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Volume 15, Number 1January/February 1964

In This Issue

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The Watery Part Of The World

It was an afternoon in 1960. The sun was shining brightly and the draftsman had sat down with pencil in hand to sketch the ruined ship. It lay near Cape Gelidonya, the point on the southwestern coast of Turkey, where it had been damaged and come to rest about 1200 B.C. Its never-delivered Trojan War cargo consisted chiefly of copper ingots and bronze tools—the largest hoard of Bronze Age metal yet uncovered anywhere. Many of the tools were broken and apparently were being carried as scrap metal. With them was a quantity of tin, the earliest-known industrial sample of this metal.

There also had been found shards of crystal, a treasure chest, polished stone mace-heads, baskets, lamps, three sets I of apothecary's weights and measures, and some exquisite, jeweled Syrian scarabaeuses.

The ship was a rare prize and photographers were now carefully taking overlapping shots to form a sectional map of the entire site. Some of the University of Pennsylvania archaeologists were on their knees, like gardeners, painstakingly clearing away a growth of seaweed. Not far away, a man assisted by a chisel-holding partner was breaking up a boulder with rhythmic swings of a ten-pound sledge hammer. Some Harvard professors were carefully triangulating positions from stakes driven into the mud. Still other members of the team were examining the section where the crew must have lived. They had uncovered the remains of a meal—olive pits and fish bones.

The draftsman was for the moment absorbed with penciling in the lines of an ancient two-handled oil jar, the kind of job he'd done dozens of times at other excavations and at his museum desk. Today, however, instead of drawing paper he was using sheets of frosted plastic. There was a small aqualung strapped to his back. His left arm was lashed to a rock, to brace him against the current. Finally, a pair of groupers were hanging over his shoulder, as if to check the accuracy of his drawings with their mournful eyes.

The draftsman and his fellows, of course, were working underwater. Before they were done, they would raise over a ton of artifacts in a probe 32 centuries into the past! A few years earlier, it would not have been possible to even contemplate their tremendous undertaking. Now, with specially devised equipment, they were able to use their dry-land learning under a hundred feet of ocean water.

On the other side of the world, simultaneously, a second group of men was exploring the sea off Mexico's Pacific coast. This team, comprised of oceanographers and geologists, had also made a momentous undersea discovery. Through television, they had found immense quantities of valuable ore nodules piled up on the ocean floor. These were growing as crusts around some nucleus, such as a pebble or a shark's tooth. They were mostly iron and manganese oxides, but often a sample would contain staggering amounts of copper, nickel and cobalt. Subsequent prospecting led the men to suspect that at least a ten million-square-mile area of Pacific floor must he filled with these nodules. The value of ore was estimated at hundreds of thousands of dollars per square mile!

For centuries, man knew less about the sea bottom than he did about the near side of the moon. He believed the ocean floor was mostly a level, featureless plain. Recent improved observational techniques and stepped-up exploration have drastically changed this picture.

In the past few years, he has come to realize the two-thirds of the earth's surface which is under water contains its most striking formations. The underside of the sea has canyons, trenches, hills, valleys and plains. Under the Pacific lie ridges of mountains higher than Everest, trenches seven times as deep as the Grand Canyon, over 10,000 active and inactive volcanoes. Deep beneath the Atlantic are rivers with cutting power hundreds of times as great as the swiftest streams on land.

These and other facts have been obtained with the help of wonderful new equipment. Oceanographers now have at their disposal bathyscapes capable of being lowered for miles, two-man submarines, special thermometers which enable predictions of the size, speed and direction of currents, and literally scores of electronic aids.

There's no doubt that the ocean experts are in a decade of startling discovery. And perhaps the happiest discovery of all is that they're not in it alone. The current rush to explore the sea is being shared not only by archaeologists and geologists, but by chemists, physicists, engineers, agriculture experts, sportsmen, even municipal planners.

