In a little dusty office hidden somewhere along the impossibly congested streets of Athens is a pricelessmap that shows the location of an ancient shipwreck. In the ship’s hold is rumoured to be a spectacular treasure, both historically as well as monetarily valuable. The Greek authorities zealously guard the map, for fear of opportunistic tomb raiders getting their hands on the treasure.
Sounds like the premise of a bad Hollywood action movie? Nope. This is real life.
Sunken treasure within reach
Actually, the priceless map shows the exact location of not one, but over1,000 shipwrecks scattered along the vast Greek coastline. Unlike most of the shipwrecks previously found, the majority of these are located in deep water. In fact, the ships are so deep that their locations were only found using sophisticated electronic surveying equipment.
These ships didn’t run aground, or hit a reef and get ripped apart as is common in shallow water wrecks. They often simply floundered (took on too much water) and sank down intact. In such deep waters, strong tidal currents or waves wouldn’t have battered the shipwrecks to smithereens. Their fragile contents wouldn’t have suffered from the high oxygen content of shallow waters, but would have been preserved by the anaerobic conditions of deeper waters. At these depths, most of the wrecks are also out of reach of all but the most sophisticated diving crew — or the fortunate net of a fisherman — and so have remained virtually untouched by human hands. They are, in fact, almost perfectly preserved. The possibilities are enough to get any treasure hunter salivating with desire.
Like in any good adventure show, these shipwrecks beckon tantalizingly with promises of wealth unimaginable. Gold and silver, in coin or ornaments, jewels by the handful and a hundred other treasures could be waiting silently on the ocean bed, until some lucky diver finds and claims them.
An unexpected sort of treasure
In reality, most of these shipwrecks would probably yield nothing more than amphorae filled with fish steaks and rotten wood. The true treasure ships were from the Spanish or Portuguese armadas, which carried hordes of gold, silver or jewels back from the conquests of the New World or the Far East. These ships are unlikely to be found in the Mediterranean, for most sank along the more far-flung trade routes. The shipwrecks along the Greek coast are more likely to be trading vessels, or warships on patrol, neither of which are likely to carry huge fortunes.
Despite the improbability of a major treasure haul however, shipwrecks are notorious magnets for scavengers, who hope to uncover an ancient trinket or two to sell off on the black market. Avid collectors around the world create an almost insatiable demand for historical artifacts from this cradle of western civilization. Such finds can often sell for thousands of dollars, so it’s hardly surprising that news of a whole heap of untouched shipwrecks would get widespread attention.
An archaeologist’s take on the shipwrecks
Though their interest is more legitimate, archaeologists are just as eager to get their hands on the shipwrecks. For them, the shipwrecks are invaluable because they’re essentially time capsules. In a country where history is as revered as Greece, the historical value of the ships is even higher than their monetary value, particularly for the light they can shed on the mysteries of Greece’s maritime traditions. Many of the ancient Greek city-states were built from the wealth of ocean trading, and protected by the power of their vast navies of cunningly designed triremes, which they used to dominate the Mediterranean.
Despite their importance however, the ships that played such vital roles were fragile creations, susceptible to destruction from the elements, war or simply old age. No wreck of the vaunted triremes has ever been found, and the only source of knowledge archaeologists have about this most vital of crafts is from paintings, mosaics and writings. Now that the technology to explore these invaluable relics is available, archaeologist can discover how the ships were built, what the ships carried, how they sailed and how they met their end — all subjects which would give an intimate glimpse into the world of Ancient Greece. The possibilities have generated a remarkable amount of excitement in the staid archaeological world.
Also, a rather morbid bonus for the archaeologist is that many of the ships sank with everyone still on board. The preserved corpses of the unfortunate passengers serve as records of how the Ancient Greeks lived, worked and died. The bodies also tells the archaeologist something of the conditions the people lived in — whether they were malnourished or well fed, whether the poor souls were slaves en route to the slave markets or soldiers back from a campaign. Fortunately, the archaeologists are likely to have little competition from the black marketers for these particular treasures, as they aren’t likely to fetch any price on the black market. As a mark of respect however, many bodies recovered from such investigations are given decent burials once the investigations are done, to put the poor souls to rest.
Protecting the shipwrecks from looting and plunder
Given the inherent value of the shipwrecks, the protective Greek authorities — specifically the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Underwater Antiquities — are understandably worried that the shipwrecks would be plundered if their locations were revealed. In a country that has, for centuries, had to deal with hordes of foreigners appropriating numerous items of cultural and historical value (witness the Elgin Marbles controversy), the idea of losing the shipwrecks to a pack of amateur divers or black market profiteers must be rather upsetting. For this reason, the map is kept under lock and key, treasure hunting is illegal in Greece, and scuba diving is restricted to a few centres along 500 km of the 15,000 km long coastline.
Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the matter. Greece plays host to over 4 million scuba divers each year. A large number of scuba divers also avoid Greece because of the heavy restrictions, and the tour operators and dive centres continually petition the government to open more areas to divers. The country has the uneasy task of balancing tourism goals with preserving their heritage.
In addition, the archaeologists worry that the technology that they themselves use to explore the wrecks, in particular the tethered undersea robots used to remotely examine the wrecks, are also easily accessible to treasure-hunters. Despite all the precautions, many of the finds dredged up or accidentally discovered don’t go to a public museum but end up hidden away in the private collections of loosely principled collector. The authorities have an almost impossible time tracking down such artifacts.
Official rewards for accidental finds
Incidentally, the Greek authorities do give a Good Samaritan’s reward for any finds made by chance. The highest reward the Ministry of Culture ever paid out was to a fisherman who discovered an ancient Greek female statue off the island of Kalymnos in 1995. The authorities went back to the site and uncovered a shipwreck and the fisherman got EUR 440,000. Another lucky fisherman received EUR 300,000 after finding a horde of 50,000 silver-plated copper coins off the coast of Astypalaia.
Of course, these rewards are only for accidental discoveries: treasure hunters are usually slapped with an almighty scandal, a fine and if the Greeks can possibly help it, some jail time. Still, given the high value of these shipwrecks, the sheer vastness of the coastline and the increasing availability of sophisticated equipment, the authorities are going to have an extraordinarily trying time protecting and preserving the sunken remains from the ever-present menace of treasure hunters.