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Volume 44, Number 3May/June 1993

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Treasures of the Sponge Divers

Written and photographed by Donald A. Frey

Peter Throckmorton pricked up his ears when Turkish sponge diver Kemal Aras described the slabs of corroded copper he had found on the seabed off Cape Gelidonya in southern Turkey. Aras wanted to blast them free with dynamite, then sell them for scrap. But Throckmorton, an American free-lance journalist, knew that copper did not deteriorate very quickly in the sea. Could Aras's find, he wondered, be the cargo of some ancient sea trader that had foundered off the Turkish coast? A year passed before Throckmorton, then working as a guide on a diving expedition, was able to find his own way to Cape Gelidonya to search for the site Aras had described. On the last day of diving, he located the mound of copper slabs. They were clearly ancient ingots, with the characteristic "oxhide" shape; in the same area he found the corroded remnants of what proved to be half a dozen Bronze-Age tools, indicating that a wealth not only of artifacts but of untapped information lay here beneath the sea.

Excited, Throckmorton returned to the United States and told his story to John Houston, then head of the Council of Underwater Archeology. Houston in turn contacted Professor Rodney Young of the Classics Department at the University of Pennsylvania, vastly experienced in Turkish archeology. Was there anyone there who wanted to investigate this find? Eventually a young archeology student named George Bass offered to take on the task. Bass had no diving experience, and he barely had time for basic training in the local YMCA pool before leaving for Turkey, where he would eventually dive to 35 meters' depth (110 feet). Bass and Throckmorton feared that if they waited too long, the sponge divers would go back and dynamite the ingot mound for the metal.

But Bass did have experience excavating on land, and when he saw the Gelidonya site he knew precisely what he wanted to do. He rejected the idea of simply bringing this unique collection of Bronze Age materials to the surface. Bass, like Throckmorton, wanted to excavate the site to dry-land archeological standards, recording exactly where every artifact was found, even though diving time would be extremely limited. After many hardships and frustrations, he achieved his objectives: For the first time ever, a submerged shipwreck was methodically excavated in its entirety.

Bass did not stop with the Gelidonya excavation. Kemal Aras had told him of another site, a huge mound of amphoras at Yassiada, near Bodrum, the sponge-diving center on Turkey's western coast, where Aras lived. The results of the archeologists' preliminary survey were startling: They found a seventh-century Byzantine wreck sitting on top of a fourth-century Roman vessel. What had started as sponge divers' stories told over cups of Turkish coffee led to the founding, in 1973, of the Institute of Nautical Archeology (INA) at Texas A&M University, with overseas headquarters at Bodrum, ancient Halicarnassus. Since then, the institute has explored shipwrecks all over the world - eight of them in Turkish waters, all discovered by Turkish sponge divers.

"Long experience has taught us," Bass wrote in 1987, "that the best sources of information about ancient shipwrecks in Turkey are the divers on Turkey's sponge boats. For search purposes the divers are far more valuable than the most sophisticated sonar and magnetometers in existence." In their quest for sponges, Turkish divers have covered the entire length of the Turkish coast. Each year, collectively, they spend more than 10,000 man-hours searching the seabed.

During the winter, my Turkish colleagues and I give slide-illustrated lectures in the divers' villages to teach them what to look for in the way of ancient wrecks. As a result, we have come to know the sponge divers well, and have close friendships with many of the sponge-boat crews. We share a special communal feeling because we are all divers, sharing the same risks, feeling the same fears and triumphs. They often visit our excavation sites to share a meal - and with it, information about possible wrecks in other areas.

Most of the leads we obtain seem to come sketched on scraps of paper or on the backs of used envelopes, but we have learned to check out almost every report, because the odds are far better than diving at random. Our interest peaks if the diver says that, in the fall, he will take us back to the site and dive with us. The Aegean is a small sea only if you're not looking for a few specific square meters of it, and even the best sketch of coastal landmarks is not nearly as good as having at your side the man who's been there, to put you right on the spot where he remembers seeing something. Even so, finding that spot again is another matter. Many are the times we have jumped into the sea and descended to where the rocks meet the sandy bottom, lured by a promise that if we swim about 100 meters we will come upon a wreck. Almost equally many are the times we've found nothing.

Even a month-long survey of an area might not produce one "real wreck" - our term for a site that our Institute might someday want to excavate. The word "wreck," used alone, means a location where a ship and its cargo met their end, but which - because the site is on a rocky slope, or in shallow water where it was broken up by wave action - does not warrant excavation. By contrast, a "real wreck" is buried deep in the sand, with only the top of its cargo visible. If we are lucky, most of the hull is covered, and may have survived the insatiable appetite of the wood-boring toredo worms.

In general, Turkish sponge divers are sincere, hard-working people who give us information out of a genuine desire to be helpful. But they are also practical men, and often have good reason not to help us. They see broken pottery on almost every dive, but most of them ignore it, since sponges are their livelihood and each minute on the seabed is precious. We have let it be known that we will pay for directions to wrecks which we feel are important, but the money we can afford to lay out is little more than the divers can earn in a few good days of work.

