Herodotus’ mystery vessel turns out to have been real

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

  • 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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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.