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Why do Virtual Heritage? March 13, 2008
by Donald H. Sanders

The Kyrenia Shipwreck

[image]Photograph (top) showing the cleaned excavated Kyrenia shipwreck and rendering (bottom) showing the amphora pile amid the eelgrass that marked the shipwreck's initial location to divers (Photograph © 1969 Susan Katzev; and rendering © 2006 Institute for the Visualization of History, Inc.)

Around 300 B.C., a small Greek ship sank with all its cargo and contents off the north coast of Cyprus. Soon after its discovery by a local sponge diver, the wreck was excavated between 1967 and 1969 by Michael and Susan Katzev and an international team. The excavation's documentation was completed in 1974 and consisted of traditional site plans, color and black-and-white photographs, and standard catalog cards for artifacts.


Rendering from the virtual reality model of the Kyrenia shipwreck showing the fully loaded hull after excavation and clearing (© 2006 Institute for the Visualization of History, Inc.)

[image]Flyover from the virtual reality model of the Kyrenia shipwreck showing the lowest level of amphoras and millstones

(© 2006 Institute for the Visualization of History, Inc.)

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Work on the final publication of the Kyrenia wreck began only after many years of analyzing the cargo (nearly 1,000 pieces of pottery, thousands of food items, and hundreds of stone, metal, and wooden artifacts) and the ship's timbers. Despite the long time spent studying all the evidence, questions remained. It is unusual in shipwreck archaeology to have such an old ship survive so completely, with so much of its cargo still nicely dispersed along a surviving hull. Could there be clues there to help researchers determine not only the original arrangement of the contents, but also what happened to the ship when it crashed into the seabed, breaking apart and scattering its cargo? Most "amphora wrecks" are just that, wreck sites marked by the piles of amphoras (the ceramic vessels commonly used in the classical world to transport wine and oil), but containing little or no evidence of the ship that carried them. Typical transport amphoras have long tapering bases, so they cannot stand up by themselves and had to be somehow secured onboard ship so they did not rattle around and break during a voyage. No one is quite sure how this was accomplished, yet given the vast number of unbroken surviving amphoras at this and other wreck sites, ancient sailors clearly had a solution. The Kyrenia excavation team finally realized that these questions could not adequately be answered by traditional archaeological interpretive or visualization methods, but that virtual reality might resolve them.

Since each virtual object modeled in the computer can be assigned a weight and given the characteristics of how it would fall or roll during the various stages of the ship's collapse, our first goal was the modeling the hull and cargo in the state of final collapse as excavated. Our second goal will be to create a completely as-built digital version of the ship and place objects into the hull where, according to our best guess, we believe they were loaded, then to fast forward through the stages sinking and impacting the seabed, watching where the cargo items end up. We will rerun that scenario, changing the starting positions of the cargo each time, until the objects end up in an array that matches the positions where they were found.

The benefits of this project so far have been our ability to test the accuracy of the amphora pile drawings of and interpretations about the shipwreck. Eventually we hope to test many hypotheses about the cargo and the ship's seaworthiness and last days. With virtual reality and the Kyrenia project results, we will create for future amphora wreck discoveries, methods for understanding the types of ships that sank, how their cargo was arranged, and how ancient wooden ships break apart and decay.

Introduction & Conclusion Project 1

The Tantura Shipwrecks
Project 3

The Monument at Actium
Project 4

The Northwest Palace at Nimrud
Project 5

The Temple of Athena Polias
© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America