Thursday, April 13, 2006

 

New technologies help locate our underwater treasures

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The Columbus Dispatch
By Bradley T. Lepper
April 11, 2006


While the hardy robots Spirit and Opportunity are busily exploring the surface of Mars, other robots have been investigating another frontier — the bottom of the sea.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announced last month that a team of Greek and American scientists had completed a study of a fourthcentury B.C. shipwreck off the Greek island of Chios.

They had the help of a remarkable robot called SeaBED. Equipped with a digital camera and specialized sonar, SeaBED photographed and mapped the wreck.

"By using this technology, diving archaeologists will be freed from routine measuring and sketching tasks, and instead can concentrate on the things people do better than robots: excavation and data interpretation," Hanumant Singh, the engineer who designed SeaBED, said in a statement.

These researchers hope to unlock the historical secrets of Homer’s "winedark sea" and shed light on Bronze Age travel and trade. According to the Cleveland-based Maritime Archaeological Survey Team, or MAST, Lake Erie has its share of historical secrets.

There are more than 1,400 shipwrecks in Lake Erie, and less than a third of these have been located. Although robots such as SeaBED have yet to be tested here, researchers are using high-tech sonar to find wrecks on the lake bottom.

In November, the Cleveland Underwater Explorers announced the discovery of the Cortland, a three-mast sailing vessel that sank in 1863 after colliding with another ship. Carrie Sowden, of the Peachman Lake Erie Shipwreck Research Center, recently said in The Plain Dealer that the Cortland was one of Ohio’s "Holy Grails."

Cleveland Underwater Explorers discovered the wreck in 60 feet of water near Lorain using sidescan sonar. The ship was not identified, however, until divers found the ship’s bell and figurehead. Sowden is applying for a salvage permit to recover these items, which would be conserved and eventually displayed at the Great Lakes Historical Society in Vermilion.

In the Woods Hole press release, archaeologist Brendan Foley said, "Our technologies allow us to learn about the past in ways that we couldn’t achieve otherwise. We’re looking to write new chapters, and are convinced that in 10 to 15 years using these methods, we will have changed history."

Finding the Cortland doesn’t change Ohio history, but documenting its location brings us one step closer to comprehending the human tragedy that unfolded here on the lake nearly a century and a half ago.

For more information about Ohio’s underwater archaeology, see the MAST Web site: www.ohiomast.org.


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