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The Persian War Shipwreck Survey (pwss)

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The Persian War Shipwreck Survey

Reported by
Shelley Wachsmann, PhD

Institute of Nautical Archaeology

PO Drawer HG

College Station, TX 77841-5137

Tel. (979) 847-9257

Fax (979) 847-9260


Words: 1003

The Persian War Shipwreck Survey (PWSS). Shelley Wachsmann (Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University) reports on the Persian War Shipwreck Survey, a collaborative project of the Canadian Institute in Greece (CIG), the Greek Ephorate of Maritime Antiquities (EMA), directed by Katerina Delaporta, and the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research (HCMR), directed by George Chronis. The project aims to locate, map and record shipwrecks, their cargoes and related artifacts in areas where historical sources indicate that large fleets sank due to weather or battles during the Persian War. HCMR’s research vessel, the 62m R/V Aegaeo served as the base of operations and the team used the ship’s deep-water equipment (sidescan sonar, bottom profiler, Thetis submersible and remote operated vehicles [ROVs]) in the survey.

“The fourth (2006) cruise examined the Magnesian coast and the southern side of the Artemision Channel.

Along the Magnesian coast the expedition collected sidescan sonar targets and acoustic profile data. Our scans covered a linear distance of over 200km and we examined some 75 sidescan anomalies with the Max Rover ROV, while we employed the Thetis to survey regions closer to shore and around rocky headlands.

This survey may have contributed to our understanding of the geography related to the the location Herodotus (VII, 179-192) gives for the losses to the Persian fleet off the coast of Magnesia. We visually inspected the coast from modern Cape Sepias north to the plain that divides the massif of Mt. Pelion from that of Mt. Ossa. In this area we searched for remains of Xerxes’ ships destroyed by a nor’easter that lasted three days while the fleet anchored between its base at Therma (modern Thessaloniki) and its stations at Aphetae, opposite the Greek fleet arrayed at Aretemision. One of the challenges in searching for these ships is determining the precise location of the beach where they had anchored when the storm hit. According to Herodotus, the beach was located “between Kasthanaia and Cape Sepias” and was too small to pull all the ships ashore, causing the fleet to anchor “eight-deep.” He reports some 400 warcraft lost to the storm along with numerous support vessels and notes that the wreckage scattered to sites that included the Ipnoi (“Ovens”) near Mt. Pelion, as well as Sepias, Miliboa and Kasthanaia. Greek lookouts on Euboea witnessed the consequences of the storm on the Persian fleet.

Modern nautical charts identify Cape Sepias as the headland at Magnesia’s southeastern tip. If this is correct, it implies that the short stretches of beach immediately to the north should be where the disaster occurred. Pritchett and other scholars expressed doubts about this identification, however. They note that modern Cape Sepias lies close to the beaches at Aphetai—the Persians’ intended destination and a coastline protected from northeasterly winds. It seemed unlikely that the Persians would have preferred to stop just short of their goal on an unsuitable beach.

Although it appears that no researcher surveyed the entire Magnesian Coast from the sea to establish the location of all possible beaches, some spectacular caves near the coast’s northern end convinced Pritchett and others to identify them with the “Ovens.” The editors of the Barrington Atlas of Classical Antiquity agree with this identification, and follow the revisionists in identifying a nearby site as “Kasthanaia” and an apparent promontory to the south as “Sepias.”

Our survey revealed many caves at the water’s edge. Additionally, a few miles north of Pritchett’s proposed site for the narrow beach where the disaster occurred we noted a spectacular beach, over 9km long, that could have easily accommodated the entire Persian fleet. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that the Greek lookouts would have known of the disaster if it occurred so far north. Nevertheless, we did conduct sidescan sonar and ROV searches in this area, encountering here (as elsewhere on the Magnesian Coast) a heavily-sedimented bottom with no visible remains. We agree with the localization of Cape Sepias on modern nautical charts, which place it at the southeastern headland of Magnesia and believe that the beach at Agios Ioannes may conform best to the geographical considerations given by Herodotus.

We hoped that the survey of the southern side of the Artemision Channel would not have to contend with deep sediments as this area has yielded some of the most spectacular antiquities recovered from the sea. In the 1920s the famous Artemision bronze statues of the striding god (Zeus or Poseidon), the racehorse and the jockey came from a shipwreck site about 500m offshore from Pevki Bay—the ancient station of the Greek war fleet at Artemision in August, 480 B.C. These statues, dating from the fifth century B.C. and the Hel period respectively appear to have been part of the cargo of a ship that sank during the Hel or Rom periods. It seemed reasonable, therefore, to anticipate that other antiquities might lie exposed in the seafloor in this area. Neither sidescan nor ROV searches revealed any ancient remains here in 2006, however. Perhaps currents running through the channel scour the seafloor in unpredictable ways here.

One Thetis dive discovered a cluster of some 20 amphoras at the southeastern end of the Artemision channel, strongly suggesting the presence of a shipwreck there (Fig. 1). EMA archaeologists recovered one amphora for cleaning and further study (Fig. 2). Although the amphora was heavily encrusted with marine growth, precluding identification, the amphora may be dated to the Cl or Hel periods.

The 2006 fieldwork season concludes the Persian War Shipwreck Survey. In previous years we surveyed the coastlines of the Athos peninsula, the northern shores (Magnesia) of the Artemision Channel and the southeastern coast of Euboea, which is generally identified with the ‘Hollows of Euboea.” Thus, the Survey has examined—albeit small—portions of all the locations in which Herodotus places fleet losses, with the notable exception of Salamis. Unfortunately, the Salaminian channel is unavailable for research as it has served as Athens sewage dumping ground for decades and because it remains a particularly active waterway. For further information, please visit the PWSS website at (

Captions for illustrations

1. An amphora in situ. Photo: D. Davis.

2. Amphora raised from the site. Photo: D. Davis.

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