DEEP SEA DISCOVERY
JULY 31, 1997
Using nuclear submarines, archaeologists have located the largest concentration of ancient shipwrecks ever found, representing a new marriage of oceanography and the humanities. Elizabeth Farnsworth speaks with explorer Robert Ballard about the archaeological find.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You are looking at pre-cut Roman columns and giant blocks of granite or marble--artifacts from a shipwreck discovered thousands of feet down in the Mediterranean Sea. They may have been pre-fab Roman buildings on their way to Northern Africa, across a particularly rough stretch of water. The discovery is considered especially important because it occurred in the deepest sea, which until now has been virtually unexplored.
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The U.S. Navy was part of the project, loaning its nuclear submarine, the NR-1. Robert Ballard, who earlier found the Titanic and the German battleship Bismarck, led the expedition. Making use of the submarine's advanced radar, as well as an unmanned submersible robot vessel, Ballard's group scouted an ancient Mediterranean trade route last spring. They found hundreds of artifacts like these Roman ceramic jars. The robotic vessel picked them off of the ocean floor. A basket-like device retrieved them. And they were delivered onto Ballard's ship.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Robert Ballard, who's president of the Institute for Exploration at Mystic Marine Life Aquarium in Connecticut, is with us now. Thanks for being with us, Mr. Ballard.
ROBERT BALLARD, Institute for Exploration: It's a pleasure.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about the ships those artifacts came from.
ROBERT BALLARD: Well, there actually were five ships from the Roman period, eight in all, through the entire discovery effort. The oldest ship was from we think about 200 or 100 years before the birth of Christ. Another ship was around the time of the birth of Christ. Two were from about 100 A.D., and another one from about 400 A.D., so it spanned a considerable period of history.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How much of the ships are left down there?
ROBERT BALLARD: Well, when the ships sink in the high seas, it's very different than in shallow water. In shallow water they commonly run aground; they hit a reef or rocks, and they are severely damaged and torn open. And then they fall in shallow water and then for centuries and in some cases millenniums, storms continue to pound on them, and they get rather obliterated by time, and then they're commonly discovered by divers who loot them, or fishermen that loot them.
In the deep sea it's a very different situation. These ships really just simply founder. They took on too much water. And they sank intact, and they sank pretty slowly. They fall down at a few miles an hour and settle into the soft mud thousands of feet below. And a portion of the ship is actually buried in the bottom, and then wood bores will eat the upper part of the ship, but it leaves everything, particularly the cargoes, in their imaginary hull. So when we came across them, we actually saw the cargo stacked inside the forward and after hulls of these ancient ships.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You mentioned the deep seas. Tell us about that. The significance of this, I gather, is that this material--these ships--and the artifacts--were found in very, very deep water. How deep? And compare it to say the Titanic and other discoveries you've made.
ROBERT BALLARD: Well, in fact, with the Titanic, when we found it and then went on to find the Bismarck, Titanic was in 12,000 feet of water. Bismarck was in 16,000 feet of water. And in deep water like the deep ocean offers, it's dark; it's cold; there's tremendous pressure. And when you're really far from land, like it was in the discovery of these Roman ships, the sedimentation rate, or the rate of burial, is very slow. In fact, in the deep sea it's about a centimeter, which is less than a half an inch per thousand years.
So it's impossible to actually bury ships of antiquity that are far, far from shore. In fact, in finding these ships we've discovered that when they got caught in a storm, they would run with the sea, and they would begin to throw their cargo overboard. And that cargo is simply laying on the bottom of the ocean floor and using the Navy's NR-1, we were able to pick up those debris trails and actually follow them into the ships, themselves. So it's--it's another world in the deep sea. It's like a deep sea refrigerator history is sort of put into suspended animation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And this is a whole world that's never been explored before, is that right?
ROBERT BALLARD: Well, strictly in the area of marine archaeology, historically marine archaeology has been done in shallow water. And water depths are typically less than 200 feet. And 200 feet represent only a small portion of the world oceans, perhaps only 4 or 5 percent, whereas the new technologies that we brought to bear, certainly Woods Hole's Jason vehicle system that we used on this expedition--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That is the unmanned robotic vehicle.
