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Similar to many other significant archaeological and scientific discoveries, the 4th-century BC shipwreck off the coast of Kyrenia, Cyprus, came to light through both luck and hard work. The site was found by Andreas Cariolou in 1965, a diver and a councilman in the town of Kyrenia, but it was unknown to the scientific community until October, 1967, when Cariolou brought Michael Katzev and his survey team to its location near the end of their field season. Then a Ph.D. student in Classics at the University of Pennsylvania, Katzev had been leading his team, which included his wife, Susan, as well as Jeremy Green and E.T. Hall, to survey various sites along the coastline. They had examined material along the Akamas peninsula, near Paphos and off Cape St Andreas - where they found three possible sites in one week, and were quickly demonstrating the archaeological potential of the waters around the island. Cariolou’s site, however, became the focus of their efforts. On the surface of the seafloor were a collection of approximately 80 amphorae from the late 4th-century BC, likely coming from the islands of Paros, Samos and Rhodes. Additional examination with magnetometers and metal detectors convinced the team that the entire assemblage extended approximately 19 x 10 m in the sea floor; Katzev had been hoping to find a site to excavate, but now he had one from the Classical period, his chosen era of research.

The excavation of the site, conducted over two seasons in 1968 and 1969 with a variety of local and international sponsors, revealed the best-preserved remains of a Classical-era merchant vessel ever excavated. In addition to approximately 300 Rhodian amphorae, Katzev’s team excavated Samian amphorae carrying almonds, mill stones from Nisyros serving as paying ballast, small oil jugs, iron ingots, tools, fishing gear, rigging equipment, and the drinking cups and plates belonging to the crew of four. The preserved hull, moreover, was unprecedented. Previous excavations in the Mediterranean Sea had found remains of hull material, but rarely more than 30 percent of the original vessel. Katzev’s excavation, in contrast, revealed over 50 percent of the hull on the seafloor, containing 75 percent of the ship’s representative timbers - a level of preservation never seen before in a site in the Mediterranean, and yet to be equalled in a site from this era. The structure and design of the Kyrenia hull, as a result, has become a benchmark of Classical-era ship construction. The entire assemblage, moreover, has become iconic of seafaring at a dramatic time in the ancient world. The amphorae came from elements of the Delian League that had recently collapsed, while the ship itself sailed through waters claimed by both Demetrios Poliorcetes and Ptolemy Soter, inheritors of the empire of Alexander the Great.

The excavation of the ship, as well as the associated research in the following years, has come to represent more than the recovery of a unique assemblage of archaeological material. When this excavation began, the academic practice of nautical archaeology was still very young, no more than ten years old, and this research was both an opportunity to create and to test new methods, techniques and theories. The first application of hand-held, three-dimensional photography on an archaeological site under water occurred at this excavation, for example. The methods created to map, recover and re-assemble the hull remains are still used today. Similarly, the excavation became the nexus for nautical archaeologists working in the Mediterranean. J. Richard Steffy, who was eventually awarded a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant in 1985 for his contributions to archaeology, joined the team in 1971 to lead efforts to reconstruct and study the hull. From 1971 to 1973, Jeremy Green returned to underwater sites they had discovered off Cape St Andreas, and developed survey methods there that were later applied throughout the region. Avner Raban and Elisha Linder came to the island to study the ancient harbours at Kyrenia and Lapithos, Nicholas Flemming surveyed the ancient harbor at Salamis in 1973, followed by the Cambridge University Underwater Exploration Group in 1974 and Harold Edgerton, who tested his newly-invented side scan sonars and sub-bottom profilers. Most notably, George Bass left his teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania, and he and his family moved to Cyprus where he established the Institute of Nautical Archaeology in 1972. It was from this base in Nicosia that George and the new INA team discovered the wreck sites at Seytan Deresi and Serce Limani.

By the early 1970s, therefore, the excavated assemblage had become significant in a variety of ways. Historically, it was an unprecedented collection of information about seafaring and trade in the Classical era. Scholars now understood the fundamentals of loading and shipping amphorae cargos, how many people were needed to operate the vessel, how those individuals lived on board the vessel, and how ships from this era were constructed and sailed. Archaeologically, the excavation and associated research were fundamental components of the creation of nautical archaeology and, equally important, the ship had come to represent the island of Cyprus to the world. The Cypriot community had refurbished three galleries in the Crusader castle in Kyrenia to store, conserve and exhibit the collection and by 1970, even before the exhibit of the material was complete, it was already the second most popular historic tourist destination on Cyprus after the ancient city of Salamis. Throughout the Mediterranean region, this was the only exhibit of an excavated and reassembled ship from the ancient world; it was not only drawing scholars to the new discipline, it was drawing the world to the island as well.

© 2012 Matthew Harpster