southwest corner of Turkey's Aegean coast around Bodrum used to be the
centre for Turkish sponge diving. Tourism has largely supplanted the trade
and it is possible that the remaining sponge divers are the last-of-their-kind.
A tough and hazardous business, teams of divers used to head off to sea
for months on end, combing Turkey's southern and western shores for sponge-beds.
found not only the sponges but also ancient shipwrecks, the hulls buried
or rotted away with imperishable amphorae (clay jars) still intact. Apart
from selling some of these or using them for storing water, the divers had
little interest in the wrecks.
world of information about the past lay untapped for many years until
Ahmet Erbin from Bodrum made an exiting discovery while collecting sponges
near Marmaris in the early 60s. He and four other fishermen were pulling
in what felt like a full, heavy sack-load of sponges when they found
amphorae and a bronze statue of a woman among the sponges, sea plants,
mussel shells and mud. The sponges were carefully placed to one side and
the amphorae were broken up before being thrown overboard so as not to
catch in the sack.
the statue of the woman with her sad, haunting eyes caught Erbin's
imagination and she remained on board safe from her watery grave and
facing another destiny. That lay in the shape of the late Professor George
Bean, a lecturer in Classics at Istanbul University for 25 years who was
spending some time in Bodrum then. He spotted the statue lying on the sand
surrounded by police who had confiscated it from fishermen.
identified the mysterious female figure as "Demeter, the goddess of earth
and fertility"; her name means "Mother Earth". The statue was established
as one of the most important works of classical archaeology and is said to
date from the third century BC. This fisherman's catch was eventually
brought to Izmir Museum, its final resting-place.
Demeter left behind her a series of unanswered questions. Where was the
wreck of the ship that had carried her? Did it carry others? How many more
statues were lying off Turkey's shores? With these questions, the "woman
from the sea" had started underwater archaeology in Turkey.
diver Kemal Aras from Bodrum also played a part when he spotted something
unusual on the seabed when diving off Cape Gelidonya near Finike Although
he had come across shipwrecks before, he discovered that this wreck's
horde Was metal ingots, not amphorae. Unfortunately, they were stuck
together and he could not bring one to the surface.
remembered them a long time after when he met the American journalist
Peter Throckmorton who had come to Bodrum in 1958 to make a film about
Turkey's sponge divers. Throckmorton had been fascinated by the amphorae
and other finds from wrecks. He had talked to the sponge divers and
eventually met Kemal Aras. His story persuaded Throckmorton to switch from
the divers themselves to sunken ships - especially the wreck of Gelidonya.
explained the location and Throckmorton set off to find what was to become
one of the world's oldest shipwrecks. It was not an easy job, despite
Aras's directions. But as the fight was disappearing and preparations were
under way for the trip home, two divers found the wreck and a bronze cup
and ladle were the first objects retrieved.
excavation proper finally began under the direction of the American
archaeologist Dr George Bass. He was joined by expert divers and slowly
the wreck revealed its story. Apart from the bullion, the team established
that the oars were from Cyprus and the crew of Syrian-Palestinian origin.
Findings indicated that the ship dated from the middle of the 12th century
BC. At the end of the Bronze Age. The artifacts were taken to Bodrum
Castle and so the foundations of the world's oldest underwater
archaeological museum were laid.
pioneered a new field of archaeology by being the first to systematically
explore the seabed, which, he says, is "the most abundant source of
undisturbed historical sites". He went on to found the Institute of
Nautical Archaeology in 1973. Affiliated with Texas A & M University, its
headquarters are at Bodrum Castle. The institute has since explored
shipwrecks all over the world, but has always kept its connections with
the Bodrum sponge divers.
connection eventually led to the discovery in 1982 of the world's oldest
wreck at Ulu Burun, a barren cape near Kas Sponge diver Mehmet Cakir
reported seeing "metal biscuits with ears" there on a dive in 1982. The
following year these were identified as metal ingots similar to those
depicted in the tombs at Thebes in 1350 BC. Excavations have been slow but
findings have shown that the first method of shipbuilding is of even
greater antiquity than previously realized.
said he hope this discovery would yield evidence to support his theories
about Bronze Age trades in the eastern Mediterranean. Now he says "I am
going to let this little shipwreck take us on a voyage of its own".
by Kadir Can