ROBERT BALLARD: That's correct. It can go to 20,000 feet, which is 98 percent of the world's oceans, and, in fact, anywhere in the Mediterranean. But most people don't realize that the Mediterranean is very deep. The average depth of the Mediterranean is 9,000 feet, and off Greece, it gets down to 20,000 feet. So marine archaeologists have really just been looking at the very rim of the Mediterranean in the cradle of civilization.
What these discoveries show us is that the entire Mediterranean is an area that may contain a vast amount of ancient history and that really is opening up a new field of science. And one of the reasons why we created our new institute at Mystic was to create a new field in deepwater archaeology and bring together oceanography like Woods Hole, and the humanities, Dr. Anna McCann, for example, from Boston University is an archaeologist, and you bring those worlds together, and that's what happened on this expedition for the first time.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us how it works. How did the nuclear submarine help you exactly?
ROBERT BALLARD: Well, the NR-1, which is based right nearby in my hometown in Groton, New London, has an incredible sonar system on its bowel, and it can reach out 10 times further than the sonars I was using when I was finding the Titanic and the Bismarck and ships in Guadalcanal. So it's being given access to this incredible research tool that really made it possible for us to find these ships.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So the radar is used to locate the wrecks, right?
ROBERT BALLARD: Actually, it's a sonar. Radar's--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sonar, excuse me. Sonar.
ROBERT BALLARD: Sonar was underwater. It was the sonar--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And then you mapped these areas, right, and then you decide where to send the robot to bring up the artifacts?
ROBERT BALLARD: Exactly. In fact, we went in with the Jason System from Woods Hole, and did some incredible mapping, a mapping that had never been done before; that created entire mosaics of the ships. In a matter of just a few hours and then the archaeologists made the decision on which objects. We didn't bring up a lot of objects. We brought up just a few from each of the ships. We believe that, you know, Mother Nature is the best storage for this and so we left the ships behind, as we do in all of our expeditions, and we only brought up a small amount that we felt was needed to figure out where these ships came from.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That's interesting. So you plan to leave most everything down there?
ROBERT BALLARD: Except what the archaeologists think should come up. In many cases, for example, these ships were carrying thousands and thousands of amfores that were the same--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Those are the jars.
ROBERT BALLARD: That's correct. It's sort of like the 55 gallon drum of the Roman period, and it really wasn't necessary to bring a lot of those up. But we actually created an underwater storage area and let Mother Nature provide the long-term storage at no cost.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us what the jars look like after you clean them up. How preserved are they?
ROBERT BALLARD: Well, they're in incredible condition. What you have to do is spend a lot of time, though, with conservation. That's because these jars is terra cotta pottery, has been under the ocean at about 1,200 pounds per square inch for two millenniums, so the saltwater has penetrated the terra cotta's lattice structure, and we have to then very carefully pull the salt out, which takes many, many months to take place, so that's what we're doing now and fortunately, Pfizer's facility at our hometown is providing the opportunity for us to do all of that careful conservation which will take many, many months.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And then where will those vases and the other artifacts be after that?
ROBERT BALLARD: Well, they will be available for the scientists on the expedition, and then they will be available to any scholars who want to look at the objects and ultimately they'll be placed on display at our new facility, Mystic, at the aquarium, but actually the early results, the initial results of this whole expedition will be coming out in a few months actually with a National Geographic television special.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And tell me, where do you go next? Where do you want to explore in the deep waters after this?
ROBERT BALLARD: Well, there's two things we're going to be doing. We're going to do a big project on the Battle of Midway with the Navy and National Geographic, but my really scientific interests are in the Black Sea. The Black Sea is the only body of water in the world that has no oxygen in the bottom of it. And this is an ancient sea that's been traveled by mariners for many, many millenniums, and we have never had a chance to get into the Black Sea, and now that the Cold War is over, we hope to go in there and search along the ancient trade routes where we think we will find the most highly preserved ships of antiquity anywhere else in the world.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Robert Ballard, thanks for being with us.
ROBERT BALLARD: A pleasure. Thank you.