Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Roman Ships Found Off Sicily; New Sites Broaden Study

Exploring off the northwest coast of Sicily with a once-secret nuclear submarine, oceanographers and archeologists have discovered the largest concentration of ancient shipwrecks ever found in the deep sea, including one ship that may have carried a prefabricated temple.

The findings, announced yesterday, take archeology deeper than ever before, promising a new era of discoveries in maritime history.

A research team led by Dr. Robert D. Ballard, whose previous finds include the Titanic and the German battleship Bismarck, announced the discovery of eight sailing ships lying 2,500 feet beneath the Mediterranean. Until now maritime archeology has been largely confined to coastal shallows of less than 200 feet, the range for scuba divers.

But with the United States Navy's NR-1 nuclear submarine, the explorers were able to reach 3,000 feet and search the bottom for weeks at a time, using long-range sonar to detect shipwrecks at great distances. Then, with the remotely controlled vehicle Jason, which can descend 20,000 feet and use grappling arms to collect artifacts, the team inspected the wrecks up close and retrieved 115 items from the oldest ships.

Because the artifacts were found in international waters, they presumably belong to the salvagers under maritime law. Their historical value is inestimable, their monetary value unestimated.

Five ships were from Roman times, presumably lost in storms while plying the busy trade routes from Rome to North Africa. The oldest, a 100-foot-long vessel dating from about 100 B.C., is one of the earliest Roman wrecks ever discovered. Her holds were filled with amphoras, the clay shipping containers of the ancient world. Another Roman ship, probably from the first century A.D., carried cut stones, apparently ready for assembly into a temple.

Also in the wreckage, which is spread over 20 square miles, were three more modern sailing ships. One was an Islamic ship from the 18th or early 19th century; the other two were lost in the 19th century.

Dr. Ballard, president of the Institute for Exploration, in Mystic, Conn., and other team members described the discovery in interviews and at a news conference at the National Geographic Society in Washington.

Recalling the view of the wrecks from the submarine, Dr. Ballard said in an interview, ''All of sudden, we realized we had found a graveyard of ships spanning 2,000 years.''

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