Twenty-Two Ancient Shipwrecks Discovered in a Small Greek Archipelago in the Eastern Aegean

A joint Greek-American archaeological expedition to the Fourni archipelago recorded twenty-two shipwrecks over thirteen days in what may be the ancient shipwreck capital of the world. The findings bring to light ancient trade networks that once connected the entire Mediterranean.

​​The Fourni Underwater Survey locates twenty-two ancient shipwrecks in the eastern Aegean.

The discovery is among the top archaeological finds of 2015.

The expedition was a collaboration between the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities (EUA) and RPM Nautical Foundation (RPMNF), directed by George Koutsouflakis (EUA), Jeffrey Royal (RPMNF), and Peter Campbell (RPMNF/University of Southampton). Funding was provided by the Honor Frost Foundation, a UK charity that supports research in the eastern Mediterranean through an endowment from pioneer maritime archaeologist Honor Frost. Sponsors included Carrefour Ikaria, Eurobrokers, and the Municipality of Fourni Korseon.

"The concentration of ancient shipwrecks is unprecedented. The volume of shipwrecks in Fourni, an island that had no major cities or harbors, speaks to its role in navigation as well as the perils of sailing the eastern Aegean."

Peter Campbell

Project co-director, RPM Nautical Foundation

Fourni is a collection of thirteen islands and islets located between the eastern Aegean islands of Samos and Icaria. The small islands never hosted large cities, instead its importance comes from its critical role as an anchorage and navigational point in the eastern Aegean. Fourni lies along a major east-west crossing route, as well as the primary north-south route that connected the Aegean to the Levant.

This was the first underwater archaeological expedition to the islands. The project’s success came through working with local sponge divers, fishermen, and free divers together with technology and archaeological methods.

The shipwrecks date from the Archaic Period (700-480 BC) though the Late Medieval Period (16th century). Several wrecks date to the Classical (480-323 BC) and Hellenistic (323-31 BC) periods, but over half of the wrecks date to the Late Roman Period (circa 300-600 AD). The ships’ cargos point to the importance of long distance trade between the Black Sea, Aegean Sea, Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt in all these periods. The findings offer insight into ancient maritime connections, as well as rare discoveries. “What is astonishing is not only the number of the shipwrecks but also the diversity of the cargoes, some of which have been found for first time,” says Greek director George Koutsouflakis. At least three of the sites have cargoes that have not been found previously on shipwrecks.

Archaeologists mapped each shipwreck using photogrammetry to create 3D site plans. Representative artifacts were excavated and raised from each wreck site for scientific analysis. These artifacts are currently undergoing conservation at the Ephorate’s laboratory in Athens and may go on displays in museums in the future.

The discovery adds 12% to the total number of known ancient shipwrecks in Greece. The findings suggest a great quantity of the shipwrecks await discovery in Fourni. “In a typical survey we locate four or five shipwrecks per season in the best cases,” says Koutsouflakis. “We expected a successful season, but no one was prepared for this. Shipwrecks were found literally everywhere.”

For comparison, the United States recently created a national marine sanctuary in Lake Michigan to protect 39 known shipwrecks located in 875 square miles. Fourni now has 22 known shipwreck in islands with an area of 17 square miles.

“The concentration of ancient shipwrecks is unprecedented,” says Peter Campbell, project co-director from US based RPM Nautical Foundation. “The volume of shipwrecks in Fourni, an island that had no major cities or harbors, speaks to its role in navigation as well as the perils of sailing the eastern Aegean.”

Less than 5% of Fourni’s coastline has been explored for underwater cultural heritage. Local fishermen and sponge divers have reported many more leads that will be followed up in future seasons. “The local response to the project has been incredible and it is through working with the community that we were able to exceed expectations,” says Campbell. “Archaeology is about people; those in the past as well as those in the present. The highlight has been bringing the past back to life for people that are engaged with their history.”

The team plans to return next year to continue the survey.


Categories: Travel, Research, Personal Travel

Tags: archaeology, archeology, discovery, history


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RPM Nautical Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to maritime research and education in the Mediterranean Sea.

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