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10 Greatest Wrecks

RMS Titanic

By JAMES P. DELGADO

Monday, March 11, 2013

North Atlantic Ocean

titanic

The best known maritime disaster of the past few centuries, the sinking of Titanic is remembered for the failure of an engineering marvel equipped with technological advances that were, at the time, believed to render it “practically unsinkable.” The luxury liner took some 1,500 of its 2,200 passengers, from rich and prominent aristocrats to poor immigrants, with it when it struck an iceberg and sank into waters two-and-a-half miles deep. The disaster has inspired countless songs, memorials, books, and films, as well as laws to prevent other ships from going to sea without enough lifeboats and to compel nearby ships to respond to calls for help. Discovered by a joint U.S.-French expedition led by Jean-Louis Michel and Robert D. Ballard in 1985, the wreck of Titanic proved an irresistible lure for explorers, salvagers, and aficionados. Since 1986, more than a hundred deep-sea dives to the wreck have been made, some 5,500 artifacts have been recovered by a private company for public exhibition, and a variety of films, including the James Cameron blockbuster, have been shot at depths once thought inaccessible. Over the past three decades, a variety of other deep-water projects have discovered other wrecks, from the oldest known one in the Gulf of Mexico—a copper-sheathed, early-nineteenth-century vessel found in 2012—to the German battleship Bismarck and the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown. In addition, the discovery of Titanic sparked tremendous interest from explorers and archaeologists, as it showed that the deep ocean, home to many other more or less intact and highly significant shipwrecks, had effectively been “opened up” for research and recovery. A 2012 scientific mission to Titanic used robotic vehicles equipped with sonar and cameras to create a detailed map of the wreck site, as well as high-resolution three-dimensional documentation of the fragmented ship’s various components. Where the original discovery of Titanic marked the deep ocean as the final archaeological frontier, the 2012 Titanic project signaled that archaeological standards can and must be applied to wrecks no matter where they rest. When George Bass began to excavate Cape Gelidonya in 1960, critics claimed that meaningful archaeology could not be done underwater. The five decades since have proven them wrong, even at astounding depths.

USS Monitor and H.L. Hunley

By JAMES P. DELGADO

Monday, March 11, 2013

United States

hl-hunley

Two lost warships from the U.S. Civil War were the subjects of long-standing searches because of their historic status to Americans. Monitor was built in a 100-day rush to counter the threat of the Confederate ironclad Virginia (constructed from remnants of USS Merrimac). They met in combat off Hampton Roads, Virginia, in March 1862. The battle heralded the end of naval combat between wooden ships. With its low hull and rotating turret, Monitor was an engineering triumph, albeit one with flaws that became apparent nine months later, when it foundered off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, taking 16 of its crew with it. The tiny “cheesebox on a raft” was not forgotten, however, and searches by dedicated volunteers finally rediscovered the vessel in 1973, 240 feet down. Hunley, one of several submarines built by each side during the Civil War, gained fame on February 17, 1864, when it attacked USS Housatonic in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, and became the first submarine to sink another vessel in combat. Decades of searches culminated in its rediscovery in 1995. Monitor, designated the first National Marine Sanctuary in the United States, was surveyed and test-excavated before a congressionally directed effort by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Navy raised its propeller, engine, and armored turret. Now housed in the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, Monitor’s machinery and turret are undergoing conservation and analysis, while the rest of the wreck remains 17 miles offshore in the sanctuary. Hunley, excavated and raised in 2000 after analysis by the National Park Service’s Submerged Resources Center and the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, has also been the subject of intense study and conservation, at the Warren L. Lasch Conservation Center outside of Charleston. Undocumented aspects of each vessel’s construction, damage from battle and sinking, and life on board came to light. Hunley, for example, was shown to be an incredibly sophisticated craft, not a crude instrument of war fashioned from boiler iron, as some historians had suggested. Remains of crew members were found in both ships. Forensic work has revealed details about them and, in the case of the Hunley crew, suggests that these men may have died when they brought their craft to settle on the bottom, perhaps for a rest after the crew hand-cranked their sub into battle, only to succumb to foul air.

Yenikapı

By JAMES P. DELGADO

Monday, March 11, 2013

Turkey

yenikapi

The largest group of Byzantine shipwrecks ever found emerged over the last several years from the mud of a now-landfilled harbor on the edge of Istanbul. Excavation for a massive subway station that commenced in 2004 exposed—in what had once been the port of the emperor Theodosius—harbor walls, 34 ships, and successive layers of human habitation, buildings, and other structures, covering a several-thousand-year period from the late Neolithic to the late Ottoman. Wooden combs, amphorae laden with cargo, and the skeletons of camels transported from Africa to haul stone during harbor construction are just some of the millions of artifacts uncovered. The wrecks range in age from the fourth century B.C. to the eleventh century A.D. and represent different types of Byzantine merchant vessels, fishing boats, and naval craft, many in excellent condition. Several vessels represent types never before documented, including four rowed warships known as galea. The excavation, by Istanbul University and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology has ended, for the most part, but the task of analyzing, conserving, and reassembling the Yenikapı vessels will take decades. Texas A&M University’s Cemal Pulak, who oversaw the recovery of five vessels, considers Yenikapı to be the single most important site yet found for understanding Byzantine ships. Before Yenikapı, archaeologists’ detailed knowledge of Byzantine craft was limited to a handful of discrete sites. One of those is the eleventh-century Serce Limani wreck off the Turkish coast. Though its hull was fragmented, Serce Limani contained a unique cargo: close to a million fragments of glass that, through painstaking lab work, now offer an unprecedented view of medieval Islamic glasswork.

