Unearthing the Treasures of the Mediterranean

The Mediterranean, cradle of bygone civilizations and criss-crossed by merchants for thousands of years, is brimming with treasures and relics-sunken cities, legendary palaces and wrecks of ships loaded with goods for trade or sale. I have been fascinated by these ancient memorials stilled in time since I first peered beneath the waves. Each new find has lured me away with the promise of exploring back into history; the cylinder of air on my back the only time machine I needed. And, recently, the Mediterranean has given up some treasures that previously seemed to exist only in legend. One of these was found mere steps from one of the world’s busiest port cities. A famous lover’s lair-Cleopatra’s Palace.

A quiet meeting of two worlds
occurs just below the surface of one of the
world’s busiest ports—Alexandria, Egypt

By 8:00 am, the teeming city of Alexandria, Egypt, has been awake for several hours. Five million people live in the metropolis that lies before us. We are anchored in the bay a few hundred feet offshore and getting ready to dive.

The water is murky. We’re in the harbor. It’s no deeper than 25 feet, but we can’t see anything. There is no sewage treatment system in Alexandria, so every once in a while some foul thing floats towards us when the sluice gates are opened. This means it’s very hard to find statues or columns even though they’re probably close enough to touch. Each item that has been found is tagged with a marker buoy.


Those were the difficult days, when taking pictures was pointless. A year earlier, Frank Goddio began underwater excavations in the harbor of Alexandria. A team of explorers dived doggedly every day in search of the promise of new finds. His faith was rewarded when he found the remains of Cleopatra’s famous palace. Aeons worth of sloth-paced geologic change have submerged the marble statues and columns, their hieroglyphs and carefully-aligned sphinxes, and today they are completely submerged beneath the sea, close enough to the city to feel the warmth of its lights.

We were lucky enough to dive this unique site when visibility had substantially improved. The first thing we found was a finely-chiselled marble bust resting on the sandy bottom. Nearby, some paving stones and columns, a sphinx on its side, a statue, plinths covered in hieroglyphs and huge blocks of stone. Each dive on this vast site is an amazing experience and we felt the thrill of being some of the first people to see the remains of one of history’s legendary palaces. A thrill that does not go away.

Caesarea: King Herod’s Dream
Farther east, off the coast of Israel, is the port of Caesarea, once ruled by King Herod. Appointed king of Palestine by Julius Caesar in distant Rome, the proud monarch built a city named after his emperor patron. The city survived for several centuries after Herod died and was a significant settlement in the eastern Mediterranean. When the sea is calm and clear, you can easily see the shape of the ancient city just offshore–a dark band in the water enclosing a huge area. Great blocks of stone are all that remain of the old port lighthouse, which was more than 1,650 feet from shore, truly an exceptional structure in those days.

All around the bay are dozens of pillars lying on their sides, remnants of the former city’s beauty. Some of them are almost out of the water at low tide. Others are scattered to depths of about 40 feet. No need for air cylinders here. For most of this site, a mask and snorkel is all that’s needed for a trip among the chunks of marble now covered with moss and seaweed. When the sea is calm, the water is extraordinarily clear and casts wonderful shafts of light on the mossy stones. Waterproof maps will help you keep track of where you are as you explore the vast site. A barely visible underwater rope links the main sections of the port, each marked with a numbered plaque that helps you envision the boundaries and shape of the ancient city.

Even after 20 years of excavations, the secrets of the old city are still being revealed. When Herod decided to build his big port here, one which could handle and shelter more than 100 ships, he created a small model town around it, with baths, avenues, a theater and a race track. They are all still here, at the water’s edge, and you can easily imagine society women attending the chariot races in all their finery, and looking out across the sea beyond.

Herod was not the first person to have designs on the sheltered little bay. Up until the time of the Crusades, the city lived through successive occupations. All of them left their traces, including evidence of their daily lives. Every beach and every bit of land around Caesarea is stuffed with fragments, pieces of glass and mosaics. They are virtually on the surface, mixed in with the sand and the earth, ready to be picked up by anyone who simply cares to bend down. This is a place to feel 2,000 years of culture bearing down on you like no history book can.

Every year, during the June-July underwater excavation season, many items are brought to the surface by teams of divers–pieces of wood, jugs and fragments, glass bottles and bronze objects. Such items, found in the sea or on land, can be bought on the spot (once given a certificate of authenticity), and you can then have the pleasure of taking home an oil lamp or a woman’s hair pin from the time when King Herod ruled Palestine.

Forbidden Places in Greece
The Greeks and their widespread Mediterranean civilization have also left remains under the sea, but they are seldom explored because of strict rules in Greece about archaeological diving. But at Pylos, in the far south of the Peloponnesus, I was able to examine a couple of wrecks. The striking thing, as with sunken cities, is that most of the remains are only ten feet under and accessible to all–even without tanks.