These non-oceanographers often "pay their own way" underwater by inventing or adapting their own equipment. It was the sportsman, for example, who developed the familiar self-contained diving lungs. Archaeologists have invented several brand-new methods of lifting matter from sea bottom to surface. The petroleum engineer devised his off-shore oil drilling techniques as he needed them, many of which are now being used by strictly oceanographic scientists. The petroleum geologist successfully adapted the dry-land practice of seismic oil prospecting for use underwater.

During World War II, aviation engineer Edwin Link invented and built the "Link Trainer," a stationary pilot-training device. More recently, the Texan has been inventing useful items for his favorite hobby, submarine archaeology. Chief among Link's new inventions is a kind of underwater vacuum cleaner he calls the "Airlift." The lift is an air-operated dredge with a sucking action capable of rapidly transporting water, sand and rocks the size of a soccer ball up from the bottom. In appearance, it consists of a 14-inch pipe, buoyed at the surface and lowered to the sea floor. There, divers move it about like a vacuum cleaner and vary the flow of compressed air injected near its base. This makes the air rush upward, creating a sucking action.

Using the Airlift in 1961 in Middle East waters, Link brought up historically valuable amphorae, ancient weapons and tools, gold, jewelry, and hundreds of Roman and Arabic coins. Recently, the Mexican government used the Airlift to recover over 4,000 gems and artifacts from a 180-foot-wide inland sinkhole. A thousand years ago, Maya priests used the hole as a "Well of Sacrifice."

Link's most spectacular success, however, was at Port Royal, the Jamaican buccaneer capital which disappeared into the sea during an earthquake and tidal wave in 1692. For almost 270 years, the city lay totally lost in mud and murky waters. Like others before him, Link failed in several attempts to locate it. Finally, in 1959, with a specially-built boat, he and other divers uncovered and explored a submerged fort, a kitchen, and the shop of a Port Royal merchant. Among the hundreds of items raised were clay tobacco pipes, cannons, jars of olives intact with pitch seals still in place, and an elegant brass pocket watch. The mud had preserved the items well, including the watch, the hands of which were stopped at 17 minutes before noon, almost the exact moment of the earthquake.

At present, new underwater archaeological excavations are underway in Finnish and Egyptian waters. The latter expedition, directed by Egyptian skindiver, Kamel Saadat, will attempt to raise marble sarcophagi, statues and other antiquities from the ruins of the Alexandria Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.

This past summer, French oceanographers spent two months studying the Red Sea bed to depths of 6,500 feet. Their quest made headlines because they worked out of a submarine "village" of three houses built for them and their equipment. In California, a town council is currently experimenting to find out what kind of housing fish prefer. It is known that fish won't linger in areas where the ocean bottom is flat and uneventful. On the other hand, nothing will attract them as much as shipwrecks. These provide a foothold for kelp and other plant life which fish eat. The community of Redondo Beach is attempting to bring sport fish to its presently barren offshore by dumping discarded streetcars and old auto bodies in the water. They hope these will offer through their nooks and crannies safe, food-laden refuges for gamefish.

UNESCO, in the face of an anticipated world food shortage, is also studying fish and marine plant life. The scientific standard of presentday fishing, say UNESCO oceanographers, is roughly equivalent to the level of agriculture in the year 1700. In the future, they predict, fish crops will have to be cultivated. Edible species will be protected against enemies (as plants are now from insects), and parts of the seas will be fertilized to increase yields. They envision future frogmen farmers working tractor-trawls sent down from parent ships above. They will cultivate, fertilize and even weed (by pulling devices over the sea floor to weed out creatures that take food from more valuable fish). Nuclear reactors may also be placed on the ocean bottom of "desert areas," to warm up the water, which would then rise and carry nutrients with it to the surface, creating a fertile area for plant life and, eventually, fish.

The sea floor can supply man with such staples as food, fuel, medicine and industrial raw material. It can also furnish missing pieces to the jigsaw puzzle of the earth's past, present and future. Its fabulous supplies and secrets are there for the taking. And man is beginning to do just that.

This article appeared on pages 18-21 of the January/February 1964 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1964 images.