Ancient Shipwreck's Stone Cargo Linked to Apollo Temple

Helen Fields
for National Geographic magazine
February 23, 2009
For a few days back in July 2007, it was hard for archaeologist Deborah Carlson to get any work done at her site off the Aegean coast of western Turkey. She was leading an underwater excavation of a 2,000-year-old shipwreck, but the Turkish members of her crew had taken time off to vote in national elections. So things were quiet at her camp on an isolated cape called Kızılburun.

The shipwrecks' main cargo was 50 tons of marble—elements of a huge column sent on an ill-fated journey to a temple, Carlson thought. But she didn't know which temple, so she used all her days off to drive around the area looking at possibilities.

There were a lot—western Turkey, once part of ancient Greece and later in the Roman Empire, is home to sites like Ephesus and Troy. But Carlson had narrowed down her choices to a list of nearby temples that were in use in the first century BC—the likely date of the shipwrecks' column.

The Temple of Apollo at Claros, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) from Kızılburun, was at the top of her list during the July 2007 election holiday. She drove up to the deserted site and knew she was on to something when she looked at the fallen-down marble columns scattered on the marshy land. "I was struck pretty much right away," she recalls. The columns were Doric, the same as the marble on the ship, and looked like the right size. She waded around in the spring water that floods the site, checking chunks of columns with a tape measure. "I thought, wow, this is definitely a candidate."

A year-and-a-half later, it looks like Carlson's first impression was right. Using a variety of techniques, she has linked the column in the Kızılburun shipwreck to its likely intended destination, the Claros temple—as well as to its origin, a marble quarry 200 miles (322 kilometers) away on an island in Turkey's Sea of Marmara.

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While there is plenty of ancient marble among the shipwrecks that cover the bottom of the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, this is the first time archaeologists have pinpointed both where the marble came from and where it was going. And that is helping them learn new things about how ancient architects built their temples.

The shipwreck was one of five found in Kızılburun in 1993 on a survey of Turkey's Aegean coast by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) at Texas A&M University, where Carlson works. INA has a research center in Bodrum, Turkey. Carlson excavated this "column wreck" from 2005 to 2008, with support from the National Geographic Society's Expeditions Council, and work will continue this summer.

Avoiding the Bends and Moray Eels

Excavating underwater is no small task. Archaeologists must avoid the bends, or decompression sickness, and do their work very quickly. The ship carrying the column sank in 150 feet (46 meters) of water. That's deep for scuba gear. Each dive requires a 15- to 20-minute decompression stop on the way back to the surface. Carlson's team has just 20 minutes of actual work time on each dive—the risk of the bends goes up the longer they're down—and they can only dive twice a day.

Excavating an entire site in tiny spurts like that requires careful planning. "But every now and then there'll be a kink in the system, like a big moray eel sitting in your grid square," Carlson says. Her decision: Let the toothy fish stay and spend that dive on a different part of the site.

The column Carlson is studying doesn't look like a column. It's in the form of eight giant drums of marble, each about five feet (1.5 meters) across. The simple, square-topped crown of the top piece shows that it was a Doric column; the bottom is also in the wreck, and the rest of the drums are plain.

They've been underwater for 2,000 years and they're covered in crusty marine life. They aren't delicately carved, either. Marble chips easily, so the ancients always quarried marble blocks with a couple of extra inches on all sides. The blocks jostled together during their journey in the ship, then masons at the destination finished them.

Carlson believes this marble came from Proconnesus, a site on modern-day Marmara Island in the Sea of Marmara, southwest of Istanbul. In satellite photos, the north side of the island shines white; marble is still quarried there today and covers shower stalls across Europe.

Tracing Marble to Its Source and Destination

The first clue that the shipwrecks' marble came from there was its distinctive color: white with fine blue veins. Carlson also used stable isotope analysis, a technique that tests stone to see which quarry's chemical signature it most closely matches, to link marble to quarry. And the grains corresponded with Proconnesus marble when examined under a microscope.

To figure out where the marble might have been going, Carlson started by ruling out homes and other small buildings. If the drums were stacked, the column would have been huge—more than 30 feet (9 meters) tall—so Carlson knew it must have been intended for a monument. She narrowed down the list of temples near the shipwreck to those of the right architectural style that were standing or being worked on in the first century BC—the date for the wreck, based on the amphoras (two-handled jars) the ship was also carrying. That's how she ended up at Claros.

Like the famous Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the Claros temple featured an oracle. When visitors came, the oracle, a priest, drank water from a sacred spring and made cryptic pronouncements on behalf of the god, who was associated with truth and prophecy.

Construction on the temple probably started in the third century BC and continued for five centuries. The column in the shipwreck, Carlson says, could have been a donation from a satisfied pilgrim. The temple was never finished, though not for lack of that column. It's possible the builders ran out of money. Ultimately it may have been destroyed by an earthquake or even dismantled by invaders.

A Snapshot of Ancient Building Processes

"The fascinating aspect of the Kızılburun shipwreck project is the snapshot of building processes the cargo provides," says William Aylward, a classical archaeologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who specializes in marble architecture. He's helping Carlson learn the column's story.

For example, unlike column parts that are found in place at temples, this stone doesn't have any marks from being attached to a crane. That means rock at the quarry was moved without being lifted—instead, it was moved along the ground. Once at the temple, the pieces were stacked using a crane, except for the bottom.

Aylward was able to identify the columns' bottom drum among the Kızılburun marbles because of four protuberances jutting out that would have been used to maneuver it into place at the temple, and later lopped off.

"Shipwrecks are great because they're in the middle of a real commercial or architectural operation when suddenly they go down," says Clayton Fant, an archaeologist and historian at the University of Akron, in Ohio. He says wrecks like the one at Kızılburun are the only way to catch marble at the point where it was traveling from one place to another. Loose marble blocks left on land get used for other purposes before archaeologists can study them.

The fact that these column pieces were cut to the right size for the Temple of Apollo at Claros suggests that the ancient Marmara quarry was filling custom orders. That's something archaeologists hadn't previously had evidence of in ancient temples.

"I would say there's a good chance the architects had gone to the quarry and talked to the workmen there," Fant says. "Or even sent a crew to shape the blocks. That's why this is really neat."

So the masons in Claros knew just what they were getting, and what they were planning to do with it. But they didn't know their stones would never arrive. Perhaps bad weather doomed the ship; perhaps something else. Some 2,000 years later, the stones are still at the bottom of the sea off Kızılburun cape, just 40 miles (64 kilometers) from the temple for which they were intended. "I don't think you could actually see Kızılburun from Claros, but it's close," Carlson says. For the builders waiting at the site, "That must have been a real heartbreak."

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