A joint Greek-American archaeological expedition has found 23 ancient wrecks around the small Fourni archipelago, confirming the Greek site is the ancient shipwreck capital of the world. Discovered last month, the 23 shipwrecks add to other 22 identified last September, bringing the total to 45 wrecks in the last nine months.

One July afternoon in 2015, the maritime archaeologist George Koutsouflakis was talking with a colleague in his Athens office when his phone rang. The caller was a free diver and spear-fisher from the remote Fourni archipelago, a small cluster of islands between Samos and Ikaria in the eastern Aegean. During years of diving and fishing in the coastal waters around Fourni, the man had spotted dozens of areas where the seafloor was strewn with ancient clay vessels—the coral-encrusted cargoes from ships lost at sea long ago. Over the past year he'd made a hand-drawn map and marked the locations of nearly 40 possible shipwrecks. He wanted to show Koutsouflakis the sites.

The timing of the call was perfect: as a native Ikarian, Koutsouflakis had heard rumors of shipwrecks at Fourni for years, and that summer he'd been trying to organize an expedition to locate them. But funding was still precarious. While Koutsouflakis listened to the spear-fisher describe everything he'd seen, he flashed his colleague a grin. He knew that the project would happen.

In just 11 days of diving in September 2015, Koutsouflakis and his co-director Peter Campbell of RPM Nautical discovered 22 shipwrecks. This June they returned to the Fourni archipelago with a team of 25 divers, archaeologists, and artifact conservators. Over 22 days of diving they found an additional 23 pre-modern shipwrecks, raising the total number identified at Fourni so far to 45, an astonishing 20 percent of all known shipwrecks in Greek waters. Peter Campbell recently told Discovery News:

"These shipwrecks demonstrate the truly exceptional significance of the archipelago and establish the project as one of the most exciting currently in archaeology."

A collection of 13 islands and islets located between the eastern Aegean islands of Samos and Icaria, the Fourni archipelago had a critical role both as a navigational and anchorage point. The archipelago lies right in the middle of a major east-west crossing route, as well as the primary north-south route that connected the Aegean to the Levant. Ships traveling from the Hellenic mainland to Asia Minor, or ships leaving the Aegean for the Levant had to pass by Fourni.

Archaeologists from the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities and RPM Nautical Foundation surveyed the seabed along the coastline to depths up to 213 feet. They found shipwrecks from the Archaic period (700-480 B.C.) to the Classical (480-323 B.C.) Hellenistic (323-31 B.C.) and Late Roman (about 300-600 A.D.) through the Early Modern Period (about 1750-1850).

"Overall, Late Roman vessels are still the predominant type, but we see that ships were traveling past Fourni in every time period."

The most significant shipwrecks of the 2016 campaign were a Late Archaic-early Classical wreck with amphoras from the eastern Aegean, a Hellenistic cargo of amphoras from Kos, three Roman cargos of Sinopean (carrot-shaped) amphoras, a wreck of North African amphoras of the 3rd-4th century AD, and a cargo of Late Roman tableware.

The archaeologists also documented a large number of finds such as jettisoned pottery and ancient anchors. Indeed, two massive stone-stocks of ancient anchors dating to the Archaic period are the largest found in the Aegean so far.

"Some shipwrecks even carried goods from North Africa, Spain, and Italy."

He explained the high volume of ship traffic along the trade networks is the reason for the high concentration of wrecks found around Fournï:

"The small islands were really not unsafe. On the contrary, ships were making use of their many bays for shelter from winds and weather while traveling along the Eastern Aegean trade routes."

The archaeologists plan to continue the survey through 2018 to unveil what might be the largest concentrations of ancient shipwrecks in the world.

"For comparison, the United States recently created a national marine sanctuary in Lake Michigan to protect 39 known shipwrecks located in 875 square miles. Fourni has 45 known shipwrecks around its 17 square mile territory."

So far the project, funded by the Honor Frost Foundation and Deep Blue Explorers, has covered less than 50 percent of Fourni's coastline. Many deepwater areas remain to be explored. After mapping each wreck using photogrammetry to create 3D site plans, the project will consider excavating shipwrecks of significant scientific value.
"We believe there are many more wreck sites to be found."

Peter Campbell has earlier commented on the larger impact of the project, saying it could transform the island into the premier destination for underwater archaeology in the Mediterranean.
"We really don't want to be one of those projects where a bunch of foreigners come in, find some artifacts, and then ship them back to Athens. We hope to support the people so they can fund and maintain a world-class maritime museum right here on the island."

Fourni's mayor, John Marousis, said that just a decade ago many Athenians, and nearly all foreigners, had never heard of the archipelago. The main island only got electricity in 1969, and today the permanent population hovers around 1,200 people. The economy depends on tourism, which has declined since the economic crisis. He would like to see a museum on the island, but not just to draw tourists. As a tiny cluster of islands flanked by larger Samos and Ikaria, Fourni has long felt overshadowed.
"Mainly, it's about identity. Samos is famous for their wine and as the birthplace of Pythagoras. Ikaria is famous for the number of old people and the myth of Icarus. Now, we have the shipwrecks."