Spanish Armada

By JAMES P. DELGADO

Monday, March 11, 2013

Scotland/Ireland

Spanish-Armada

Like Khubilai Khan’s great invasion fleets of the thirteenth century, the Spanish Armada sent by King Phillip II against England in 1588 is legendary not only for its size and power, but also for its defeat and near-annihilation by courageous English sea dogs and the notorious storms along the rock-fanged British coast that lashed the Armada as it fled. Drawn from a variety of ports and sources, the 130-ship, 30,000-man Armada was to invade England, oust Queen Elizabeth I from her throne, and restore a Catholic monarchy, while also ending the Dutch revolt against Spanish authority. The ships included galleons and galleasses, and merchant ships requisitioned from the Baltic and Mediterranean. With some 2,500 guns, the fleet was seemingly unstoppable. Brave and decisive action by English captains is credited with halting it. The English employed tactics such as launching fire ships, vessels set ablaze and sent to crash into and scatter the anchored Armada. The English also had superior rates and accuracy of gunfire. The Armada, driven north, attempted to flee to Spain by circumnavigating the British Isles. As a commemorative medal struck by a victorious Queen Elizabeth noted, “God breathed,” and winter storms lashed the Armada, sending a third of the ships and two-thirds of their mariners and soldiers to watery graves on the shores of Scotland and Ireland. Initially rediscovered by divers eager to find some of the wealth of drowned Spanish noblemen, the Armada wrecks became the subject of decades of archaeological work by Scotland’s Colin C.M. Martin and others. Wrecks such as El Gran Grifon, San Juan de Sicilia, Girona, Santa Maria de la Rosa, and La Trinidad Valencera have yielded evidence of life on board, as well as of the particulars of the ships themselves. Martin’s work has brilliantly shown that poor preparations and haste likely helped doom the Armada, much like the Khan’s invasion fleet. Navigational instruments with mathematical errors along with poorly prepared and badly cast cannons show a lack of care in preparation. The math errors suggest to Martin that Spain’s rigid religious views, which led to the expulsion or forcible “conversion” of Muslim and Jewish citizens after 1492, likely drove off Spain’s most educated, math- and science-literate population. Meanwhile, the two-wheeled, overly long Spanish gun carriages had to be manhandled out of the gun ports, while crews frantically tried to match cannonballs, which, though cast for specific guns, had been tossed indiscriminately into piles. The English had smaller, more easily maneuvered, four-wheeled gun carriages, and uniform-sized guns with shot that fit all their weapons. Archaeology provided the explanation as to why English rapid-fire gunnery was answered slowly, sometimes at a snail’s pace, by Spanish ships with more cannons but no means to use them effectively.

Mary Rose and Vasa

By JAMES P. DELGADO

Monday, March 11, 2013

England/Sweden

Mary-Rose

Two massive, well-preserved warships from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the basis of extensive archaeological projects. The recovery and display of these two impressive survivors from the age of the galleon and the rise of sea power offer an unmatched view of ships as a means of national expansion and domination. Each wreck was filled with weapons, provisions, personal effects, and navigational instruments, as well as preserved clothing and the skeletal remains of their crews. Built in 1509–10 and lost when it capsized while going into battle in 1545, Mary Rose was the pride of English King Henry VIII’s fleet. After excavation on the seabed, which revealed the intact starboard side with four deck levels holding 22,000 artifacts, Mary Rose’s hull was raised to the surface for treatment and display in Portsmouth. The hull’s timbers show how the ship, originally built as a floating fortress for archers and short-range fighting, was modified to accommodate new technology: cannons. Those changes made the ship top-heavy, especially when loaded with supplies and men, leading to its demise. Like Mary Rose, Vasa also capsized. It went to the bottom of Stockholm Harbor on its maiden voyage in 1628. Built to carry 64 cannons and a fighting force, the massive and ornately decorated Vasa was the pride of Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus as he built his nation into a global power. Rediscovered intact and buried in mud—preserved by the cold, brackish waters of the Baltic, which are hostile to wood-devouring marine organisms—Vasa was raised in 1961. Excavation of the seabed and the interior of the ship yielded approximately 25,000 artifacts, including some 700 sculptural pieces that were once attached to the hull. The finds document not only the fitting out and armament of the ship, but also the personal possessions of its crew, from the well-off to the poor, and the skeletal remains of men and women, some still wearing shoes and clothing. After decades of conservation and reassembly, Vasa sits in a custom-built museum in Stockholm. To this day, it remains the world’s largest archaeologically recovered ship.

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