Ancient Shipwreck's Stone Cargo Linked to Apollo Temple

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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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