Marine archaeologists have recently discovered 22 shipwrecks in the Greek Aegean region. Associate Professor of History Georgia Tsouvala weighs in on the discovery.

The archipelago of Fourni (or Fournoi Korseon) is between the islands of Samos and Ikaria, located on the eastern part of the Aegean Sea. Fournoi, a group of small islands, were occupied by pirates and freedom-fighters during the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, but it had an ancient settlement which quarried marble and traded it with the Ionians of Miletus, across the coast in what is now Western Turkey.

It is in this archipelago of just 17 square miles, a Greek-American expedition of marine archaeologists located 22 shipwrecks this past September. The news of a great discovery broke late last month. CNN called it “the capital of shipwrecks” and, in a way, it is (for Greek waters, at least) since marine archaeologists usually hope to find, at most, three shipwrecks during a season. Without the completion of the archaeological survey of these waters in the coming years, one cannot know how many ships will be discovered eventually at Fournoi.

The reality is that these finds are of great significance because they add to our knowledge of ancient and medieval sea trade and networks. The cargoes already located (no wood has survived, as far as we know) date from the archaic period (700-490 BCE) to the sixteenth century CE. There are no ships or their cargoes, to my knowledge, that have been excavated to date from the archaic period, and we know very little, in fact, about ancient Greek ships and trade from that time. For example, we have no remains of the Athenian battleships, the triremes, which fought against the Persians at the end of the archaic period, and which created an empire for the Athenians during the classical period.

What we do know about ancient sea trade is that ancient sailors would follow the coast, and with the help of the land and the stars, would travel from one place to the other. The Aegean can be a dangerous place for small boats, even in the summer. Fournoi are situated in an ideal spot. The neighboring coasts of western Samos and eastern Ikaria do not provide refuge. With its natural, small bays, Fournoi can provide a quiet spot for ships and boats until the storms pass on their journey up and down the western coast of what is today Turkey. The archaeologists have reported that the ships they found had cargoes destined for the Black Sea to the north and to Cyprus, the Levant, and, possibly, Egypt, to the south and east.

The discovery of an archaic or classical cargo is really the big news here; another piece of a puzzle has been found.