TWO years ago, a Cypriot diver was stunned by a chance find: hundreds of ancient ceramic wine jars, rising from a featureless expanse of flat, desert-like seabed off Cyprus's southern coast.
Together they formed the shape of a ghostly ship, still submerged beneath the sands. It now appears that what the diver discovered was a supertanker of its time, and the biggest and probably oldest wreck ever found in the island's waters.
The merchant vessel may also prove to be one of the best preserved wrecks of the Classical period, from the 5th to 4th centuries BC, archaeologists said yesterday.
"There are very few shipwrecks of Classical times left, so it will be very important for the study of ancient shipbuilding techniques and navigation," said Dr Stella Demesticha, a Greek marine archaeologist and visiting lecturer at the University of Cyprus. "It will add a lot to our knowledge."
The ship was carrying high-quality red wine from a Greek island when it sank a mile-and-a-half off the southern coast of Cyprus in about 350BC, around the time Alexander the Great was born. Within days, several of the large wine jars, or amphorae, were brought to the surface.
Why the vessel sank is a mystery – the result of a collision, storm-tossed seas or perhaps structural failure. There is speculation, however, that similar ships were deliberately scuppered to scam the insurers of the day.
The wine was probably destined for one of the island's renowned ports, Kition or Salamina. Alternately, the ship may have been using Cyprus as a handy stopover on the way to Egypt or the Syrian-Palestinian coast. The island was a well-placed trading hub on the commercial sea routes of antiquity.
The vessel has been named the Mazotos shipwreck after the nearest village, but the wreck's precise location is being kept secret to protect it from treasure hunters. It lies at a depth of 45 metres, meaning divers can only work on the site in 20-minute stretches. Some 500 amphorae were found on the seabed's surface and at least 300 more are believed to lie buried in the sand.
That suggests its cargo was twice the size of Cyprus's most celebrated wreck, the Kyrenia, a 50ft merchant vessel found off the northern coast more than 40 years ago. The Mazotos wreck, then, is probably twice as big as the Kyrenia, which was carrying 385 amphorae.
"It is the largest shipwreck we have found in Cyprus, said Dr Pavlos Flourentzos, the director of Cyprus's Department of Antiquities. "It's approximately 50 years older than the Kyrenia."
Experts say the skills of captains who sailed in the 4th century BC without compasses is often underestimated. The ancients invented geometry, were skilled astronomers and understood the importance of getting goods to market quickly, efficiently and in bulk to turn a good profit.
Nautical experts suggest ancient weather patterns, unafflicted by climate change and global warming, were more predictable and regular than today.
"The ancients possessed an ocean of maritime information," said Glafkos Kariolou, an expert in nautical tourism with the Cyprus Tourism Organisation.
The son of a pioneering Cypriot diver who discovered the Kyrenia, he has skippered a replica of the vessel on several long voyages along shipping routes of antiquity.
"We believe that the ancient mariners knew a lot more about the statistics of weather than we do now," Mr Karioulou said. "They knew meteorology like we know the programme of buses in London. They knew exactly when certain winds would blow, they could predict discrepancies in the weather and knew exactly when to sail."
A team has mapped the site of the Mazotos wreck and the finds lying on the sand and seven amphorae have been found. The wreck itself has yet to be excavated.
But as the amphorae were not dispersed and the ship sank in fine sand on Cyprus's leeward side, archaeologists are hopeful there are wooden remains to be uncovered.
"We have serious reason to believe that the hull of the ship is well-preserved in the sand," Dr Demesticha, who is leading the research, told The Scotsman.
The design of the amphorae from the Mazotos wreck indicates they were from the Greek island of Chios. Wine was a leading product of the north Aegean island in antiquity, exported in distinctive, narrow-bottomed jars with long stems.
Dr Demesticha said the amphorae would have lost their wine almost immediately with the stoppers on their spouts dissolving in the salty water. "Now they contain just seawater and sand," she said.
Wreck's importance to early nautical history
THE Mazotos wreck has been dated to about 350BC, and is one of the few finds dating back to the Classical period, from 475-325BC. It is of potentially enormous importance in tracing early economic and nautical history, shedding light on ancient trade routes and the types and sizes of ships.
Cyprus was an important source of raw materials, particularly timber, and for shipping, at a time of great naval battles such as the Battle of Salamis, in 480BC, when the Greeks defeated a much larger Persian fleet in a battle involving hundreds of ships.
In the aftermath of a revolt against the island's Persian rulers, the city states of Cyprus were divided between pro-Greek and pro-Persian cities.
While archeologists cannot be precise about the dates, they have placed the wreck very close to the birth of Alexander the Great in 356BC.