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No. 268:
An Etruscan Wreck

Today, technology puts flesh and blood on an ancient race. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 600 BC, the dominant people in the Italian boot were the Etruscans. Two hundred years later, they'd be absorbed into the new Roman empire, but for now they formed the cultural and political center of the region. Then one day -- around 600 BC -- a small Estruscan merchant vessel sank off the island of Giglio -- just west of central Italy. It was carrying olives and olive oil -- it was trading Corinthian perfumes.

No doubt the Etruscans lost other ships during three cent- uries of dominance, but this one came to rest in just 150 feet of water. And there it lay until 1961. Then Reg Vallintine, an English diving instructor on Giglio, found it while he was lead- ing a group on a dive. After 2600 years, only scattered merchan- dise, stone anchors, and most of a keel remained. For some time after that, divers picked up random souvenirs. They stole an amphora here and a set of Pan-pipes there. It was, after all, just another old hulk, wasn't it?

Vallintine tried to get the Italians to protect the site; but he had no luck. An Oxford don finally spotted a pottery fragment among the pieces Vallintine had brought back to England. The man realized it was Etruscan and very old. So he and Vallin- tine organized an expedition to sift through the site.

By the time their team went to work, more damage had been done. In 1983, a renegade group went in with a huge vacuum cleaner. They sucked up rocks and pots -- flutes and fishes. They smashed priceless relics in the process. Now, after 25 years, careful salvage finally began -- not only on the wreck, but on tracking down previous souvenir hunters, as well.

And the full import of the site began to come clear. This was the oldest shipwreck site in the world. In its details were woven the fabric of a high technology that'd flourished well before the glory of Athens. We see the odd way the Etruscans sewed the planks of their ships together to keep them watertight. We find a perfectly beautiful tooled helmet -- as much a work of art, as of armor. Everything seems to be illustrated with ornate patterns and larger-than-life animals.

The Etruscans didn't write much. What we know of them, we read far more from their works than from their words. But their technology speaks to us with great eloquence. It tells their love of beauty. It tells of order and balance in their lives.

The sea at Giglio finally yielded its greatest treasure. It filled in our picture of the Etruscans. Their works help us see them, no longer alien, but as people we'd like to have known.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Morris, K. and Rowlands, P., Exploring Shipwrecks. New York: Gallery Books, 1988, pp. 12-37.

Note added, Sept. 3, 2015: Listener Johnston Knox Corbett writes to pount out that, at present, the oldest known shipwreck is that of a 14th Century BC merchant vessel found off the coast of Uluburun, Turkey. It was discovered in 1982, and its excavation was completed in 1994, 5-1/2 years after this early episode in the series. See details here.