How ‘the father of history’ led Canadians to treasure

The ancient Greek historian’s chronicle of the Greco-Persian wars was vital to finding the invasion fleet, writes Randy Boswell.

Randy Boswell
The Ottawa Citizen
January 21, 2004

With help from Herodotus and an Aegean Sea octopus, a Canadian-led scientific expedition appears to have discovered the site of a turning point in world history: the sinking of a massive Persian invasion fleet in a fierce storm that saved Greece at the dawn of western civilization.

During an October dive off the country’s northeast coast near Mount Athos — a site pinpointed by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus — archeologists retrieved ship storage jars dating from the 5th century BC and the metal butt of a spear that matches those carried by Persian warriors.

The researchers also learned of an earlier find in the same waters by a fisherman that clinches the significance of the site: two bronze battle helmets that the Persians would have worn at the time of the world’s first great clash between East and West.

Project co-leader Shelley Wachsmann, the Regina-born marine archeologist who earlier excavated a Sea of Galilee fishing vessel dubbed the “Jesus Boat,” says the foiled Persian attack of 492 BC ranks “among the greatest maritime ventures of the ancient world, both in terms of the scale of the operations and the historical outcome to Greece in particular and western civilization in general.”

The discovery of the artifacts, along with sonar scans revealing a “target-rich” field of debris on the rocky floor of the Aegean Sea, is fuelling excitement that remnants of the Persian warships might be raised during the next search this summer.

“This opens up a whole new world,” said Mr. Wachsmann, now a professor with Texas A&M University. “We’ve got what appears to be a shipwreck that sank above the rocks and is now buried in sediment.”

Stefanie Kennell, an antiquities expert from Toronto and director of the Canadian Archaeological Institute at Athens, helped assemble the international team of scholars searching for the sunken fleet.

She says the project is shedding light on “one of those crucial moments in western history. For the Greeks, this was a seminal event in their national consciousness, something they never forgot.”

The destruction of the Persian armada is recorded in the writings of Herodotus, who was born about 484 BC and is widely known as the “father of history.” In fact, his 2,500-year-old chronicle of the Greco-Persian wars gave the Canadian-led team its key clue as to the whereabouts of the sunken armada.

Mr. Wachsmann proposed a search for traces of the lost Persian armada in late 2002. The CAIA, a network of Canadian scholars that oversees all of the country’s archeological research in Greece, scrambled to give its support to the project in time for 2003 field research.

Greek archeologists, including project co-leader Katerina Dellaporta, embraced the proposal. Soon after, news broke that a fishing net had snagged two ancient helmets in the waters off Mount Athos.

“That came as a surprise to everyone,” recalls Ms. Kennell. “I saw this on the news and called Shelley. It was all very exciting. We knew these helmets could have been part of the armada.”

The fisherman led scientists back to the site of his find. Using a submersible craft, Mr. Wachsmann and his colleagues discovered an ancient storage jar — probably used to transport oil or wine for the Persian forces — and another, much younger vessel.

That jar, says Mr. Wachsmann, was “apparently the home of an acquisitive octopus, which had drawn into the jar mouth a potpourri of seabed detritus, including a pyramidal bronze weapon point with part of its wooden shaft still lodged in its socket.”

The tapered bronze spike — known as a sauroter or “lizard killer” — would have balanced the spearhead and served as a secondary stabber in close battle.

“The discovery of this rarely found artifact at the location where the helmets had been raised suggests that a warship sank in this area,” Mr. Wachsmann concludes.

It was at another site, near Arapis Island, where the team found a dozen more clay storage jars or amphora. The ship carrying them had apparently sunk on a steep slope, the jars rolling down to where they became lodged in some rocks.

“We could find no evidence of the wreck itself,” says Mr. Wachsmann, “and believe it is entirely buried by sediment. This suggests that organic elements of the ship and its cargo may be well preserved.” (c) The Ottawa Citizen 2004