22 shipwrecks found among an island cluster in the Aegean Sea

The bottom of the ocean is arguably the only place left on this planet that can still offer exploratory surprises, and the area around a group of small islands in the Aegean Sea has just given up a secret 2,500 years old.

22 shipwrecks have been discovered in an area of just 44 square kilometres of the ocean floor around the group of 13 islands known as the Fourni archipelago. The oldest of the wrecks are well over two millenia old. 

22 shipwrecks found on Fourni archipelago

Although it's tempting to allude to ancient Greek myths of the Sirens - the beautiful but malicious spirits that would pose as attractive women to lure sailors onto rocks - the explanation for the wrecks is likely a great deal more innocent. The islands would have offered numerous bays that would provide safe anchorage for ships in rough weather. Though apparently not that safe.

"Normally you find a shipwreck here and there, from different periods," says Dr Wendy van Duivenvoorde, Flinders University maritime archeologist. "But finding 22 that are quite close in space will give a beautiful cross section of history."

Some of the wrecks were found at shallow depths, while others required deep-divers and a robotic vehicle to reach. "Most of the wrecks crashed into cliff faces," says Peter Campbell, project co-director, "and there is a trail of artefacts from shallow down to the deep area where the bulk of the ship settled."

Although the wooden timbers of the ships and other organic matter have long since been eaten away, much of the cargoes remain on the sea bed. The islands sit on an ancient east-west shipping lane across the Aegean sea which connected Greece to Turkey and the Middle East.

Sample objects were taken from each wreck and used to date and locate its origins. Early results date the oldest of the wrecks to between 300 and 700BC. Over half of the 22 shipwrecks are thought to come from the later Roman Empire - 300AD to 600AD.

As for what they might find among the cargoes, the team is not yet sure, although it will likely be whatever was a big commodity at the time, such as fish oils or other food products. The team will also be looking for personal items that can tell them about the ship crews.

"These wrecks were likely caught by a sudden storm or equipment failure, such as a broken rudder that prevented control of the ship," says Campbell.

Although this discovery is itself amazing, it might just be the tip of the iceberg. Only 5% of the archipelago has been examined so far, and the team fully expects to find more wrecks. Who knows how many more ships are waiting on the seabed to be discovered after thousands of years of waiting?