, means that it can only have been given to one of the closest members of his retinue. The man who wore this would have fought and died at Richard’s side,” Foard said.

“If you were to ask me what was the one find I would dream of making, which would really nail the site, it would be Richard’s boar emblem on the edge of a marsh.”

Other finds include a gold ring twisted like a pretzel, and an inch of gilded sword mount from a weapon of such high status that it can only have belonged to one of the aristocrats who led the battle forces.

The search was launched as part of a Heritage Lottery funded revamp of the visitor centre, which is left with the consolation that it may well have been part of Richard’s camp on the eve of the battle, and part of the rout as his troops were forced into desperate retreat by Henry’s triumphant men.

Foard believes a more likely site now for the battlefield coronation is Crown Hill, a hillock near the newly identified site, which was renamed soon after the battle.

Local historian John Austin brought the team a further gift: he owns the domain title battleofbosworth.com, and today he presented it to them to mark the ­occasion.

SOURCE

Filed under: Archaeology, Historia, , , , , , , , , ,

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