Diving twice a day for a total bottom-time of perhaps one hour, a good diver will raise one to two kilograms (two to 4.5 pounds) of sponges, though he must give half of these to the captain of the boat. In recent years, sponges have been at a premium, because a blight has killed most of the crop; the per-kilo price is eight dollars ($3.65 a pound). In a three- to four-month season, a good diver will earn about $3000 - more than he could hope to make in a year as a land laborer.

Many divers with whom we talk have sold the odd amphora - a two-handled clay jar used to carry cargo - to a passing foreign yacht, or, in the words of one sponge diver, "raised 30 amphoras in a single day and sent them off in a truck to Izmir." When lucky enough to come across them, they have melted the lead stocks of Roman anchors to make diving weights. But in the last 20 years, Turkey has taken strong measures to protect its underwater heritage: In most areas, sport diving is forbidden or strictly controlled, and sponge boats are constantly watched by coast-guard patrols. Harsh penalties are imposed if even a single amphora is discovered on board.

The years that followed the founding of the INA saw Bass and his team of marine archeologists, scientists and technicians excavate the Roman and Byzantine shipwrecks at Yassiada, followed by a Bronze-Age wreck at Şeytan Deresi, in the Gulf of Gökova. The INA was led to the Bronze-Age wreck by Cumhur Ilık, another sponge fisherman from Bodrum, who had found two large jars while diving there in 1966. The sponge divers know how to take simple but reliable visual sightings to relocate the chance find of an uncharted reef covered with sponges, so it took Ilık only a few minutes to find the jars he had seen seven years before. But although the marine archeologists found artifacts dating from 1600 BC, they were unable to find even the smallest fragment of wood from the ship. This suggests that the ship capsized, spilling its cargo, but may not have sunk in that location.

Our next find, however, was a "real wreck" - a nautical time capsule (See Aramco World, July-August 1984). Not only was most of the vessel's cargo of Islamic glass intact, but also galleyware, the crew's personal possessions, tools for repairing the ship, and enough of the ship itself to reconstruct its lines and add to the history of nautical architecture.

The story of the "glass wreck" goes back to 1973, when Mehmet Aşkin, a retired Turkish sponge diver, guided members of the INA to Serçe Limani, a remote anchorage on a peninsula in southwest Turkey that juts into the Aegean Sea. Yüksel Eğdemir, the Turkish archeological commissioner assigned to the expedition, went down to see what was there. He surfaced with a rainbow of brightly-colored shards in his hands. "There's glass everywhere," he reported.

The unique cargo of the ship, which sank in Serge Limaru around 1025, included 80 whole glass objects and three tons of raw glass and broken vessels destined for a glass factory, probably located somewhere near the Black Sea. During 10 years of painstaking work, researchers assembled more than 300 whole vessels from the ship's million-plus pieces of scrap glass.

In a special exhibit hall built in Bodrum's crusader castle, visitors can now see rare evidence of life aboard ship in the 11th century, including shipwright's tools, tableware, weapons, a grooming kit, fishing equipment and pieces from a chess set.

But the single most important artifact is the ship itself. Pressed into the sand by the cargo, about 17 percent of the ship survived. For six years, timbers of the 15-meter (50-foot) vessel were soaked first in fresh water and then in a special water-soluble synthetic wax to preserve them. Six more years were needed to assemble them, but what emerged was the earliest known example of frame-first ship construction techniques - methods still being used in the Bodrum shipyards.

In the early years of the INA's work, the sponge divers knew many wrecks, and their reports were as varied as "a mountain of amphoras," "a huge jar big enough to swim in," and, in 1982, "metal biscuits with ears." The latter report, from a young diver named Mehmet Çakir, led to INA's most significant discovery so far Çakir's captain recognized the description as that of a Bronze-Age copper ingot from a drawing I had circulated among the sponge boats. The discovery was reported to Turkey's Museum of Underwater Archeology in Bodrum, and divers from the museum and INA quickly converged on the site. They confirmed the existence of a wreck and estimated its date as the 14th or 13th century BC.

This ship brought Bass full circle, back to the Bronze Age after more than two decades excavating ships from other periods. The site lies in 48 to 61 meters of water (160-200 feet) at Ulu Burun, near the town of Kaş, on Turkey's south coast. With a cargo of over 300 copper ingots, raw glass, ivory, exotic woods and resins, and the chance find of a gold scarab bearing the name of Queen Nefertiti, the Ulu Burun wreck has become one of the most important archeological finds of this century. Yet after nine seasons of excavation, now under the direction of Bass's student, Cemal Pulak, the nationality of the ship remains a mystery.

In recent years, the large fleets of sponge boats operating off the Turkish coast have dwindled, and divers' reports are thinning out, in part due to the blight which attacked the sponges a few years ago. Sponge fishing is rough and hazardous work, and tourism is luring the captains to more lucrative and less dangerous day charters.

