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Ancient shipwrecks found off island challenges historical assumptions of Roman navy

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
May 30th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The discovery of two Roman-era shipwrecks in deep water off a western Greek island is challenging the conventional theory that ancient ships stayed close to coastal routes rather than risking the open sea.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The two third-century wrecks, according to Greece's culture ministry were discovered this month during a survey of an area where a Greek-Italian gas pipeline was to be sunk. They lay between 0.7 to 0.9 miles deep in the sea between Corfu and Italy.

The discovery places them among the deepest known ancient wrecks in the Mediterranean, apart from remains found in 1999 of an older vessel some 1.8 miles deep off Cyprus.

The head of Greece's underwater antiquities department Angeliki Simossi says that sunken ancient ships are generally found 100-130 feet deep.

Current scholars have long believed that ancient traders were unwilling to veer far offshore, unlike warships that were unburdened by ballast and cargo.

"There are many Roman shipwrecks, but these are in deep waters. They were not sailing close to the coast," Simossi said.

"The conventional theory was that, as these were small vessels up to (80 feet) long, they did not have the capacity to navigate far from the coast, so that if there was a wreck they would be close enough to the coast to save the crew."

Archaeologist Brendan Foley, not involved in the project, says that a series of ancient wrecks located far from land over the past 15 years has forced experts to reconsider the coast-hugging theory.

"The Ministry of Culture's latest discoveries are crucial hard data showing the actual patterns of ancient seafaring and commerce," Foley says, a deep-water archaeology expert at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Jeffrey Royal, director of Florida-based RPM Nautical Foundation, has an entirely different theory. Royal says that in many cases, as when winds threatened to push ships onto rocks. Ancient mariners steered clear of coastal waters.

Royal, whose foundation has carried out a series of Mediterranean underwater projects, said the depth of such finds is immaterial from an archaeological standpoint.

"In antiquity, ships didn't sail around with depth finders and keep track of how deep they were," he said. "It was more how far they were on the surface in relation to land. After 30 meters of depth the boat's safe, so if it's (100 feet) or 3,000 meters it's a little irrelevant."

The remains were located during an investigation that covered 77 square miles of seabed off the islands of Corfu and Paxoi.

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