Handle with Care
Since divers became discoverers of wrecks–voluntarily or by chance–many items have been lost or destroyed through poor handling. Whether made of wood or metal, anything taken out of the water and exposed to the air eventually crumbles into dust. A few laboratories specialize in handling underwater archaeological items and treat each piece according to its history, whether it has been preserved in mud or in clumps of sea grass, or is joined to other items, or is made of wood or metal (such as lead, copper, gold and silver). All this determines how the item shall be preserved. There are always two steps in the preservation process: cleaning and fixing, which are vital to prevent the item from crumbling. This includes washing in fresh water, electrolysis and even X-rays to help bring these long-lost relics back to life. When the only thing found is an imprint of a small thing, such as a tool, on a lump of material, silicone moulds are taken to recreate them.

On this particular day, I went down a little deeper while wearing a bubble helmet that draws air from a hose connected to the surface. I descended on a jumble of sarcophagi and columns, intact in all their splendor and just 50 feet below the surface. The place is Methoni. An elegant fortress overlooks the site and recalls the height of Venetian domination of the Mediterranean trade routes, which lasted through most of the Middle Ages. Here, as all around Greece’s 10,540-mile coastline, small merchant ships plied their trade without navigational equipment.

About 10 minutes by boat from the village, we arrived at a site littered with the sunken remains of the unlucky merchant vessels that never reached their destination: a little island inhabited only by a few wild goats and surrounded by rocks. It was these that sank the two ships on which we dove; two ships which lie only 165 feet apart. In this perilous region of jagged coastlines, where gales rise strong and appear suddenly, ships rarely had time to avert disaster, inevitably smashing into an outcropping just below the surface, sinking immediately and scattering their precious cargo across the sea bottom.

The site was discovered in 1953, but since then only a few Greek experts have been allowed to visit it. Beneath the sea, in crystalline waters, jumbled granite columns stick up among the rocks. They are huge, mostly intact, and date from the first century A.D., possibly from the great portico King Herod built at Caesarea. The Venetians destroyed it in the Middle Ages and apparently wanted to take some of it away with them. But the boats carrying the booty sank en route. However, this is just one theory. The only sure thing is that the granite comes from the Egyptian city of Aswan. The sarcophagi, which are older, date from the third century B.C. and are scattered on the sea bed only 24 feet down.

Dimitri Haniotis, head of the Underwater Antiquities Department in Athens, is planning to open the site to the public. But this is an ongoing project and ways must be found to keep the site as undisturbed as possible. Sea grass, the Mediterranean’s ecological ‘lung,’ is thick and untouched here so measures are needed to protect it, as well.

Thousands of Wrecks Carrying Amphoras
There must be hundreds of thousands of amphoras, pear-shaped vessels for carrying wine, food, salt, herbs and other goods for sale, all over the Mediterranean. Most are too far down and so would normally be inaccessible, unless you replace human divers with machines. This was done in 1996 by Comex, France’s main underwater operations company, and by DRASSM, the French government’s underwater archaeology department, at a wreck of an amphora ship in the bay of the southern French port of Marseilles. Although it had nearly reached its destination to deliver its cargo some 2,000 years ago, it sank in 200 feet of water, just outside the port.

The view from inside the Remora submarine.

Now, 21 centuries later, we are looking at the sunken cargo from inside the transparent dome of a Remora 2000 submarine. It looks as if we can reach out and touch the red clay amphoras. The vessel has a plexiglass shell almost four inches thick, which eliminates any optical distortion. We can see about a dozen of the large fat pitchers, all of them intact and covered with protective sediment. The submarine captain moves in close with great precision. A thrilling sight.

We stay in permanent contact with the Minibex mother ship on the surface through an ultrasound telephone. Super Achilles, a remote-controlled robot linked to the surface, films us amid the amphoras. Its operator is on the bridge of the Minibex more than 230 feet above us. An ancient wreck, a super-modern submarine and a robot circling around us–a curious marriage of eras.

We are entering the world of diverless exploration. The expedition is an experiment, to come up with ways to work at greater depths. So each day, the team has to innovate and adjust working methods. Every morning, we set out from the port to the site. The Minibex takes up its position using a device that keeps it stationary over the wreck. The Remora 2000 is swinging on its gantry. The tide is going out, so the submarine must get into the water quickly. The leader of the expedition is on board this day. He has already seen the amphoras on the video screen and is going down for the first time.

One of the thousands of amphoras
littering the seafloor of the Mediterranean.

The wreck contains Lamboglia II amphoras: extremely rare in the Mediterranean. These wine pitchers, used between 50 and 100 B.C., were used in local trading around the Adriatic. Finding some of them near Marseilles throws light on new trade routes. The potter’s markings on them show exactly where they came from.

Apart from the historical aspect, this kind of exploration also helps refine techniques that are little used, such as photogrammetry. This enables a site to be pictured in 3-D and then studied on a computer screen.

Each day, new pottery shards are found. Using machines, they can be collected without damaging them or disturbing the physical arrangement of the cargo. Opening the door to a whole new range of wrecks, this kind of exploration is the future of marine archaeology–a delicious contrast between high-tech and antiquity.

Countless wrecks and sunken remains are waiting to be discovered in the Mediterranean. Techniques may change, but the discoverers and the diggers dream the same dreams they always did. A few even say the mythical lost city of Atlantis is somewhere in the middle of the Aegean Sea. If it is, I hope to explore it one day. Better yet, I hope to discover it.

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