When they do go out, typically, five or six divers will live together for up to four months on one eight-meter-long (25-foot) sponge boat, sleeping on deck at night among fuel tanks and the fishy-smelling catch, and diving three or four times each day to depths and exposures which the rest of the diving world would never consider. Commercial divers, for instance, are not permitted to dive deeper than 50 meters (165 feet) without a diving bell. But the shallower sponge beds have been picked nearly clean, and the Turkish diver must go deeper, often to 60 and even 70 meters (200 or 230 feet), to find enough sponges to make his work worthwhile. Before resurfacing, he takes almost no time for decompression, since another member of his team is waiting to take over his equipment.

The divers do not use scuba tanks. Their equipment consists of flippers, mask and a breathing regulator that's connected to the boat's low-pressure compressor by a long hose. A sponge boat usually has only one regulator. Deep, long dives with little decompression dramatically increase the possibility of the bends, the painful and often crippling sickness which strikes divers who go too deep or stay too long without slowly decompressing in shallow water before resurfacing. No one fully understands the bends, which can strike one diver who rigidly follows the US Navy decompression tables and "forgive" another who routinely exceeds them... until one day when he too is hit.

Before the sponge blight struck, there were at least 20 boats working the Turkish coast. Of the hundred-odd divers, at least one was usually paralyzed or killed each year. How many more suffered only painful warning symptoms, we do not know. Most of the serious cases would come to our research vessel, Virazon, for treatment, or take an 11-hour taxi ride to the Turkish navy compression chamber in Istanbul. But the others often attempted their own cure by going back underwater to a shallower depth, then slowly resurfacing over a period of many hours. Sometimes they were cured, sometimes they made their symptoms worse.

Though the sponge divers who remain may be the last of their breed, remote-sensing technology is fortunately offering an increasingly attractive alternative in the search for productive sites. The principles behind this technology are not new. In 1963, a Turkish sponge dragger, Mehmet İmbat, netted a statue of an African youth outside the Bay of Yalıkavak, two hours from Bodrum. Two years later, Bass spent the summer searching the same area with an underwater video camera towed behind a small fishing boat. Finding nothing, he returned with a team of specialists from the Scripps Institute of Technology, who brought with them a side-scanning sonar. The sonar "fish" transmitted high-frequency sound pulses across the seabed and then listened for the echoes from any protruding object. In only two days, they located an acoustic target in 88 meters (288 feet) of water that might be a mound of amphoras. In 1991, we returned to investigate the target with a submarine. Although it is clearly a massive amphora mound, no statues are visible and without a metal-detector survey of this very deep site, the question of whether other statues lie buried in the mound will remain unanswered.

Earlier, in 1971, with a grant from the US National Science Foundation, Bass had been able to buy a Klein sidescan sonar. At that time I was teaching physics at Robert College in Istanbul, and was excited by his offer to head a "high-tech" search for new wreck sites. But after a month at sea, staring at sonar printouts, I was discouraged at how difficult it was to separate shipwreck anomalies from other background signals - to tell wrecks from rocks. Sometimes a dark spot on the paper promised a target that we could never relocate, while other times we spent a whole morning homing in on what proved to be a rock. In the meantime, from sponge-diver leads, we located several good wrecks with only a few dives. I was a high-tech man, but I surrendered to common sense. We should gather as much information as possible from the sponge, divers, we decided, and inspect everything they could show us. Then, and only then, should we turn back to high-tech remote sensing.

Now we have come full circle: The sponge divers' leads are few, while high-tech remote sensing has made impressive improvements. INA director Martin Wilcox, the inventor of the ultrasound medical scanner, recently completed the design of a new sonar which works with a PC computer, providing a multi-colored acoustic map of the seabed. Its higher acoustic frequency also means improved resolution, possibly to the point of being able to distinguish the shapes of individual amphoras. Meanwhile, satellite navigational systems allow us to record the exact location of each anomaly, to within a few meters, and later return precisely to it. And instead of trying to manipulate a video camera hanging at the end of a 45-meter (150-foot) pendulum of cable, expeditions can employ "remote operated vehicles" that can be controlled from the relative comfort of a ship's cabin with a simple joystick, and can carry a color television camera anywhere within the range of the connecting cable.

But once again, still, the most attractive areas for searches come from the sponge divers' reports - wrecks that we could not locate because they were somewhere out in the sand, far from the rock-sand interface, with no trail to lead us back to them. We have heard reports of six huge jars standing proudly on the bottom, and of yet another mountain of amphoras - "enough to fill two trucks." In the Izmir Museum, there is a wonderful statue of an athlete that sponge draggers raised from just 45 meters (150 feet) of water. Is there an entire cargo of bronze statues out there?

We won't know until we look.

Donald A. Frey, vice-president of INA , works to adapt technology to the needs of the Institute's archeologists. He has lived in Bodrum for the last 17 years, with his Danish wife Suzanne and their daughter Kristen

This article appeared on pages 2-9 of the May/June 1993 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1993 images.