Ancient Shipwrecks Found in Greek Waters Tell Tale of Historic Trade Routes

October 17, 2018 Updated: October 17, 2018

FOURNI, Greece—Archaeologists have discovered at least 58 shipwrecks, many laden with antiquities, at an underwater ship graveyard in Greece, in what they say may be the largest concentration of ancient shipwrecks in the Aegean Sea and possibly the Mediterranean to date.

The wrecks are in the small island archipelago of Fournoi, in the eastern Aegean, and span a period from ancient Greece to the 20th century. Most date from the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine eras. Although shipwrecks can be seen together in the Aegean, until now, such a large grouping has never before been located.

They weave an exciting tale of how ships full of cargo traveling through the Aegean, the Mediterranean, and the Black seas, met their fates against the dangerous gales and rocky cliffs in the region.

“The excitement is difficult to describe, I mean, it was just incredible. We knew that we had stumbled upon something that was going to change the history books,” said underwater archaeologist and co-director of the Fournoi survey Dr. Peter Campbell, of the RPM Nautical Foundation.

The foundation is collaborating on the project with Greece’s Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, which is conducting the research.

‘One of the Top Archaeological Discoveries of the Century’

When the international team began the underwater survey in 2015, they were astounded to find 22 shipwrecks that year, but they never expected after their latest expedition to reach 58; they believe there are even more.

“I would call it, probably, one of the top archaeological discoveries of the century in that we now have a new story to tell of a navigational route that connected the ancient Mediterranean,” said Campbell.

The vessels and their contents paint a picture of ships carrying goods on routes from the Black Sea, Greece, Asia Minor, Italy, Spain, Sicily, Cyprus, the Levant, Egypt, and North Africa.

The team has raised more than 300 antiquities from the shipwrecks, particularly amphorae, giving archaeologists a rare insight into where goods were being transported around the Mediterranean.

“Ninety percent of the shipwrecks that we found in the Fournoi archipelago carried a cargo of amphorae. The amphora is a vessel used mainly for transporting liquids and semi-liquids in antiquity, so the goods it would be transporting were mostly wine, oil, fish sauces, perhaps honey,” said archaeologist and Fournoi survey project director Dr. George Koutsouflakis, of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities.

They were particularly excited by amphorae they found originating from the Black Sea and North Africa in shipwrecks from the late Roman period, as it is rare to find cargo from these regions intact in shipwrecks in the Aegean Sea, said Koutsouflakis.

Sudden Windstorms

Harsh weather most likely played the main role as to why the ships all sank in the same area, he said.

The region is full of sudden, fierce squalls and rocky shores. Fournoi was a stopover point for ships to spend the night during their journey.

“Because there are narrow passages between the islands, a lot of gulfs, and descending winds from the mountains, sudden windstorms are created. It is not a coincidence that a large number of the wrecks have been found in those passages … if there is a sudden change in the wind’s direction, and if the captain was from another area and was not familiar with the peculiarities of the local climate, he could easily end up losing control of the ship and falling upon the rocks,” Koutsouflakis said.

Fournoi was considered in later times a pirate’s haven, Campbell said. Pirates were drawn to the area due to the abundant traffic of vessels laden with rich cargo. Although the weather was believed to be the primary reason for the sinkings, piracy may have contributed to a few of them, he said.

By Vassilis Triandafyllou & Idyli Tsakiri