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Diving at a Roman wreck in Turkey

Since 2005 the Belgian archaeologist and DEGUWA-member Jeroen Vermeersch has been spending his summers excavating at a site, which is located 45 m below the water level.

Author: Jeroen Vermeersch M.A.

Since 2005, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, affiliated to the Texas A&M University, is excavating the remains of a rare type of cargo vessel dating from the first century BC. The site is located off a rocky promontory at Kizilburun (Crimson Cape) on the Aegean coast of Turkey, at a two hour distance of Izmir.

The reason to spend three months doing research on such a desolated place is the discovery of a Roman wreck that transported a monumental column, consisting of eight column drums, each with a weight of 6,5 – 7,5 tons and a Doric capital, produced at the mines of Proconnesos. Laden with several amphorae, marble slabs and other artefacts the ship sailed with a total cargo of about 70 tons southwards along the coast of Asia Minor to an unknown destination.

In June a camp was erected on a rock on which a team of about 20 would be working. Apart from locations to sleep there was a fully equipped kitchen with dishwasher, an oven, fridges and a microwave. Furthermore there was a shower with own filtered seawater and a conservation lab where all artefacts were registered, photographed and catalogued. There was also a jetty where our research vessel VIRAZON and the dive barge - the catamaran MILLAWANDA - were moored. Put this all in an setting with clear blue refreshing waters, at night a perfectly visible sky and 40 degrees during the day with a nice view on the Greek island of Samos at the horizon and even dolphins passing by and you have an ideal surrounding to spend the summer months.

During the working days (from Saturday to Thursday) the team members used to have breakfast at 7.30 am after which a briefing was held at 8 by the director Dr. Deborah Carlson, assistant professor at the Texas A&M University. During this gathering the divers learned what was expected of them during the two dives, which they will carry out during the day, as well as what was needed to be done in between and after the dives on camp. Each diver was allocated an area on the site, where he or she worked with an airlift and excavated a specific part of the wreck. During the campaign of 2006 and 2007 the column drums were moved off site by deploying of air balloons and later on photographed and recorded. There was a lot of work to be done, which was slowed down because of the depth in which the divers had to work, which was restricted to 20 minutes per dive. After that slot between two and five divers had to ascent in order to make a decompression stop at 6 metres and wait there for another 15 to 20 minutes before finishing the dive.

During the consecutive dives everybody else helped out on the catamaran by refilling the air tanks, by checking the dive schedule or by making notes on their own dive.

After lunchtime it was recommended that the divers had a rest in order to release the build-up nitrogen content from the body. Depending on the tasks in the camp some registered the finds that have been salvaged, or catalogued and photographed the artefacts. In the late afternoon a second wave of dives took place that lasted until about 7 pm. In the evening the team enjoyed a great meal prepared by our cook and filled in the dive journals, enjoyed a cool beer or one drank the hot day away with a raki.

At the end of the third season we were able to remove all column drums and the capital off site. With the help of airlifts the team carefully excavated several timber remains of the wreck which ought to shed new light on the construction of the ship.

All other artefacts were numbered and photographed under water in order to digitalise them once back in camp. After the finds were studied in the conservation lab the artefacts were ready for the actual conservation in the lab of the Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Bodrum, after which they will be displayed in the Cesme Archaeology Museum.

The upcoming and last campaign will go on in the summer of 2008. We hope to find and excavate the rest of the – hopefully - well preserved hull so it can shed new light on ship construction and seafaring in the early first century BC.



All illustrations are featured here by courtesy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology. This project was supported by: Institute of Nautical Archaeology, Texas A&M University, National Geographic Society, Spiegel-TV, en de Samuel H. Kress Foundation.
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