Why ancient shipwrecks are even more important than a Pharaoh's tomb

The hunt is on for shipwrecks belonging to the Minoans, the ancient culture that ruled the Mediterranean over 3,000 years ago. But these downed ships don't just reveal one culture - they unlock the secrets of vast ancient economies.

There's a great article over at Nature about Brendan Foley, a marine archaeologist from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and his possibly quixotic search for Minoan shipwrecks. We know precious little about the Minoans other than that they were incredibly advanced for the time in terms of both art and technology - they're sometimes credited as the inspiration for Atlantis, if that gives you some idea - and we know even less about their seafaring habits.

Foley and his team hope their high-tech methods, including a bunch of ocean-combing autonomous robots, will be able to find the shipwrecks where previous attempts have failed. But it's a big sea, and these boats - assuming they're there in the first place - are the proverbial needle in the haystack. So why is the search so important? To give you some idea, here's Nature's description of the Ulu Burun shipwreck, a Bronze Age craft dating back to 1300 BCE discovered in 1982:

The vast cargo includes ebony, ivory, ostrich eggs, resin, spices, weapons, jewellery and textiles as well as ingots of copper, tin and glass. But what really stunned archaeologists was that the artefacts on this one vessel came from at least 11 different cultures - from a gold scarab bearing the name of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti to copper from Cyprus and tin from central Asia.

The wreck provided tangible evidence of an astonishing array of contacts and trade between the different cultures of the Mediterranean and Near East in the late Bronze Age. The Ulu Burun ship sailed at around the time that Tutankhamun ruled Egypt, and "it is far more important than Tutankhamun's tomb as a contribution to our understanding of the period", according to Wachsmann. "This goes to the nitty gritty of the world. It's Wall Street in a ship."

The Minoan civilization predates the Ulu Burun by a couple of centuries, so any discovery would represent, as Foley puts it, "100% new knowledge." For more, check out the original article over at Nature.

Image of ancient Egyptian boat via Wikimedia.