News Release

University of Colorado archaeologist, colleagues hot on the trail of ancient Persian warships

Most useful research tool an octopus

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Colorado at Boulder

CU-Boulder's Robert Hohlfelder enters the manned Thetis submersible submarine off the northern coast of Greece last October in search of sunken Persian warships.
Photos courtesy Robert Hohlfelder, University of Colorado at Boulder

An international research team including a University of Colorado at Boulder professor has mounted a deep-water search off the northern coast of Greece in search of a fleet of Persian warships presumed lost in a massive ocean storm in 492 B.C.

The armada of warships is believed to have been sent by Persian King Darius to invade Greece, according to ancient historical accounts. The research team included more than a dozen Greek, Canadian, American and Finnish scholars.

The project is being conducted in the seas off the Mt. Athos peninsula. "This survey is the first one where scholars have searched for fleets of ancient ships using an historical source--in this case the writings of Herodotus," said CU-Boulder History Professor Hohlfelder, a senior maritime archaeologist on the project.

Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived from 485 to 430 B.C., is often called "The Father of History." His extensive writings include a report that in 492 B.C., nearly 300 ships and more than 20,000 men perished in a severe storm off Mt. Athos.

The event was said to cause Persian King Xerxes to cut a canal through the narrowest part of Mt. Athos prior to his 480 B.C. invasion of Greece to avoid the need to round the peninsula in the Aegean Sea, said Hohlfelder.

Two amphoras, tall jars with narrow necks and handles used to transport food and drink by the early Greeks and Romans and thought to have come from a shipwreck, were brought to the surface by SCUBA divers near Mt. Athos.
Photos courtesy Robert Hohlfelder, University of Colorado at Boulder

The team used sonar from the R/V Aegaeo ship of the Hellenic Center for Marine Research, the manned Thetis submersible submarine and a remotely operated vehicle known as the Achilles for two weeks last October, said Hohlfelder. But ironically, it was an octopus that proved perhaps the most useful detector.

"We were a high-tech operation, but our most useful research tool turned out to be the octopuses that lived in these waters," said Hohlfelder. One octopus living in a ceramic pot 300 feet down had dragged broken pieces of pottery, stones and a bronze spear point with part of the wooden shaft still intact into the entrance of its home.

"Happily for marine archaeologists, these animals love to collect antiquities and pull them into their homes. "Very often the first clue that a shipwreck is nearby is a pile of artifacts collected by these wonderful creatures with an antiquarian's passion for old things."

The researchers hypothesize a vessel likely sunk there and landed on a deep shelf, spilling cargo. The site was chosen for the first survey by the team after two local fishermen raised two Greek bronze helmets from the area in 1999.

The bronze point tentatively has been identified as a "sauroter," a bronze spike at the end of a spear. It served as a counterweight and also allowed the shaft to be stuck in the ground when in was not in use. "It could be used as a weapon of last resort if the shaft with the iron point had broken or was lost during combat," he said.

The researchers were able to get a close-up view of the spear butt-spike with the remotely operated vehicle, or ROV. As soon as it was determined to be metal, the ROV moved into position and a mechanical arm equipped with a claw grasped onto it and the vehicle began a slow descent to the surface, Hohlfelder said.

The sauroter and the helmets found in the same area probably mark a warship in distress. "It may well have smashed into the rocky coast of Athos, spilling its contents onto a sandy shelf that sloped down to about 300 feet." Since the shelf ends abruptly and drops off into water up to 2,000 feet deep, Hohlfelder believes the rest of the ship's contents and perhaps the hull might rest there.

The team plans to add an autonomous underwater vehicle to its fleet -- built by a team member from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution -- as well as a tow-sled with cameras and recording instruments that will be designed and built at Woods Hole in spring 2004. The next expedition is slated for June 2004, said Hohlfelder.

"Doing archaeology in such deep water is a tremendous breakthrough for researchers," he said. "In a sense it is like the two Mars rovers now searching uncharted territory in space. Arguably, our survey holds the potential to be the most important underwater archaeology project ever attempted with the promise of providing unique information about the maritime life of antiquity."


The October expedition to Greece – which cost about $20,000 a day -- was funded by a variety of sources, with about half the tab paid by the Greek government. Other funding came from the University of Louisville, Texas A&M, and the CU-Boulder Chancellor's Office, which contributed $10,000 for the initial survey.

The 2003 expedition was a collaborative project of the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, the Canadian Archaeological Institute at Athens, and the Hellenic Center for Marine Research, or HCMR. The project leaders were Katerina Dellaporta of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, Shelley Wachsmann of Texas A&M's Institute of Nautical Archaeology and HCMR's Anastasios Mitrousis.

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