The "Melkarth" - Meeting Place for Two Worlds?

Anthropology Newsletter - December, 1998
by Greg Stemm

As the silt cleared at nearly 3,000 feet, and the first perfectly preserved amphora eased into focus, it was obvious that something unique and important had been discovered. The ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) gained altitude for a better look - a few more, then literally hundreds more amphora materialized in the robot's lights. The sight was breathtaking, and a hush fell over the crew as the significance of what they had discovered settled in.

This wasn't James Cameron's newest movie, but a scene recently played out on our Research Vessel in the western Mediterranean. Our company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, had been engaged in a joint expedition with the British Royal Naval Museum in the search for a 17th Century British Warship lost in the deep. The proximity of the search area to the ancient Roman and Punic trade routes suggested that we might find a relatively intact ancient shipwreck. Secretly, I hoped to find a Phoenician trading vessel.

I have always been fascinated by the Phoenician culture. An explorer at heart, I was amazed by the Phoenicians astounding feats of discovery and the development of their far-flung trading empire. To replicate their mastery of the technology of their day would require us to have actively trading outposts on nearly every planet in our solar system. And yet, so little was known about their sailors, their ships and their lives.

The first pictures of the site were distributed to several prominent archaeologists, and the significance of our find slowly began to take shape. The amphorae appeared to be of Punic origin, perhaps from the 5th Century BCE. These amphorae, similar to a type known as Maa Type A, have been previously found in Corinth, in a house called the "Punic House", at a kiln site on Morocco's Atlantic coast, and in Southern Spain. Their distribution was indicative of the far-flung trading empire of the Carthaginians.

The site itself was approximately 50 feet by 30 feet, and completely covered with hundreds of these large amphorae, each about a meter high. With the exception of some unusual coral formations, it appeared that perhaps 90% were unbroken and in virtually the same condition as when they sank. It is evident that the site is larger than the visible remains, because the outlines of amphorae nearly covered with silt can easily be seen surrounding the visible jumble of artifacts.

If the narrowest measurement of the site indicates the approximate beam of the ship, the typical shape of a Punic trading vessel would suggest that the ship itself could be at least 120 feet long. Based on what we know of the Phoenician traders, there could be a cornucopia of artifacts and trade goods lying just below the silt. Perhaps even a relatively intact hull - a priceless time capsule.

What, you may ask, will a commercial company do with this unique archaeological treasure? The question has been posed in the media, at conferences and in papers for decades - what happens when a "for profit" company locates a site like this? Visions of "grab buckets" ripping apart the hulls of classical shipwrecks, the remains being pillaged for gold have been a frequently conjured apocalyptic vision used to rally the troops to bring a stop to commercial shipwreck exploration. What happens next?

Odyssey Marine Exploration is a "for-profit" company. We have built it on the premise that there is room, and a necessity, for commercial exploration of historically significant shipwrecks. In 1990, John Morris and I managed the world's first complete archaeological excavation of a deep ocean shipwreck. This was the Tortugas shipwreck, a Spanish Nao lost in 1,500 feet of water in 1622.

By bringing together some of the best technical minds of the day with the archaeological world, we were able to develop a robotic system that became the eyes and hands of the archaeologist on the ship, 500 meters above the site. During the two year excavation, over 17,000 artifacts were recovered, conserved and the collection has remained intact for study.

During this operation, an acoustic positioning system was developed that was able to precisely give the X,Y and Z position of the artifacts as they were carefully excavated. Artifacts were assigned identification numbers in situ, and the supervising archaeologist was able to sit behind the ROV operators and direct their every move in the comfort of an air conditioned cabin. Every second of the thousands of hours of excavation was captured on video, so the entire operation can be replicated for future study.

Why did we go through all this? Our love of the lore of the sea and fascination with the cultures that tamed her drive us to do what we do. Going where no man has gone, and doing what no man has done adds fuel to the fire. But deep ocean exploration requires a great deal of capital, which is easier to find if you can provide a means to profit from an expedition. We believe that the needs of our shareholders and the archaeological community can both be met - and we have set out to prove that.

These are our plans for what will happen with the Punic shipwreck we have christened the "Melkarth", after a Phoenician God of Sailors and the Sea:

1. The entire project will be based on the research design developed by the supervising archaeologist and Institution with whom we will undertake the expedition.

2. We are in the process of bringing together the resources necessary to undertake an excavation of the site, utilizing exacting parameters of precise archaeological fieldwork. What we learned from the Tortugas excavation, combined with dramatic advances in technology, will significantly improve the efficiency of this operation, even at 3,000 feet.

3. The entire collection will be kept intact. Portions may be loaned to other museums and for travelling exhibits, but this will only be done in such a way that the pieces can always be re-constituted for study.

4. A large budget will be allocated for publication. We intend to utilize the Internet to provide unsurpassed access to the collection, the artifacts and the knowledge that can be gained from them.

5. To the extent that we can determine countries of origin, these countries will be consulted and involved with the study and disposition of the collection. We recognize, however, that the knowledge ultimately belongs to mankind.

6. We intend to fund the entire operation through sponsorships, media rights, travelling exhibits, publishing and replicas.

We intend to prove, once and for all, that there is room for commercial shipwreck explorers and archaeologists to combine their resources to their mutual benefit. By making this model work, we hope to close the gap between these two worlds. In five years, we want to look back and give those in the archaeological community who have shown us so much support a reason to say, "See, we knew it could be done."

©1998 Greg Stemm

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