Ancient shipwrecks, modern damage to historic sites highlighted in Lyman Allyn exhibition

Robert Ballard talks Tuesday about a new exhibit featuring his discoveries of ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean and Black seas, now open at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London.

New London - Discoveries of ancient shipwrecks and cautionary tales of the damage that trawlers can do to those relics are all part of a new exhibition at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, presented in collaboration with underwater explorer Robert Ballard and his Ocean Exploration Trust.

"Lost at Sea: Shipwrecks of the Ancient World," which opened Friday and remains on view through Feb. 1, developed out of a doctoral thesis by Michael Brennan, Ballard said. Brennan was a student of Ballard's at the University of Rhode Island and is now director of marine archaeology and maritime history for the Ocean Exploration Trust.

Brennan was the leader on expeditions aboard the trust's vessel Nautilus in Turkey from 2009 to 2012, and he used data from that period for his thesis. With the exhibition, he said, "We're trying to show that archaeological sites can be destroyed not just by, say, bulldozers or looters on land ... but also by human activities in the ocean."

The shipwreck Eregli E is a prime example, and Brennan said it's vital to find these underwater sites and then protect them.

"Lost at Sea" deals in general with human history in the deep sea, and it encompasses a wide range of related topics, from how ancient ships were built, to how ancient artifacts are preserved, to what happens after a ship sinks. The latter details how, for instance, wood is devoured by marine organisms but other substances can decompose more slowly; many amphoras - two-handed clay jars that the show describes as "the shipping container of choice for over 2,000 years" - are likely to remain intact. A variety of amphoras are displayed in "Lost at Sea."

The current state of underwater exploration is showcased, too. In one gallery, visitors can watch live-streaming images from the E/V Nautilus, which is currently in the Gulf of Mexico. Next door, a collection of past clips roll on a TV, showing researchers when they actually found various wrecks; Ballard said, "It's sort of cool because you're getting raw, unedited segments - these are clips of discovery."

A couple of exploration vehicles have been lugged inside another gallery. The Hercules relays high-quality video images of underwater artifacts. The Echo, a sidescan sonar tow sled, uses sound to create images of the sea floor and the objects there.

Ballard spoke Tuesday about how the exhibition - which is new, although a few segments have been seen elsewhere - came about at the Lyman Allyn.

"Interestingly enough, my son goes to Connecticut College, and my daughter goes to the Williams School," he said. "We have an intern program with Connecticut College, and we're working with the Coast Guard Academy. Do I need to say more?

"When you look at the Lyman Allyn and you look at the nature of their exhibitions here, it would seem like the perfect thing to do."

Ballard talked about archeological oceanography, which is a new field of science. Traditionally, archeology had been done in shallow water, down to about 100 feet, but new oceanography equipment allowed for work to be done at 20,000 feet.

"This is really about two communities coming together - the oceanographers coming with the technology and the archeologists coming with the questions," Ballard said.

The main question in this case was: Did ancient mariners travel far from shore? Scholars used to be believe they didn't, but Ballard and his team discovered they did. They explored a route from Sardinia to Sicily, and the idea, Ballard said, was "Let's see if we can find an ancient trade route, marked by (the ship's) trash. ... I refer to it as I-95 without an Adopt-a-Highway program."

Those ancient remnants would show that ships did travel that stretch. The explorers did, in fact, find items like amphoras at the Skerki Bank in the Mediterranean Sea. They moved beyond that area and found more evidence.

"Working with archaeologists, we recovered and went through the elaborate process of stabilizing them so scholars could unravel this trade route," Ballard said. " ... We were able to prove that (ancient mariners) did use deep-water trade routes."

The team then moved to the Black Sea, where they hoped to find better preserved wrecks, since there's no oxygen below a certain depth in that sea.

In the Black Sea in 2011, the Nautilus found the ancient Eregli E wreck, which had been damaged by bottom trawl fishing nets. The team had to get permits from the Turkish government to further explore the site, which took about a year. By that time, trawlers caused even more destruction - and the humans bones that the Nautilus crew had seen before were now gone.

And that is a large part of the exhibition's message: as Ballard said, it's about "how much history is being destroyed by trawlers."

They are working to try to prevent that.

"We have found more shipwrecks than anyone else on the planet in deep water, and we've turned over their latitude and longitude to the Turkish government," Ballard said.

They are hoping the government will have its Coast Guard ban trawling operations in those key areas.

k.dorsey@theday.com

IF YOU GO

What: "Lost at Sea: Shipwrecks of the Ancient World"

Where: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London

When: Through Feb. 1; hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun.

Admission: $10 adults, $7 seniors and students over 18, $7 active military personnel with ID, $5 students under 18. Free admission for members, kids under 12, and New London residents

Contact: (860) 443-2545, lymanallyn.org

A new exhibit at Lyman Allyn Art Museum includes artifacts from ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean and Black seas.
A new exhibit at Lyman Allyn Art Museum includes artifacts from ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean and Black seas.
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