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(Courtesy Tom Kleindinst, WHOI)

Submerged DNA
Chios, Greece


(Courtesy P. Vezirtis, Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities)

Unexpected insights often result when scientists from different disciplines get together for drinks. That's what happened to archaeologist Brendan Foley of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and environmental geneticist Maria Hansson of Lund University in Sweden. "As science nerds do, we were discussing our research over a glass of wine," says Foley. Using an autonomous underwater vehicle, a robot that operates without a tether to a ship, he had recently surveyed a late classical wreck near the Greek island of Chios, and was lamenting his inability to identify the ship's cargo. "They do DNA analyses on the pots, right?" asked Hansson.

Working with the Greek Ministry of Culture, Foley acquired samples from two amphorae recovered off the wreck. Hansson then conducted standard DNA tests in her lab in Sweden to see if genetic material had survived more than 2,400 years on the bottom of the ocean. "Until now, everyone thought that the marine environment would be a lousy place for the preservation of DNA," says Foley.

Hansson found genetic traces of olive and oregano in one amphora and tree resin in the other--direct evidence of the original contents. The herb would have both flavored and preserved the olive product. "We can see what these ancient people were doing to boost their economies," says Foley. "Now you've got something that tastes good and will last longer."

Foley and Hansson (who are engaged) are now refining the technique and assessing its limitations. Foley envisions testing amphorae from wrecks in collections throughout the Mediterranean to create a clearer picture of the ancient economy than has ever been seen before.

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