Tuesday, February 27, 2007

 

19 th-century Greek divers paved way for Lake Erie team

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The Columbus Dispatch
By Bradley T. Lepper
February 27, 2007


In the April 2006 issue of the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Texas A &M University archaeologist Alexis Catsambis described a longforgotten report on the first underwater archaeological survey.

In 1884, the Archaeological Society of Athens attempted a survey of the Straits of Salamis.

Using Greek divers, the team attempted to locate shipwrecks associated with the sea battle of 480 B.C. when the Greek fleet defeated the invading navy of the Persian King Xerxes.

The report languished in obscurity for so long probably because it was, according to the society’s secretary, "a complete failure."

Bad weather impeded survey efforts, and even when divers found something interesting, attempts to excavate it stirred up so much sediment that "the waters immediately become blurry and the diver remains in the dark."

Catsambis writes that, in spite of the lack of results, the survey is a neglected landmark in the history of archaeology.

"The scientific practices that were adopted during this pioneering expedition … are still valid," and modern investigators, building on this foundation, have developed methods to overcome the obstacles encountered by the Greek team.

A perfect example of these new methods is a report on an archaeological survey in Lake Erie just published by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The Lake Erie Geology Group used side-scan sonar to locate and map shipwrecks surrounding Kelleys Island.

The Ohio team encountered some of the same problems experienced by the Greeks. During the two-week survey, weather conditions prohibited work on all but five days.

In contrast to the Greek survey, the ODNR team described its study as a success. The members discovered possible new shipwrecks and mapped the wrecks of the George Dunbar, Amaretta Mosher and F.H. Prince.

The ODNR report is a pilot study. It concludes with several recommendations for future work. The Maritime Archaeological Survey Team plans to follow up with investigations of the new sites. The survey team is an all-volunteer group that won a 2006 Ohio Lake Erie Award from the Ohio Lake Erie Commission.

In this light, the efforts of the Archaeological Society of Athens don’t seem like such a failure. Isaac Newton once wrote, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

ODNR’s success is due, at least in part, to the hard lessons learned by the Greeks in 1884.


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