Friday, March 24, 2006


Trading Secrets


Earthwatch Radio
By Kathleen Schmitt
March 20, 2006

Archaeologists are in deep water looking for secrets from our past.
Some clues to the everyday life of ancient people lie on the ocean floor, and Brendan Foley is trying to get a better look at them. Foley is an underwater archaeologist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He says land-based archaeology often focuses on luxury items from ancient civilizations - things like artwork and jewels that were left behind in tombs and monuments. But he says the study of shipwrecks can reveal the everyday items of ancient commerce.

"Shipwrecks tell us about the past. Everything that the ancient peoples used to transport went by ship at some point, so there's information on the deep sea floor that doesn't exist anywhere else. And it allows us to get at questions like who we are and where we came from."

Foley says about 20 percent of all shipwrecks lie in the deep sea. They're well beyond the reach of SCUBA divers and typical excavation equipment. But new kinds of sonar and underwater robots are helping Foley probe these deep waters. He says the new technology might lead to discoveries that would change our understanding of human history.

Of particular interest are deep pockets at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea where the water is high in salt and low in oxygen. Foley says finding a ship in one of these briny pockets of water would be an astonishing discovery.

"The fascinating thing is that any organic material that falls into them -- like a ship, like wood from a ship or the canvas sails -- would be perfectly preserved. The organic cargo under the decks or in the hull would be perfectly preserved. You could find all kinds of unbelievable things there, not just the structure of the ship -- all the cargo. You might even be lucky enough to find papyrus with writing on it."

That's Brendan Foley of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.


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