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Team uses sub, robot to recover ancient shipwreck ruins

artifacts July 30, 1997
Web posted at: 10:34 p.m. EDT (0234 GMT)

From Correspondent Kyoko Altman

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Using a nuclear submarine, a robot and a high-tech mapping system, a U.S. Navy-led team has discovered an unprecedented treasure trove of shipwrecks in the deep waters of the Mediterranean.

A large concentration of shipwrecks, including one dating to the time before Christ, have been found littered along an historic trade route between North Africa and Italy.

CNN's Kyoko Altman reports
icon 2 min. 15 sec. VXtreme video

"We were finding a Roman ship every other day with this submarine, until we finally said, 'Stop,'" said Dr. Robert D. Ballard, the expedition's chief scientist.

Ballard's previous exploits include the discovery of the wrecks of the Titanic and the German battleship Bismarck.


Researchers used a U.S. nuclear submarine, NR-1, that can go more than 2,000 feet below the surface and hover over the same site on the ocean floor for more than a month -- even in the kinds of stormy weather that may have originally sent the shipwrecked vessels to their watery graves.

"NR-1 is the only submarine that actually has tires that can drive along the bottom and do its work," said Navy Admiral Joseph Krol.

Before this revolutionary expedition, no major shipwreck site had ever been explored in water deeper than 200 feet. Because of that limitation, scientists could only explore about 5 percent of the ocean floor. But this new technology gives them access to virtually all of it.

Ballard said these finds, made in May and June, indicate ancient sailors braved deep waters and rough seas as they followed a trade route between what is now western Italy near Rome and what is now the city of Tunis.

"I think there's more history in the deep sea than all of the museums in the world combined," Ballard said.

Once the shipwrecks were located, a computerized robot, named Jason, was used to gently scoop up a total of 115 artifacts, including precious glass, without breaking a single object. An elevator then returned the objects to the surface.


The artifacts from the eight wrecks include kitchen and household wares, bronze vessels, two heavy lead anchor stocks, and eight long-necked jars called amphora intended for wine, olive oil, fish sauce and preserved fruit, archaeologist Anna Marguerite McCann said in a statement released by the National Geographic Society, which helped fund the expedition.

Five of the vessels date from between 100 B.C. and 400 A.D., while the other three range in age from 100 to more than 200 years. All are located about 2,500 feet underwater at a 20-square-mile site about equidistant from Tunisia, Sicily and Sardinia.

Ballard is president of the Institute for Exploration, based in Mystic, Connecticut, which is dedicated to deep-sea archeology. He said the next expedition for these scientists and their new technology will be the Black Sea.

Because the Black Sea is the only major body of water with no oxygen at the bottom, scientists are hoping its unique environment will yield some of the best-preserved artifacts ever recovered from ancient civilizations.


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