Education

Transylvania professor in Greece to explore ancient shipwrecks

Transylvania University Chris Begley has been selected to serve on a team of maritime archaeologists who will explore the Fourni archipelago in Greece, where 22 shipwrecks were found in a cluster last year.
Transylvania University Chris Begley has been selected to serve on a team of maritime archaeologists who will explore the Fourni archipelago in Greece, where 22 shipwrecks were found in a cluster last year. palcala@herald-leader.com

Summer break is a welcome opportunity for teachers and students alike to take a break and enjoy some of their favorite activities.

For Chris Begley, associate professor and director of the anthropology and sociology programs at Transylvania University, this involves traveling to a group of islands in the North Aegean region to research breaking discoveries at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.

“I tend to be attracted to places that offer a challenge,” Begley said.

Begley, named a National Geographic Explorer in 2012 and one of the world’s 50 Most Adventurous Men by Men’s Journal in 2015, will be diving into the deep water around the Fourni archipelago in Greece with a team of other researchers for about a month to assist in the exploration around 22 shipwrecks found last September by Greek and American archeologists.

The initial discovery, a collaboration between the Greek Hellenic Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities and Florida-based RPM Nautical Foundation, revealed wreckage from ships as far back as around 700 B.C. and as recent as around 600 A.D.

“Looking at where it’s positioned on a map, it makes sense that it would be a part of trading routes,” Begley said. “Whether we will get something unexpected farther afield is yet to be seen. If we were going to see something unexpected, this would be the place.”

Peter Campbell, co-director of the project and representing RPM, has worked with Begley several times on expeditions in Montenegro and Croatia, as well as projects with the Cave Archaeology Investigation and Research Network (CAIRN). He said that people like Begley are important in a labor-intensive project like this.

Field work is never easy; a plan is a list of things that don't happen. So having someone like Chris (Begley) and his experience is invaluable.

Peter Campbell, co-director of the project

“Chris is great in the field, I imagine from years of difficult expeditions in the jungles of Honduras,” Campbell said. “Field work is never easy; a plan is a list of things that don't happen. So having someone like Chris and his experience is invaluable.”

The sea around the shipwrecks, while mostly calm, is known to have violent currents from time to time and the geography is made up of sheer cliffs and drop offs. The same elements that may account for the large number of shipwrecks also limits accessibility for archeologists.

Begley said that in an eight-hour day, he might spend an hour in the water. The depth of the wrecks makes it dangerous for divers to spend long spans underwater because of the build-up of gases in the bloodstream over time.

12 of the 22 ships are from the Late Roman Period (300-600 A.D.)

Finding so many ships in a 17-mile radius at a relatively remote location gives the impression that this area was a crossing point for several ancient trade routes. Campbell said that there was evidence of the area being a trading route but that the group was shocked to find so many wrecks.

“While we have explained it through navigational routes, prior to last September no one would have considered this,” Campbell said. “So we are learning a lot about ancient Aegean navigation. However, we are also learning about ancient trade, as this large data set of shipwrecks shows that connections between the Black Sea and the Levant were an arterial route in nearly every period.”

Archeologists will be examining the shipwreck piles for samples of the cargo being traded at the time and further information about sailing techniques. They will also be studying the geography of the area for better understanding of the trade networks that connected civilizations in the East Mediterranean.

Most of the ships have decomposed from time and seaworms, but archeologists can still learn from the wrecks by testing contents of the clay containers on board called amphora.

Begley is best known for his work in documenting archeological sites around the Mosquito Coast of Honduras but said that he has been taking diving seriously since 2009. He has also explored Kentucky waterways using a 3D imaging device that he helped test and develop.

In Honduras, Begley said he relied on the local expertise of the people living in the Mosquito Coast to find artifacts in the jungle. Begley applauded the projects managers’ similar co-operation with locals in Fourni and said that archeologists should be mindful of local knowledge.

“One of the great things about this expedition is that there is collaboration between fisherman and sponge divers in the area,” Begley said. “That fits in precisely with the strategies that I employ.”

He will be back with his students at Transylvania University in the fall, but not before leading a student expedition in El Salvador to study wrecks of steam ships and crater lakes in July.

Despite spending a summer exploring while others are vacationing, Begley seems to have the same passion for his work. After all of the expeditions he has taken part in and the students he has helped encourage every semester, Begley said he still loves archeology.

“I love that it involves solving a mystery, and that it has the physical and mental sides to it. You get dirty and muddy and exhausted one day and then are engaging the most complex social theory the next,” Begley wrote in an email from Athens.

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