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Treasure in Sunken Ships

Of the tens of thousands of ships on the ocean bottom, only a handful, less than 1 percent, contain negotiable treasure, such as gold and jewels. Most give us a different priceless treasure -- history. A sunken ship lies in trust, preserved in the airless environment of the sea and those in deep water are especially well protected. No dry land sites anywhere -- except perhaps Egyptian tombs -- are in a better state of preservation than a vessel deep in the ocean. A sunken ship, therefore, can be a rare window through which a moment in time is glimpsed.

This is not to imply that sunken ships are always found intact. Most ships break up on the way down, hit the bottom at about 100 miles per hour, and become a chaotic, confusing jumble. I recall the chagrin of a novice diver who, after surfacing from an underwater tour of a 400-foot ship, asked his diving buddy, "Where was the wreck?" It takes experience to actually know a sunken ship when one sees it. But no matter what its condition on the way down, a ship deteriorates much more slowly as it sinks deeper into protective layers of sand and mud. Ancient vessels have been found in remarkably good condition. In 1977 a group of marine archaeologists excavating a 900-year-old wreck recovered engraved glassware. Greek coins, bronze kettles, and amazingly, Greek jars containing seeds, almonds, and lentils -- even a plate with chicken bones.