Dokos, The Oldest Shipwreck in the World
The cultures and civilizations of the ancient world were not as lonely and isolated as we might think. They were connected by the world’s waterways - the oceans, rivers, and seas. Sailing and maritime exploration are much older than believed, and the Dokos shipwreck is the ideal example of this. Dated to the Proto-Helladic period that lasted in modern Greece from 2700 to 2200 BC, it is the invaluable proof that ancient cultures greatly depended on their ability to master the vast waters that surrounded them. What secrets were unraveled by this venerable shipwreck?
The Dokos Shipwreck Lay Dormant for Centuries
The remains of the Dokos Shipwreck were discovered on August 23rd, 1975, by Edgerton Alvord Throckmorton, known as Peter Throckmorton, an American pioneer underwater archaeologist and photojournalist. As the name suggests, they were discovered off the coast of Southern Greece, near the island of Dokos in the Aegean Sea. In ancient times, the island was called Aperopia, and was a strategic location inhabited since 6000 BC. It is located some 60 miles (100 km) east from ancient Sparta.
Near the island of Dokos in the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Southern Greece, archaeologist and photojournalist Peter Throckmorton discovered the remains of the Dokos shipwreck. (Joachim/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
After the discovery and the initial surveys, it was quickly clear that Dokos is one of the oldest shipwrecks in the world. Lying at a depth of between 15 and 30 meters (50 to 100 ft), this shipwreck does not actually contain the remains of a ship. Due to its age, anything that was biodegradable has long since disappeared and dissolved in the water. However, the wreck site cannot be mistaken - the cargo that was once in the ship lies strewn all across the sea bed in this spot, and consists of hundreds of ancient clay vases and ceramic items. Evidence suggests that many of the items were manufactured in ancient Argolida, a region of Peloponnesus, and that they were intended for trade amongst the many small villages in the Myrtoan Sea and the Gulf of Argos. Alas, the ship never reached its destination, sinking off of Dokos.
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The Secrets of the Ancient Mariners
The Dokos shipwreck was one of the first that was excavated in Greece. Work was carried out extensively between 1989 and 1992 by the Hellenic Institute of Marine Archaeology. As one of the first, pioneering undertakings of this kind, the Dokos Shipwreck excavation did present some new and unexpected challenges. The seafloor on the site was too irregular, and made survey very difficult. Because of this, a new technology was invented - the Sonic High Accuracy Ranging and Positioning System (SHARPS). It helped archaeologists to plot and map the seafloor and all the submerged discoveries.
Stone anchors from the Dokos shipwreck. Early Helladic II. Hellenic Institute of Maritime Archaeology-2nd EPCA. Right; Archaeologists examining Dokos shipwreck. (Hellenic Ministry of Culture/ARF)
The Dokos ship was - without a doubt - a classic merchant vessel. Its entire load consisted of a lot of common household items, most of it ceramics and clay. Over the course of the excavations, the site yielded more than 15,000 pottery pieces and entire artifacts. Amongst them were numerous sauce boats, jars, baking trays, braziers, basins, amphorae, bottles and cups, kitchenware, urns, and anything that was commonly used at the time. Also carried on board were several great millstones. These could have either been for sale as well, or carried as ship’s ballast. Close by were two submerged anchors. These were simple boulders with holes drilled through them. Evidence shows that they were used before the ship sank.
But how and why the Dokos ship sank, remains a mystery. There could be a number of reasons for this. The most logical explanation is a storm that was too severe for a ship of this size and type. No evidence of conflict or piracy exists. The ship lies on the ancient merchant maritime route which extended from South Euboea to the Saronic and Argolid gulfs. But it did not have enough luck - a storm likely capsized it before it could even unload its precious cargo and make a profit.
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The Sea Forgives No One
Studying the pottery fragments and their distinct type, the scientists could positively date this shipwreck to the Proto-Helladic period of Ancient Greek history, dating to between 2700 and 2200 BC. This makes it one of the oldest shipwrecks in the world, even though the ship itself is long gone. Another fact that makes this site so special is the amount of goods recovered. Dokos yielded one of the most precious and extensive collections of early Helladic pottery. What makes that so unique is the fact that the pottery wheel was not dominant at this time, and the Helladic pottery technology was the most advanced considering this.
Sometimes, it is an ancient tragedy that provides vast knowledge in the modern age. For some ancient Helladic sailor, the sinking of his cargo-laden ship was the worst thing that could ever happen. But for us, it is an incredible marvel, a treasure trove of ancient knowledge that provides a clear glimpse into the lives of ancient maritime merchants.
Top image: Representational image of a diver discovering ancient clay vessels. Source: underocean / Adobe Stock.
Anastasi, P. 1989. Aegean Sea Floor Yields Clues to Early Greek Traders. The New York Times.
Dowsett, K. 2023. Maritime History: Dokos, the Most Ancient Shipwreck in the World. Available at: https://www.thescubanews.com/2023/03/12/maritime-history-dokos-the-most-ancient-shipwreck-in-the-world/
Huy, T. 2015. The Dokos Shipwreck. Available at: https://prezi.com/mk-7zl6psjhf/the-dokos-shipwreck/