Diving Deep Into History: A Journey into Early Byzantine Maritime Trade

Unearthing a Byzantine Treasure

Imagine a shipwreck nestled deep within the Aegean Sea, cradling a treasure trove of history. This is the captivating reality of Shipwreck No.15, an early Byzantine vessel resting off the coast of Cape Aspros Kavos in the Fournoi Archipelago. Discovered in 2015, this remarkable underwater site has become a focus of ongoing excavation, shedding light on maritime trade routes and daily life during the 5th and 6th centuries AD.

A Well-Preserved Time Capsule: The Initial Discovery (2015)

The story begins in September 2015 when two sponge divers from Kalymnos, Mr. Eleftherios Glinatsis and Mr. Antonis Xipolitas, led underwater archaeologists from the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities to the very spot where shipwreck No. 15 lay still. Identified among a cluster of six shipwrecks, it stood out for its exceptional state of preservation and the intriguing diversity of its cargo. Located in a challenging environment – a steep slope at a depth of 43-48 meters and buffeted by strong currents – the wreck offered a glimpse into a bygone era.

The great depth protected it from the effects of coastal mechanical forces and accumulated large amounts of sand around it, covering and making most of it invisible. This part, covered by sand deposits and the great depth, protected this wreck from secondary human interventions, from which the remaining five, shallower wrecks in the area were not spared. The amphora hunters scoured the adjacent wrecks in their destructive fury but failed to notice the existence of a more severe wreck some sixty meters to the north.

A Treasure Trove of Amphorae: Unveiling the Cargo

This untouched time capsule held a treasure trove of amphorae – ancient clay jars used for transporting goods. Around 100 intact amphorae lay scattered across the seabed, hinting at a rich cargo. But these weren’t your average jars. Unlike anything previously seen in shipwrecks, the most prevalent type boasted an elongated oval shape. This unique design pointed to a Black Sea origin, suggesting a journey laden with exotic goods.

The surface layer of Wreck 15 today reveals a main concentration of about 100 intact amphorae, providing a clear indication of the ship’s final deposit. The peripheral findings, few and short distances from the main deposit, suggest a shipwreck that has preserved its cohesion. The fine-grained sediments covering the wreck make the survival of hydrated wood from the shipbuilding structure highly likely. The wreck investigation revealed a mixed cargo consisting of at least four types of amphorae, each with its own historical significance.

Decoding the Amphoras: Dating the Wreck and its Secrets

An elongated oval body and a capacity exceeding sixty litres distinguish the shipwreck’s primary amphora type. Archaeologists first discovered these amphorae in an ancient shipwreck. In typological classifications, they are referred to as type Zeest 72, named after the first archaeologist to classify them in 1960. Newer classifications call them type Dyczek 31. Until now, we only knew this type of amphora from land sites around the Black Sea, particularly Crimea and the Sea of Azov. The cities of Panticapaeum and Myrmekion were likely production centers.

A small number of these amphorae have been found in the Aegean, suggesting their distribution wasn’t limited solely to the Black Sea as previously thought. The contents were likely salsamentum, or salted fish, primarily produced in areas with abundant fish stocks, like the ancient Greek Black Sea cities. These fish sauces enjoyed immense popularity throughout the Mediterranean during the Roman period, a preference that continued into the Byzantine diet. Fish derivatives (garum, salsamentum, liquamen) were the third most common product transported in amphorae, following wine and oil.

The amphorae of the Zeest 72 type also provided the first indications for dating the wreck. According to the existing evidence, their production started in the Crimea region in the middle of the 2nd century A.D. It escalated throughout the 3rd century, which is also considered to be the period when these amphorae had the greatest circulation. Their production stopped somewhere at the beginning of the 4th century A.D.

Beyond the Sunken Vessel: The Fourni Archipelago’s Maritime Hub Revealed

The team of archaeologists observed three more amphora types in the same load. Second in number to the Zeest 72 amphorae, they found amphorae with oval bodies, narrow necks, and bulging lips, classified as Selov type E/Zeest 104. These amphorae likely circulated primarily between the 3rd and 5th centuries A.D. and were probably produced in a coastal location of the southern Black Sea, possibly Heraklea of the Pontus. The clay’s technical characteristics support this hypothesis. Few examples of these amphorae exist outside the Black Sea; only two upper halves from similar amphorae have been published from the Athenian Agora.

In the main cargo deposit, the team noted two more amphora types. The first is the Kapitan 2 type, generally considered Aegean in origin. The second type is entirely new. The shipwreck investigation revealed an additional cargo of small, shallow bottles near the transport amphorae. These bottles fit inside one another, forming small arrays placed in gaps between stacked amphorae to maximize space. Archaeologists often find such additional tableware loads accompanying amphorae in ancient shipwrecks.

Pieces of the Puzzle: Unveiling a Thriving Trade Route

Based on all the finds, wreck 15 can be dated to the second half of the 3rd or the first half of the 4th century A.D. This is a significant discovery because it confirms what historians, archaeologists, and geographers have long suspected: the Fournoi island complex served as an intermediate station in a more extensive, hyperlocal maritime network connecting and uniting regions beyond the Aegean borders. Additionally, it provides tangible evidence of the mass transport of Black Sea products to Aegean markets and potentially the wider Eastern Mediterranean.

A Glimpse into the Past: The Legacy of Shipwreck 15

While a single shipwreck might not be definitive proof on its own, a cluster of wrecks paints a vivid picture. Ships, after all, can veer off course and sink far from their intended route. Maritime history catalogues countless such incidents. But at Fournoi, the presence of multiple wrecks strengthens the case. Two more shipwrecks from the same period, laden with Black Sea amphorae, were found in the same Fournoi-Ag. Mina’s passage bolsters the theory.

The story of Shpwreck 15 is a captivating testament to archaeological discovery, a constant reminder that history slumbers beneath the waves, waiting to be revealed. By meticulously studying these submerged treasures, we gain a profound appreciation for the bustling trade routes and the audacious voyages that once linked far-flung corners of the ancient world.

Korseai Institute of Historical & Archaeological Research

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