On a typical beach day, you could spend hours scanning the sand and not find much more than a couple broken shells and bottle caps. The overabundance of litter and tourists will quickly banish any fantasies of buried treasure. However, world-changing finds could be sitting right under your towel; you just need to know that not all treasure looks like rubies and gold.
The granite-coated coast of Jersey is home to ancient artifacts that erode more and more each time the salty tide hits them at full force. And while the rough tides are wearing away some of these invaluable objects, others are being exposed for the first time ever — and archaeologists are desperate to get their hands on them.
On the largest of the Channel Islands, right off the coast of Jersey, ancient artifacts thousands of years old are submerged under the ocean tides. While the tides have obviously altered said artifacts, experts really want to find them.
Specifically, the intertidal reef of Violet Bank is flourishing with history, though now it’s a common spot for locals to dabble in low-water fishing. Archaeologists nevertheless aimed to visit the bank and dig up some archaic treasures. There was one mystery they really wanted to solve.
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The team from University College London wanted to further understand the origins of lithic (stone) artifacts and mammoth remains that slowly revealed themselves from inside coastal ravines over the years. It was a race against the tides — but where to begin?
Well, members of Société Jersiaise, a sophisticated club founded in 1873 to study Jersey archaeology and history, let the archaeologists know about the specific spots that held the most physical history along the bank. These cultured society members had spent countless hours studying the area.
In fact, within the last five years, these society members came across a mammoth tooth, flint tools, and middle Paleolithic technologies while exploring the coast at low tide. They figured that there was more out there.
Wessex Archaeology / Flickr
For help, the UCL team partnered with Jersey Heritage, an organization that overlooks the many castles, fortifications, and other ancient island artifacts. And when the team arrived to the rocky coast, the archaeologists had a slew of equipment ready to further examine the bank.
“The shallow reefs and numerous rocks from which it is formed have claimed many ships and the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sailors and passengers,” stated Paul Chambers, the marine and coastal manager with the Government of Jersey, in an email.
“This toll includes 400 men from the failed French invasion of 1781 who were shipwrecked while attempting to navigate the Violet Bank,” he continued. If you can believe it, there were recent wrecks here, too.
Along with the slew of curious, shipwrecked sailors the monstrous tides have claimed over several centuries, German World War II soldiers were also fatally claimed by unpredictable currents. With a crew assembled and a location in mind, the scholarly team needed to find the perfect moment to start their search.
But the island of Jersey, which is closer to France than it is to Britain, is accustomed to constant movement of the ocean, as the Atlantic aggressively smacks the island’s cliffs on the northwest coast. That means there’s really only one hour where everything is still.
For the archaeologists, this is the real golden hour. “I’ve never been anywhere that feels quite like it. Except for that hour of slack water, it’s a place constantly in movement. You need to have your wits about [you],” said the team’s lead archaeologist, Matt Pope.
“The water is flowing through these gullies, and it’s like you’re walking through a landscape of rivers, amid the boulders and bubbling,” he continued, providing a beautifully detailed description of the bank, as if from an audiobook.
CL, Institute of Archaeology Podcasts / SoundCloud
Though beautiful, this environment obviously has its downsides. It “creates an odd kind of working day,” he clarified. “You’re constrained by this rhythm that’s non-negotiable.” The stubborn tides have their minds made up. Meanwhile, the team surmised what they might find.
It’s believed that Neanderthals had once roamed the island of Jersey, though experts haven’t yet determined whether they resided on Violet Bank. But some human ancestors absolutely did, as they left behind hunting tools, which were discovered by Société Jersiaise members.
Considering the found remains and rocky topography of the land at Violet Bank, which would’ve been ideal for sneakily hunting elk and mammoths, the concept of it once being a Neanderthal hunting hotspot is absolutely plausible.
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“As far as we know, in Northern Europe, the only people that used these [tools] were Neanderthal populations. We now have no more than 20 of these artifacts, but they’ve been found casually,” Matt Pope stated.
Since modern archaeology isn’t simply about hand-digging up supernatural artifacts Indiana Jones style, Matt’s project required both archaeological groundwork as well as state-of-the-art drone footage that can spot things from a detailed bird’s-eye view.
“The drone captures it all … and then you can decode what you’re seeing in a week. Having an eye in the sky for intertidal work makes mapping a lot easier,” Matt said.
In order for the UCL team to stay safe during high tides (and not join the likes of said ocean-bound sailors and German WWII soldiers), they planned to reside in a high building, such as Jersey’s Seymour Tower.
