Herodotus’ mystery vessel turns out to have been real

Archeologists had been doubtful since no such ship had ever been found.

(Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation)
  • In 450 BCE, Greek historian Herodotus described a barge that's never been found.
  • When the ancient port of Thonis-Heracleion was discovered, some 70 sunken ships were found resting in its waters.
  • One boat, Ship 17, uncannily matches the Herodotus' description.

From [the acacia] tree they cut pieces of wood about two cubits in length and arrange them like bricks, fastening the boat together by running a great number of long bolts through the two-cubit pieces; and when they have thus fastened the boat together, they lay cross-pieces over the top, using no ribs for the sides; and within they caulk the seams with papyrus.

Herodotus wrote these words in his 450 BCE Historia to describe a kind of ship, called a "baris," which he claimed to have seen under construction during his travels in Egypt. (Above is an excerpt — the entire passage is a bit longer at 23 lines.) His description constitutes an odd way to build a boat, and since no evidence of such a vessel had ever been discovered, some wondered if the esteemed Greek historian had made it up or got it wrong.

In 2000, though, the ancient port of Thonis-Heracleion was discovered at the western mouth of the Nile in an expedition led by maritime archeologist Franck Goddio. Thus far, his team has found about 70 ships dating from the eighth to the second century BCE, and guess what? Herodotus knew what he was talking about: Among the ships discovered in recent years was a baris, built just they way he'd described.

Artist's concept of Thonis-Heracleion in its heyday. Yann Bernard © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Ship 17

The vessel, dubbed Ship 17 by archeologists, dates to somewhere between 664 to 332 BCE. It's been submerged in Nile silt for nearly 2,500 years, but is in amazingly good shape, allowing archeologists to uncover about 70 percent of the hull. Their research is being published by Oxford University's Centre for Maritime Archaeology as a book, Ship 17: a baris from Thonis-Heracleion, by Alexander Belov, a member of Goddio's exploration team.

Director of the Centre, Dr. Damian Robinson, tells The Guardian, "It wasn't until we discovered this wreck that we realized Herodotus was right. What Herodotus described was what we were looking at."

(Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation)

Word for Word

Making the identification a bit tricky were errors made in translation from the original Greek, probably since translators had no archeological materials on which to base their interpretation of Herodotus' words. Explains Robinson, "It's one of those enigmatic pieces. Scholars have argued exactly what it means for as long as we've been thinking of boats in this scholarly way." For example, the long internal ribs Herodotus described had never been seen before, leading to confusion as to what he was talking about. "Then we discovered this form of construction on this particular boat and it absolutely is what Herodotus has been saying," says Robinson.

Belov reports that a close comparison of the Historia text and the find shows Herodotus' description matches "exactly to the evidence." In his 2013 paper analyzing the baris' navigation system Belov wrote, "The joints of the planking of Ship 17 are staggered in a way that gives it the appearance of 'courses of bricks'" Herodotus described. Belov suggests it's possible this baris came from the very shipyard Herodotus visited, its details fit so closely. However, this 27-meter baris is a little longer than Herodotus', which may explain what few differences are evident, such as the Ship 17's longer tenons, and the presence of reinforcement frames absent in the historian's accounting.

Still, the find reveals Herodotus knew exactly what he was writing about.

Exploring the sunken port. Image source: Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

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Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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