I’d like to tell you about my best day in the field – ever. Honestly, between the promise of keel wood and the dolphins, there isn’t even a close runner up.
This morning the waters off the south-central coast of Cyprus were calm despite the storm that was supposed to be blowing in from the west. This was already a good sign. Bad weather and transportation issues meant that my dive yesterday had to be canceled. The past couple of days we’ve had some technical problems with the “rib” (acronym for “rigid inflatable boat”) that takes us out to the site every day, where the support vessel, Marilena, is stationed directly above the wreck. So in lieu of the rib, we’d been hitching rides out to sea and back on local fishing boats. This was great fun, but rather time-consuming, as you can imagine. Well this morning by 6am that problem had been resolved, so we arrived on site as planned by 7am via not one, but two fully-functioning ribs.
By 9am the wind and waves were starting to pick up, but I was scheduled for Dive 5 (out of 11), so I was assured that my buddy Alex (aka, Werewolf of the Sea) and I would be in the water by 10am, and out before 11am.
The Mazotos shipwreck project is in its third year of excavation, and the previous two years we were working on the south end of the wreck, which corresponds to the bow (front) of the 18-m long cargo vessel, which sunk a few decades after the Kyrenia during the Late Classical Period (mid-fourth c. BC). Was it leaving Cyprus, or did it get turned around during a storm? Yet to be determined. At any rate, the top layer of the wreck is a massive pile of Chian amphoras which were loaded with wine, olives, olive oil, and perhaps even fresh grapes (as we’ve found many stems and seeds inside a few of the amphoras that have been lifted). There are also a few Samian amphoras which are much smaller. At the bow, we also excavated part of the preserved hull and keel (!), as well as no less than three lead anchor stocks. So this year, we are focusing on the stern of the ship, or the north end of the shipwreck.
Our objective was simply to drop down to Trench 1 (of 2) and excavate beneath a broken Chian amphora neck (#445). So as Alex was removing the airlift hose, I bagged 445 and took it out of the trench to take back to the surface at the end of our 20-min bottom time. We used wooden tools like trowels (which do not scratch the amphoras the way a metal trowel would) to loosen the sediment which was vacuumed up the airlift hose to the sieve located on the surface of the water. In the process of excavating beneath that broken neck, we uncovered three new hydrias.
Now I must explain briefly about the hydrias. This year, we have been finding loads of these little ceramic water jugs in the layer beneath the topmost layer of amphoras. What’s strange is that there seem to be far too many of them to have been part of the crew’s supplies. This means that they were part of the cargo – which also means that they probably weren’t carrying water after all, as their name implies. That is also yet to be determined. But beneath this layer of hydrias is another layer of amphoras, suggesting that we are in, or about to close in on, the lower deck of the vessel. And beneath that, we may find more hull, and more keel (!), which is of no small importance to me because of my research on ship timbers. If this ship was Cypriot, or if parts of it were reused from an older Persian vessel, there may be some cedar wood, which is the subject of my forthcoming book (Cedar Forests of the Eastern Mediterranean: A History from Mountain-top to Sea-bottom) and dissertation (Putting a Cedar Ship in a Bottle: Dendroprovenancing with Strontium Isotopes). So you can see why I was already excited.
So Alex and I worked until my dive computer beeped at 18 min, when he returned the airlift hose and I grabbed and bagged the surface sherds, picked up the mesh bag containing 445, and then clipped both bags onto my BCD (dive vest, acronym for “buoyancy control device”). Then we began our ascent, bringing artifacts that hadn’t seen the light of day in over 2300 years back up to the surface again. It was time very well spent at the bottom of the sea.
Because the depth of the wreck is so great, we have to take extra precautions against decompression sickness (“the bends”). We do a safety stop at 12 m for 2 min, then ascend to 9 m for 7 min, where we stop breathing plain old air and begin breathing 80% oxygen. Then we move on up to 6 m for 9 min, where we decompress using 100% oxygen. Most of the time this procedure is very cold and very boring, but today the water was wonderfully warm (27 C) and I could have stayed there all day.
The next two divers began their descent while we waited at the deco station, and as they descended their exhalations created a curtain of bubbles that drifted through the water toward and through us on their way back to the surface. I cannot fully explain what a magnificent sight this is to behold, that something so elemental as gas bubbles moving through water can be so incredible. With the sun glaring through the first few meters of sapphire-blue water, these tiny crystalline balloons were as brilliant as a billion marquis diamonds on a backdrop of azure silk. I imagine this must be what astronauts think when they are in the dark infinite void of space, and they watch it being split apart by trillions of silver-faceted stars. It was nothing if not sublime, and I realized then that I hope that is the last thing I see before I die.
Of course I didn’t die today, but it was a little rough getting back onto Marilena because while we had been underwater, the wind at the surface had become a Bft (Beaufort) 6 and gusting to 7. So I handed up the precious “cargo” first, then on my third try I finally managed to crawl back up onto the boat while the waves tried to whisk me away in the opposite direction. The rest of the dives were canceled, and although Marilena usually stands as a sentry over the site day and night, today she lifted her moorings and anchors, started her engine, and plowed through the wind and waves to the harbor at Zygi (some 16 km from the site).
My day had already been outstanding. And then the dolphins came. I saw three of them – the first was a dark shadow beneath the surface that at first I mistook for a sea turtle; the second was a black flash of arched back and dorsal fin near Marilena’s bow; and the last was at her stern, a set of dark flickering flukes that twisted over the top of the waves before descending back down to the blue depths.
Of all my days spent on ferries, dive boats, and other underwater excavations around the Mediterranean, of all the weeks I’ve spent at Mazotos in the past three years, today was the first time I have ever seen dolphins. And it really was magical.
And so I have a confession to make - actually two of them. First I would have never lived this day without the generosity of ASOR and the Platt Foundation’s excavation scholarship. Second, after the dolphins had gone on their way, the salt water in my eyes wasn’t just from the sea spray. But by the looks of them, the dolphins were also having a glorious day.
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