“The biological, archaeological, and cultural wonders of the Violet Bank were nearly lost to science when, during the 1980s, it was suggested that an airport be built on the seashore there,” said Paul Chambers. Thankfully, no airport was ever built.
Rachael Talibart / Focused Moments
The team knew that places like Violet Bank are disappearing rapidly, as Matt mentioned sea levels rose significantly after the last Ice Age. “We’re experiencing a second phase of sea level rise which will inundate these last accessible areas of intertidal landscape as we enter the Anthropocene era,” he said.
All the brainy archaeologists could do was act fast. “For us, it’s a chance [to document] these last bits of landscape before they go … [this] human evolutionary story that’s going to be lost forever,” Matt Pope said, clearly hopeful.
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And while Matt Pope and his team were hoping to avoid the strong, salty waves of the Atlantic ocean, other archaeologists thrive on taking a deep dive below the rising sea levels, hoping to uncover artifacts that have been growing barnacles for centuries.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
As the authority on underwater archaeology at the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, George Koutsouflakis could have rested on his laurels. Even so, he was itching to get back under the sea. He knew something big was waiting.
The Mediterranean region was a hotbed of underwater treasures. During the early days of Western civilization, these waters served as trade routes for the ancient Greeks. Granted, many of these relics were already uncovered by George’s rivals.
In 2018, archaeologists dove into the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria and found the motherlode. They came across a well-preserved Greek trading ship from approximately 400 B.C. The historical community hailed it as the world’s oldest intact shipwreck.
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Still, George and his colleagues suspected they could do better. Examining a map of the Greek Isles, they made an interesting observation. There was a point where a primary trade route intersected with an area notorious for dangerous currents.
This point laid right next to the quaint isle of Levitha. The landmass only covered four square miles and had a single family living there full-time, but George theorized that it hid a big secret under the surface.
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Sailing in the ancient days was a real gamble, with even the most advanced ships becoming playthings in the midst of a storm. Many Greeks were unlucky enough to never reach their planned destination.
To George, however, their misfortune smelled like opportunity. He assembled a team of divers in the summer of 2019 and set off for the coast of Levitha. Their boats were mostly empty, though he hoped they wouldn’t stay that way for long.
Twitter / Charlotte Mikkelborg
Plummeting into the Aegean Sea, George and his fellow divers made their way down to the bottom. They scanned their flashlights across the seabed, and it wasn’t long before one of the adventures excitedly gestured that he’d spotted something.
George swam over and observed a criss-cross of timbers embedded in the rocks. Decayed as they were, these fragments were without a doubt the remains of a ship’s hull. The divers soon noticed that these relics were everywhere.
The archaeologists counted dozens of hulls in the immediate area. It was a shipwreck graveyard! While samples would have to be sent to the lab for testing, George could tell that these resembled the trireme ships that ruled the ancient seas.
With so much ground to cover, George quickly organized 57 group dives over a 92-hour period. Not only did they have to document these shipwrecks; they also had to inspect the wares that went down with them.
Surprisingly, most of the ships still held tons and tons of cargo. The sea broke much of it into pieces, but George uncovered a number of amphorae that were still intact. These artifacts could just make his career.
Millennia ago, merchants used amphorae — narrow jars with handles on each side — to ship valuable goods. The divers found that most of these contained traces of wine and olive oil, though a few others held grains, honey, fish sauce, and dried fruit.
George recognized that each unscathed amphora could prove monumental to the Hellenic Ministry. He had his colleagues haul them up to the surface, where they could be more easily dated and studied.
Amazingly, many of the containers still had visible engravings scratched across their surfaces. These were the signatures of the potters who made them thousands of years ago! In this case, an artisan named Octavius made this amphora.
It very well could have been on its way to the famed port of Rhodes with its Colossus, or perhaps the sailors were headed to trade with the early Turks or Phoenicians. These voyages, according to George, likely set out in the second century B.C.
The expedition marked one of the most successful archeological ventures in the history of the Mediterranean. Best of all, George and his team managed to identify a few objects much larger than the clay vases.
Tucked in between the wreckage, a gigantic anchor pole made the archaeologists’ jaws drop. Clocking in at almost 900 pounds, it could only have been attached to a massive ship. Even more intriguing, it dated all the way back to the sixth century B.C.
