Thursday, December 27, 2007


Brock University professor anxious to dive on Iron Age shipwreck


The Standard
By Samantha Craggs
December 27, 2007

The last time anyone touched the artifacts Elizabeth Greene is after, Rome was a new empire and climate change had just pushed the Scandinavians into Europe.

An assistant professor at Brock University, Greene hopes to plunge deep into the Mediterranean Sea this summer to excavate a shipwreck from the Iron Age. Her work will make Brock the first Canadian university to tackle a wreck in the Mediterranean.

The unexplored wreck sank between 700 and 450 BC. For Greene, who has assisted in a handful of shipwreck dives, it will also be the first in which she takes the lead.

“It’s exciting. It’s also a little scary,” said Greene from her tiny office in Brock’s Department of Classics. “It’s a fascinating wreck that will answer a lot of questions.”

A trade hub in ancient times for Greece and Turkey, the Mediterranean has thousands of ancient shipwrecks, “more than we’ll ever be able to excavate,” Greene said. They are so old that most of the actual ships are gone, eaten by underwater creatures or dissolved after thousands of years. But the remaining cargo provides an unhindered glimpse of how goods were transported then.

It answers important questions about trade and economy before money existed, she said.

Greene’s wreck consists mainly of ceramics from the Turkish coast, Greek mainland, Cyprus or the coast of Syria, she said. A team of 20 to 40 will work over three summers, doing deep water dives to examine, map and eventually recover the artifacts. Her team will include photographers, technical experts and archeologists like herself. She also hopes to take a couple of Brock graduate students to have supervisory roles.

The American-born professor’s interest in shipwrecks began as a student at Princeton University, where she received a doctorate in classics. She spotted a New York Times article on a shipwreck project in Greece, ripped it out and took it to her professor, saying “this is what I want to do,” she recalled.

Her professor connected her with George Bass, a founding father of American archeology, who took Greene under his wing. By summer, she was assisting Bass with the Greek shipwreck and he was encouraging her to attend his graduate program in Texas.

Greene and Bass have worked together several times since, co-authoring accounts of their adventures. The most recent was Pabuc Burnu, a Turkish shipwreck in 2003 on which Greene was the assistant director.

“About once in a decade, I’ll identify a student to put in charge of a project,” Bass said from his Texas home office this month. “It’s multidisciplinary. You have to be a scholar, diver and organizer.”

Greene’s greatest challenge with the new wreck is funding.

Last month, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation announced $81,514 for her project and one by Kevin Kee, a Brock history professor developing interactive games to teach the War of 1812. One season of excavating costs about $100,000, Greene said. She is ardently applying for grants.

Ancient Mediterranean wrecks are often found through accounts from divers, she said. Professional sponge divers have been extensively interviewed by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology and the accounts often overlap.

Artifacts brought up from shipwrecks remain the property of Turkey.

Most of the studied wrecks rest 40 to 50 metres below the surface, slightly deeper than sport divers venture. At that depth, divers can only stay down for 20 minutes a day, so they go down with to-do lists written on plastic plates and work quickly, she said. A pipe fed from a hose at the surface — a sort of underwater vacuum cleaner — sucks sand away from the artifacts.

Once the artifacts are brought to the surface, Greene said, it is an even more complex matter. Simply bringing them out of salt water and letting them dry would cause the salt in the artifacts to expand and contract until the object shattered.

Researchers must steadily move them, phase by phase, from sea water to fresh water, she said, a process that takes about two years.

Most of the wrecks likely sank when shifting winds caused the boats to hit rock, she said. One shipwreck off the coast of Cyprus, however, had spearheads in what was left of the hull, indicating pirates.

For Bass, now retired from teaching after seven years at Texas A&M, it is exciting to see new generations taking over from their mentors.

“I can just sit back now,” he said, “because it’s all in such good hands.”


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