team of experts are to travel the Aegean for
ships that were crucial to the victory over
Emperor Xerxes of Persia.
impression of an Achaemenid Battleship
were hopelessly outnumbered, but even then the
Greeks knew it would be the battle that could
change their faith. The Persians had entered the
Aegean. The "comeliest of boys" had been
castrated; the throats of the
"goodliest" soldiers ripped out. Mounted
on his marble throne, King of Kings Xerxes of
Persian Empire, formidable warrior Emperor, looked
over the bay of Salamis, confident that he was
about to enslave Greek states. But instead of
victory came defeat. That was 480BC.
Nearly 2,500 years later, the quest to better
understand the battles that the victorious Greeks
would see as a defining point in their history has
reached new heights, as experts yesterday began
searching for the lost fleets of the campaign in
the northern Aegean.
In the world of underwater archaeology the hunt
for the legendary armadas is the expedition that
might, just, scoop all others.
Topping the international team's wishlist is
the remains of a trireme, the pre-eminent warship
of the classical age.
"This is high-risk archaeology," said
Shelly Wachsmann of Texas A&M University and
the team's co-leader. "Discovering a trireme
is one of the holy grails. Not one has ever been
Although archaeologists have discovered ancient
Greek and Persian ships, they have always been
cargo vessels. For their guide around three of the
five sites where Persian and Greek vessels are
believed to have sunk - the Magnesian coast of
Thessaly, Artemision in northern Euboea and the
"hollows of Euboea" - the scholars have
Herodotus, the 5th century BC historian chronicled
the wars in his masterpiece, The Histories. But
while his story is a good read, few artefacts have
emerged to support it.
"This is a reversal of how we usually work
in that we know the history but lack the physical
evidence," said Katerina Delaporta, who heads
Greece's department of underwater antiquities and
is co-leading the project.
Previously, she said, the search would have
been impossible because of the technical
requirements involved. With the passage of time
and the Aegean's unpredictable weather conditions,
maritime experts believe the wrecks will be buried
under mud and silt. That means surveying the
seabed at depths of up to 600 metres where
visibility is limited. Among the team's
state-of-the art equipment are sonar scanners, a
two-man submersible and a remote operated vehicle
capable of sending video messages to the surface.
"This is the first time such sophisticated
technology is being employed," she added.
than 1,000 of the three-tiered triremes took part
in the second Persian war.
But while ship sheds and dry docks have been
unearthed, scholars have had to make do with
images of the galley on pottery. The discovery of
a trireme, either Greek or Persian, would not only
unravel the mysteries of antiquity's greatest
fighting vessel but shed light on the
"Ships throughout time are among the most
complex artefacts that any culture creates,"
Dr Wachsmann said.
Although the sea is more difficult to explore,
it has the benefit of preserving artefacts better
than if they were on land. Among the assembled
geologists, archaeologists, historians and
oceanographers there is no doubt that the ancient
"It's just a question of finding
them," said Stefanie Kennell, the director of
the Canadian Archaeological Institute.
Because triremes had very little ballast, and
when destroyed were unlikely to sink but float,
archaeologists have long debated the likelihood of
finding one. Most have set their hopes on finding
a bronze ram, or the arms and armour that went
down with the crews.
"If we can find part, or even the metal
fittings of a trireme, it would add immeasurably
to our knowledge of military seafaring in the
early 5th century BC," Dr Kennell said.
In an earlier attempt to find the lost Persian
fleet of the first Persian war, wrecked off Mount
Athos in a storm in 492BC, the searchers
discovered two helmets and a bronze-tipped spear
But around Mount Athos, the waters are much
deeper. "Here, the chances of making more
finds are higher," Ms Delaporta said.
The big prize - Salamis - has been left for
now. But time is of the essence. With the
technological advances a new kind of menace has
arrived - looters, rushing to beat the scholars to
the ancient wrecks.