Ships in peril on the sea are a staple of art and literature. Those that don’t make it to harbour vanish from history until discovered by explorers using modern technology.
The shipwreck in Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates (published in 1719 and better known under its short title Robinson Crusoe) maroons Crusoe, who is eventually rescued. But the ship itself disappears.
Odyssey Marine Exploration is a world leader in deep-ocean shipwreck exploration, searching for sunken ships known to have been carrying treasure and precious artefacts. Its discoveries also bring to the surface knowledge about the past, opening a fascinating window onto history.
The ocean floors are scattered with thousands of shipwrecks, spanning centuries of maritime travel, trade, warfare, and exploration. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that there are more than three million shipwrecks in Davy Jones’ Locker – an expression first used in print by Daniel Defoe in The Four Years Voyages of Capt. George Roberts (1726).
Odyssey has pioneered “commercial marine archaeology”, which it unblushingly defines as the pursuit of deep-ocean research and exploration as a “for profit” venture. Odyssey believes that this model is currently the only practical way of sustaining highly expensive operations in the long-term. To date it has enabled it to explore more shipwrecks than any other institute in the world:
“Our shipwreck exploration is conducted under strict archaeological and scientific guidelines, supervised internally by our project archaeologists and sometimes externally by archaeologists and other accredited scientists whom we invite to collaborate on projects. Odyssey’s professional mission differs profoundly from marine salvage operations whose sole aim is to recover commercially valuable items from wrecks, typically disregarding their significant archaeological and historic value.”
One of the most interesting wrecks Odyssey has discovered lies almost 3,000 feet (914 meters) below the surface of the western Mediterranean. The site, located in 1998 and named “Melkarth” after a Phoenician god, is an ancient shipwreck carrying a quantity of large ceramic jars, or amphorae, 3 feet in height and some containing their original contents.
Little of the original ship structure remains. Viewed on the seabed, the style, design and quantity of these finds suggest that “Melkarth” is the remains of a Punic merchant vessel dating from the 4th or 3rd Century BCE and intended for open sea travel. A Punic wreck of this era, especially one in deep water, is a tremendously important archaeological and historical discovery.
Analysis of the “Melkarth” amphorae suggests that the majority were from the Phoenician clay quarry and kiln at Kuass, in Morocco. Distinctive red glazed ceramics were manufactured at this one site only and for a period of about 100-150 years. We can only surmise where the ship was bound before it sank and be thankful that its cargo survived to tease the imagination.
Thus Shelley in his verse drama Hellas (1822):
“The world’s great age begins anew,
The golden years return,
The earth doth like a snake renew
Her winter weeds outworn:
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam,
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.”