Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Deep-Sea Robots to Revolutionize Marine Archaeology

PNNOnline ::: "Sometime in the fourth century B.C., a Greek merchant ship sank off Chios and the Oinoussai islands in the eastern Aegean Sea. The wooden vessel may have succumbed to a storm or a fire, or maybe rough weather caused the cargo of 400 ceramic jars filled with wine and olive oil to shift without warning. The ship went down in 60 meters (about 200 feet) of water, where it remained unnoticed for centuries.

The classical-era ship might never have divulged to archaeologists its clues to ancient Greek culture, except for a research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), the Greek Ministry of Culture and the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research (HCMR). They used a novel autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to make a high-precision photometric survey of the site last July. Using techniques perfected by MIT and WHOI researchers over the past eight years, the robot accomplished in two days what would have taken divers years of effort.

This week the researchers are releasing a few of the photographs showing detailed images of some of the remnants of the ship's cargo lying on the ocean floor, where it's been since about 350 B.C. The researchers took more than 7,000 images, which will eventually be combined into one mosaic of the entire wreck site.

The project marks the beginning of a long-term research project of the MIT/WHOI team collaborating with the Greek Ministry of Culture and HCMR.

Robotic technology is the only way to reach deep shipwrecks like the one at Chios, but the systems can also be applied to shallower sites.


"By using this technology, diving archaeologists will be freed from mundane measuring and sketching tasks, and instead can concentrate on the things people do better than robots: excavation and data interpretation," said Singh, an engineering and imaging scientist. "With repeated performances, we'll be able to survey shipwrecks faster and with greater accuracy than ever before." These new techniques produce results very quickly.


Much of the true value in cargo ships such as the Chios wreck is the information they provide about the networks that existed among the ancient Greeks and their trading partners. The wreck is "like a buried UPS truck. It provides a wealth of information that helps us figure out networks based on the contents of the truck," said Mindell.


Foley, Mindell, Singh and their collaborators are using the latest technology to create "ways of learning about the past that you couldn't achieve any other way. We're not looking for footnotes any more. We're looking to write new chapters," Foley said. The new research project will last 10 years or more, focusing on uncovering evidence of ancient trade in the Mediterranean, particularly of the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures and their trading partners in the Bronze Age (2500-1200 B.C.).
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