Ancient Shipwreck's Stone Cargo Linked to Apollo Temple

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.

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