Today, we peer through a 4200-year-old window. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Dokos is a little island in
southern Greece. It's about 60 miles west of
Sparta. Off its shore, 65 feet under water, is a
rare archaeological site. I can't call it a
shipwreck, because no trace of any ship remains.
What does remain makes sense only as the hardware
and cargo from a ship -- one that sailed 4200 years
ago. Everything biodegradable -- wood, leather,
fabric -- has long since melted back into the sea.
Greece had hardly found its way out of the stone
age when the ship went down in 2250 BC. Her
builders had taken up the use of copper only 600
years before. They were just learning how to use
bronze. The scattered fragments on the ocean bottom
tell us about that emergence from the Neolithic
Among the remains we find stone anchors -- really
no more than boulders with holes drilled through
them. They're the first stone anchors we've ever
found in a wreck. We find hundreds of ceramic
pieces -- cups, kitchenware, and urns. We find lead
ingots for trade.
As we riddle through the pieces, we're in for a
surprise. The wreckage includes at least seven
kinds of sauce boat. They represent different
regions of Greece. This ship was a wide-ranging
merchantman, moving tableware from all over the
That sort of trade would normally be no surprise.
But then we start to digest the age of this find.
This ship sank 700 years before the Greeks took up
writing. It went down almost two millennia before
Athens was great. This is in fact the oldest direct
evidence of nautical trade we have.
And what sort of ship carried all these goods? We
have only pictures to go on. Vases from the period
showed ships. The contemporary Minoan seal carries
a picture of one that might have been similar. It
was most likely a galley, 80 feet long, with a low
prow and a high stern.
Our picture of Greece on the threshold of its
history is sketchy. Without written documents, we
must read what we can from very skimpy remains. We
struggle to learn more from the epics and legends.
An archaeological trove of a new and different form
adds immeasurably to what we know. But it only
serves us when we read the fragments like a code.
Two different orders of ingenuity converge on the
ocean bottom. One is the ingenuity of ancient
engineers who'd accomplished so much more than we
thought they had. The other is the ingenuity of
modern detective work, gazing into a distant past
through this odd window on the ocean bottom.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds