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The Deepest Shipwreck Ever Found

by Aliya Whiteley

The oceans still hold many secrets. We're only just beginning to find ways to explore the deepest trenches, using technological advances to look at the strange creatures and landscapes that inhabit the total darkness found thousands of feet below the surface.

But though they've been difficult to access, there are also human artifacts at those depths—objects that have sunk to lie, undisturbed, for many years. Humans have been making boats since prehistoric times; who knows how many wrecks now lie in the deep?

The question of just how many wrecks lie in the deep is difficult to answer, but according to Guinness World Records, the deepest shipwreck that has been identified so far is a German blockade runner from World War II—the SS Rio Grande. In early January 1944, it was sunk by two U.S. ships in the South Atlantic Ocean. It lies at a depth of about 18,900 feet—more than 3.5 miles below the surface—and was discovered on November 28, 1996, using side-scanning sonar technology. Two days later, the company responsible for the find, Blue Water Recoveries, confirmed the wreck using a remotely operated vehicle.

It’s impossible to even guess at how many shipwrecks might yet lie in the deepest parts of the oceans (the Mariana Trench reaches a depth of about 36,000 feet). Just to give some perspective, more than 150 ships sank in January 1944 alone.

Not all sunken ships are wartime casualties, of course. One of the oldest shipwrecks found thus far was a cargo ship that was discovered off the coast of southern Turkey in 1982. The Uluburun wreck is 3300 years old. The cargo it carried has been recovered by divers, and included copper, tin, glass, ebony, weapons, food, elephant tusks, hippopotamus teeth, tortoise shell, and amber beads. Some personal items from the crew were also recovered, including a scarab made of gold that bears the seal of Nefertiti, wife of the pharaoh Akhenaten. It now resides in the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology. More recently, divers in Greece have found wrecks dating as far back as 525 BCE.

It’s staggering to imagine how many crafts, and how many people, must have been claimed by the sea over the centuries—that technology is now, finally, allowing us to find.

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Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
These 12,000-Year-Old Fish Hooks Are the Oldest to Ever Be Discovered in a Grave
Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.
Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.

Prehistoric people who lived on Indonesia’s rugged and remote Alor Island held fishing in such high importance that even the dead were supplied with equipment for snagging a fresh catch. While digging at an archaeological site on the island’s south coast in 2014, scientists found a group of ancient fish hooks, which were buried with an adult human around 12,000 years ago. They’re the oldest fishhooks to ever be discovered in a grave, according to a new report published in the journal Antiquity.

Archaeologists from Australian National University found the partial skeleton while excavating an early rock shelter on Alor’s west coast. The bones—which appeared to belong to a female—were interred with five circular one-piece fish hooks made from sea snail shell. Also found was a perforated bivalve shell, buried beneath the skeleton’s chin. It’s unclear what purpose this artifact served, but experts did note that it had been smoothed and polished, and appeared to have once been dyed red.

Ancient fish hooks discovered in Indonesia by archaeologists from Australian National University
Rotating fish hooks found with the burial

Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on AlorIsland, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys, and Rachel Wood.

Prehistoric fish hooks found in Indonesia by archaeologists from Australian National University.
Circular rotating fish hooks found with the burial

Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on AlorIsland, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.

Researchers used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of charcoal samples found near the burial ground. From this, they determined that the fish hooks and human remains were buried during the Pleistocene Epoch.

Alor Island, the largest island in the volcanic Alor Archipelago, is rocky and lacks a variety of plant life and protein sources. For these reasons, fish was likely an important staple food for ancient residents, and the act of fishing may have also been considered cosmologically important, archaeologists say.

The burial on Alor Island "represents the earliest-known example of a culture for whom fishing was clearly an important activity among both the living and the dead,” the study's authors wrote. Additionally, if the skeleton indeed belonged to a woman (the bones themselves haven't yet been conclusively identified), the hooks might suggest that women in ancient Alor were tasked with hook-and-line fishing, just like those in ancient Australia.

Archaeologists have identified prehistoric fishing hooks at sites around the world. They range from 23,000-year-old hooks, discovered on Japan’s Okinawa Island (the world’s oldest-known fishing implements), to slate hooks from Siberia’s late Mesolithic period (the second-oldest hooks ever found in a gravesite).

The fishing hooks discovered on Alor are circular instead of J-shaped, and resemble other ancient hooks that were once used in countries like Japan, Australia, Mexico, and Chile. Some experts have suggested that these similarities in technology were the result of migration, cultural contact, or even from fish hooks left in migrating tuna. The researchers at Australian National University argue against this theory, hypothesizing that the similarly shaped hooks are instead evidence of “convergent cultural evolution in technology” around the globe.

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Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
3100 Years Ago, an Elite Family Stashed Their Silver Jewelry in a Beer Jug
Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University
Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University

Instead of containing traces of alcohol, a 3100-year-old beer jug discovered by archaeologists in Israel was stuffed with silver jewelry. Unearthed in 2010 at the Bronze Age settlement of Megiddo, the vessel contained several dozen ancient baubles, ranging from bracelets to beaded works, according to Science News. One of the researchers, Eran Arie, presented the findings earlier this month in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

The jewelry-bearing jug likely belonged to a high-ranking Canaanite family, who hid it in the corner of a courtyard. A bowl, and perhaps a cloth shroud, was placed over the container to conceal it. It's unclear why the family left their expensive hoard there, as it likely comprised the majority of their personal wealth, but the find does shed light on how wealthy families tried to keep their valuables safe.

A bowl concealed an Iron Age jug with its neck removed, to accommodate a hoard of precious jewelry.
A bowl concealed an Iron Age jug with its neck removed, to accommodate a hoard of precious jewelry.
Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University

 A 3100-year-old jewelry hoard, including earrings, beads, a ring, and silver jewelry wrapped in linen cloths.
A 3100-year-old jewelry hoard, including earrings, beads, a ring, and silver jewelry wrapped in linen cloths.
Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University

The owners removed the jug's narrow neck to place the jewelry inside. The cache included 35 silver works—including earrings, rings, and a bracelet, wrapped in two linen cloths—along with carnelian and beads made from electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, which were once probably park of a necklace.

Experts haven't figured out who the jewelry's owners were, but one theory is that they were connected to the government because the courtyard and its surrounding building were once located near the city palace. Since the building appeared to have been destroyed—perhaps in a battle—it's thought that the family fled during a time of crisis, leaving their treasures to sit undetected for millennia. 

[h/t Science News]

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