Archaeologists have precious little information about the seagoing habits of the Minoan civilization, which erected the palace of Knossos on Crete — linked to the Greek myth of the Minotaur. Minoans far exceeded their neighbours in weaponry, literacy and art, and formed “part of the roots of what went on to become European civilization”, says Don Evely, an archaeologist at the British School at Athens, and curator of Knossos. Archaeologists are keen to understand what made the Minoans so successful and how they interacted with nearby cultures such as the Egyptians. Although researchers have studied scores of Roman ships, finding a much older Minoan wreck “would add 100% new knowledge”, says Shelley Wachsmann, an expert in ancient seafaring at Texas A&M University in College Station.
Researchers have already found one potential Minoan wreck site by the island of Pseira, off the northeast coast of Crete. In 2003, archaeologist Elpida Hatzidaki of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities discovered a large collection of underwater pottery dating to around 1800 BC.
But at this site and a few even older ones, no portion of the ship itself survives, and it is hard to determine whether the pottery came from a wreck, was simply thrown overboard, or washed into the sea from the nearby coast. Even those who believe the Pseira site does represent a Minoan wreck admit that the pottery itself — everyday ware of local origin — doesn’t reveal much new information. What archaeologists crave is an equivalent of Ulu Burun, a long-distance trading ship packed with valuable cargo that would reveal how different cultures interacted. “Ships were the way that people communicated and moved about the ancient world,” says Foley. “So if we can find these ancient wrecks, we get a much clearer view of the very dim past.”