This treasure trove compelled the Hellenic Ministry to keep digging for even more valuable artifacts. They gave George funding and free rein to study the site for another two years. Only time would tell what other mysteries he would uncover.
George’s colleagues, as a matter of fact, were finding other wrecks in the most unlikely places. Swedish archaeologist Jim Hansson was hard at work at the Stockholm Maritime Museum when an unexpected phone call came in. Some workers had stumbled upon something huge.
A construction crew had to halt their renovation of a quarry in Stockholm when they came across a big surprise in the dirt. None of them could identify the mystery object, but it looked to be made of wood — very old wood.
Doubling Jim’s interest was the location of the quarry: it was on Skeppsholmen Island, smack dab between center-city Stockholm and the Baltic Sea. If you were to visit the island today, you would mostly come across charming tourist attractions. But that hasn’t always been the case.
Historically, Skeppsholmen served as a prime military location for Sweden. It acted as a waypoint where officials could send out troops and supplies as well as a line of defense against any powers attempting to invade Stockholm. In other words, it was rich with military history.
Flickr / Marcin Zajda
Jim and some of his colleagues ran over to inspect the construction site. As they surveyed the wooden beams lying deep beneath the ground, Jim was immensely grateful the workers hadn’t interfered any more with the object. He had a feeling this was something big.
In fact, Jim theorized this Skeppsholmen dig might connect to one of his recent findings. A few months earlier, he mounted an extensive underwater expedition in southern Sweden. This was no recreational dive.
On the dive, he and his team were the first humans in hundreds of years to set their eyes on the Blekinge. The Swedes built this mighty ship in the late 1600s while at war with Russia and Denmark. So what did this have to do with Stockholm?
As Jim unearthed more of the wooden artifact, he confirmed his suspicions. They were looking at a ship, perhaps one of the most important vessels in the history of Sweden. However, Jim knew he couldn’t get ahead of himself.
To determine the exact identity of the mystery vessel, Jim and the other scientists got down and dirty in the pit. Specific details within the ruins would tell them everything they needed to know.
Jim turned his attention to some of the best-preserved timbers. You could actually see the axe marks where the shipwrights cut and fit together the wooden beams! That wasn’t all that caught Jim’s eye either.
By taking just a small sample of the wood — small enough to not damage the overall vessel — they could figure out what time period the ship was from. Jim shipped the fragment off to the lab for radiocarbon dating.
Jim’s team came back with good news: the oak timbers were from 1612 or 1613, meaning the ship’s construction wrapped up a couple years after. Fortunately, the Maritime Museum had detailed records of all the major vessels built in Sweden.
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Using the records and some other clues — including this ornamental copper plate — Jim surmised they’d found the famous Scepter. It seemed almost too good to be true. After all, it was the flagship of the greatest Swedish monarch of all time!
The tactical brilliance of King Gustavus Adolphus the Great transformed Sweden into a major European power back in the 17th century. He commissioned the Scepter to lead a fleet to conquer nearby Latvia. The ship never made it.
As it approached the Baltic Coast, the Scepter suffered heavy damage from a storm. It turned back to Sweden and never sailed on a major voyage again. But how did it end up beneath a historic island in Stockholm?
Historians could not find any record of a shipwreck in Skeppsholmen. However, Jim had a wild suggestion: maybe Gustavus sunk it on purpose! It was, after all, a regular practice for the Swedish navy to sink retired vessels to provide a foundation for new shipyards.
Now that Jim and his team unearthed the top deck of the famed warship, they had to decide what to do next. A couple individuals raised the possibility of restoring the Scepter. After all, there was precedent for such a course of action.
Historians salvaged another sunken 17th century ship, the Vasa, in 1961 and put it on display at the museum. The impressive restoration soon became one of the most noteworthy cultural sites in all of Sweden. Could the Scepter follow in its footsteps?
Unfortunately, Jim knew it was not to be. While the Scepter had multiple decks in its prime, none of them remained in good enough condition to warrant the restoration. The project would simply cost too much for too little reward.
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Nevertheless, Jim and his colleagues chalked up their discovery as a major victory. He explained, “It’s a really important find because the ship is from the generation before Vasa, so we can see the technical building methods that were used, and it can help us understand what went wrong with the Vasa as well.”
Twitter / Jim Hansson
In other words, the knowledge attached to an artifact is always more important than the object itself. Plus, it will certainly lead to even bigger finds in the near future. Who can say what other secrets Jim Hansson will uncover in his hometown?