Huge Ancient Ship Graveyard Found Off Greek Islands

The find brings the total up to 45 wrecks discovered in the last nine months.

A joint Greek-American archaeological expedition has found 23 ancient wrecks around the small Fourni archipelago, confirming the Greek site is the ancient shipwreck capital of the world.

Discovered last month, the 23 shipwrecks add to other 22 identified last September, bringing the total to 45 wrecks in the last nine months.

"These shipwrecks demonstrate the truly exceptional significance of the archipelago and establish the project as one of the most exciting currently in archaeology," Peter Campbell, of the University of Southampton and co-director from U.S.-based RPM Nautical Foundation, told Discovery News.

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A collection of 13 islands and islets located between the eastern Aegean islands of Samos and Icaria, the Fourni archipelago had a critical role both as a navigational and anchorage point.

The archipelago lies right in the middle of a major east-west crossing route, as well as the primary north-south route that connected the Aegean to the Levant. Ships traveling from the Greek mainland to Asia Minor, or ships leaving the Aegean for the Levant had to pass by Fourni.

Archaeologists from the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities and RPM Nautical Foundation surveyed the seabed along the coastline to depths up to 213 feet.

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They found shipwrecks from the Archaic period (700-480 B.C.) to the Classical (480-323 B.C.) Hellenistic (323-31 B.C.) and Late Roman (about 300-600 A.D.) through the Early Modern Period (about 1750-1850).

"Overall, Late Roman vessels are still the predominant type, but we see that ships were traveling past Fourni in every time period," Campbell said.

The most significant shipwrecks of the 2016 campaign were a Late Archaic-early Classical wreck with amphoras from the eastern Aegean, a Hellenistic cargo of amphoras from Kos, three Roman cargos of Sinopean (carrot-shaped) amphoras, a wreck of North African amphoras of the 3rd-4th century AD, and a cargo of Late Roman tableware.

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The archaeologists also documented a large number of finds such as jettisoned pottery and ancient anchors. Indeed, two massive stone-stocks of ancient anchors dating to the Archaic period are the largest found in the Aegean so far.

"Some shipwrecks even carried goods from North Africa, Spain, and Italy," Campbell said.

He explained the high volume of ship traffic along the trade networks is the reason for the high concentration of wrecks found around Fourni.

"The small islands were really not unsafe. On the contrary, ships were making use of their many bays for shelter from winds and weather while traveling along the Eastern Aegean trade routes," Campbell said.

The archaeologists plan to continue the survey through 2018 to unveil what might be the largest concentrations of ancient shipwrecks in the world.

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"For comparison, the United States recently created a national marine sanctuary in Lake Michigan to protect 39 known shipwrecks located in 875 square miles. Fourni has 45 known shipwrecks around its 17 square mile territory," Campbell said.

So far the project, funded by the Honor Frost Foundation and Deep Blue Explorers, has covered less than 50 percent of Fourni's coastline. Many deepwater areas remain to be explored.

"We believe there are many more wreck sites to be found," Campbell said.

After mapping each wreck using photogrammetry to create 3D site plans, the project will consider excavating shipwrecks of significant scientific value.