Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 367:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 367.

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 period.

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 region.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Anastasi, P., Aegean Sea Floor Yields Clues to Early Greek Traders. The New York Times, Jan. 2, 1989, pp. 1-2.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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