Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Search for Persian Wars relics intensifies

A team of more than two dozen Greek, Canadian and American experts is seeking the remains of 1,000 or so triremes, both Greek and Persian, as well as hundreds of support vessels. The hunt is alluring, they say, because the sea is far more likely than land to have preserved artifacts from the Persian Wars. The victorious Greeks, who named them, saw the series of battles as a defining moment: the defeat of a ruthless state that had enslaved much of the known world from the Balkans to the Himalayas.
A team of more than two dozen Greek, Canadian and American experts is seeking the remains of 1,000 or so triremes, both Greek and Persian, as well as hundreds of support vessels. The hunt is alluring, they say, because the sea is far more likely than land to have preserved artifacts from the Persian Wars. The victorious Greeks, who named them, saw the series of battles as a defining moment: the defeat of a ruthless state that had enslaved much of the known world from the Balkans to the Himalayas.

Last year, the team, working off Mount Athos in the northern Aegean, found tantalizing hints of what may be the first of five sunken fleets. Next month, the experts plan to return to the site and survey the seabed for the remains of ancient ships, arms and armor. Especially, they hope to find the bronze rams from trireme bows, which are considered more likely than wood to have survived ages of neglect.

Some scholars believe that the triremes were unballasted and always floated when broken up, allowing their recovery or disintegration far from the disaster site. Dr. John R. Hale, an archaeologist from the University of Louisville, said that idea conflicted with the testimony of Herodotus and Thucydides, another Greek historian, who in describing lost triremes routinely used the Greek word for "sink," as in the sun sinking below the horizon.

Dr. Hale added that even if swamped triremes did sometimes float, the prows of broken ones might have sunk, pulled down by the weight of the ram's bronze sheath. And as ships broke up, especially in fierce storms, they would probably have spilled hosts of valuables.

"Their cargo of weapons, armor, tools, coins and treasure, sacred talismans, containers for provisions, plates and drinking cups, insignia granted by the king, seal stones, tablets and all the rest," he said, "would have plunged immediately to the bottom of the sea."