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This Ancient Greek Shipwreck Is Now an Underwater Museum

The Peristera, a cargo vessel loaded with thousands of amphorae, sank in the Aegean Sea around 500 B.C.

The wreck of an ancient Greek ship, the Peristera, rests at a depth of 92 feet below the water's surface. (© Ministry of Culture / Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities)
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Editor's Note: While COVID-19 has us stuck at home, we hope our stories can provide some much-needed armchair travel. Stay healthy, and keep these trip ideas in mind for the future.

A 2,000-year-old Greek shipwreck will open to the public next month as an underwater museum, reports Huw Oliver for Time Out.

The maritime attraction, scheduled to welcome visitors from August 3 to October 2, is centered around the Peristera shipwreck, which lies at the bottom of the Aegean Sea off the coast of the island of Alonissos, according to Athenian newspaper I Kathimerini.

As Elena Becatoros reported for the Associated Press in 2019, the massive ship was transporting some 4,000 clay amphorae—likely filled with wine—when it sank in the late 5th century B.C.

For decades, this bonanza of history beneath the waves was off-limits to everyone except archaeologists. But in 2005, Greece revised a policy designed to protect the country’s undersea treasures from would-be looters, opening a select few sites to the scuba-diving public.

Now, Greece has relaxed restrictions even further in hopes of attracting summer visitors. Beginning this month, divers will be allowed to explore underwater archaeological sites featuring ships that sank more than 50 years ago, reports Eben Diskin for Matador Network. Previously, such wrecks were only accessible to those accompanied by an accredited archaeological diver.

Visitors hoping to view the Peristera’s remains can join licensed guides on tours of the wreck, which rests 92 feet below the water’s surface, according to Time Out. Individuals unable to make the dive can enjoy a virtual reality tour available at the Ministry of Culture’s Alonissos information center, reports I Kathimerini.

Though the ship’s wooden shell has rotted away over the millennia, its cargo remains largely intact. Per Time Out, marine animals including fish and sea sponges call the wreck home.

In 1985, a local fisherman spotted a number of the amphorae floating off Alonissos’ coast. Subsequent archaeological dives revealed the source of these artifacts: an enormous wreck spanning 82 feet of the seafloor, according to Matador Network.

“It is very impressive. Even I, who have been working for years in underwater archaeology, the first time I dived on this wreck I was truly impressed,” Dimitris Kourkoumelis, the archaeologist in charge of preparing the site for visitors, told the AP in 2019. “It’s different to see [amphorae] … individually in a museum and different to see them in such concentration.”

The Alonissos Triton Dive Center’s description of the wreck notes that its discovery shed light on the ancient Greeks’ shipbuilding techniques. Before the Peristera arrived on the scene, archaeologists thought the Romans designed the largest ships of the era; these vessels weighed up to 70 tons and could carry 1,500 amphorae when fully loaded.

Despite being built roughly 400 years earlier than the Roman ships, the Peristera weighed an estimated 126 tons and was capable of transporting more than twice as many amphorae.

The exact circumstances of the ship’s sinking remain unclear. Researchers have found evidence that a fire broke out onboard, but nothing definitive points toward the incident that brought the vessel to its final watery resting place.

“Was it a piracy act?” said Elpida Hadjidaki, the first archaeologist to excavate the site, to the AP. “Was it overloaded?”

Though some travel restrictions sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic remain in effect, Greece started accepting non-essential visits from residents of the European Union, as well as a select few other nations, on July 1. Presently, the United States is not included on the list of approved countries. Following the conclusion of this summer’s tours, the Peristera site is slated to close until summer 2021.

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