The Observer, 27 October 2018

Ancient Greek Shipwreck

In 399 BCE, Socrates drank hemlock to fulfil the orders of the Athenian lawcourt which had sentenced him to death for impiety and corrupting the young. His friends begged him to leave Athens instead, accompanying them into banishment. He refused and died as he had lived for seventy years, arguing the ethical superiority of his own decision. The scene was immortalised by Plato in his dialogue Phaedo, and later by artists such as Jacques Louis David, whose painting hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum.
This week an intact shipwreck from the same era (archaeologists are dating it as at least 2400 years old) was found off the coast of Bulgaria: or Thrace, to Socrates and his contemporaries. Its eerie beauty is extraordinary, filmed in dim light more than two kilometres underwater. It could have sunk to the bottom of the ocean yesterday. Its mast stands proud, its rowing benches are in neat lines. Tantalisingly, the contents of its hold are also intact but not yet examined. If they include amphorae, the style and contents of the jars may enable archaeologists to work out more about the ship’s origin and destination.
There is something so moving about seeing an object from the ancient world in such perfect condition, as though the sailors might return any moment and take up their positions on the benches. The ship is the same type as the one painted on the Siren Vase in the British Museum. Homer called such ships kor┼Źnis – beaked, or curved, so they might cut through the water more cleanly. And we can see that this ship has that exact iconic shape. The Siren Painter (who made his red-figure vase in around 470 BCE) must have used as his model a ship very like the one we saw this week.
That the mast is intact is particularly astonishing. Extremities hardly ever survive – think how many statues are missing fingers or hands or even arms. There used to be a room at the Louvre which contained a vast collection of disembodied noses, all broken from the faces they had once adorned. And how could that mast fail to make us think of Odysseus, painted on the Siren Vase in a moment of great excitement, tied to his ship? When Odysseus and his men left the island of Circe for the second time, they did so knowing they were about to encounter lethal monsters. This wasn’t unusual: they had already survived an encounter with a man-eating Cyclops, dodged the cannibalistic giant Laestrygonians, and made a visit to the Underworld to consult with the dead. But the Sirens were something else: half-woman, half-bird, their song was said to be so alluring that they would draw men to their deaths. Desperate to hear them, men rowed or sailed onto the rocks and drowned.
Odysseus followed Circe’s advice for surviving the journey. He gave small blocks of beeswax to his men to stop up their ears. But he – the great adventuring hero – wanted more than to survive. He wanted to be the only mortal who heard the Siren song and lived to tell the tale. He was lashed to the mast so that he could hear the Sirens but not hurl himself into the ocean to drown. He shouted, begged his men to free him, but the beeswax kept his words from their ears. And the Sirens knew the secrets of a man’s heart: it is no accident that they sing to Odysseus of his unrivalled fame, the thing he desires more than anything.
I have spent the past eighteen months writing a novel about the Trojan War, its causes and its aftermath, called A Thousand Ships. Odysseus and his meeting with the Sirens happens about halfway through the book. The jacket design came through this week, which is one the best moments in a writer’s life: the thing that used to exist only in your head, which you have been wrestling with on the page for so long, now has a whole separate existence. The cover is ocean-blue, with two beautiful golden ships – accidentally perfect copies of the one found off the Bulgarian coast – as its focus. I don’t like to attribute meaning to coincidence, but I still had to suppress a small shiver. Every book starts out as a few, rough planks of wood lashed together with twine: an idea and a structure is something, but you couldn’t set sail in it. Only over the months of writing and editing does it gradually become seaworthy.
Artefacts from the ancient world have a particular resonance which nothing else can give us, even the poetry of Homer. I own a tiny bronze ram, a votive offering, probably from the first century CE. His wool is in tight clumps and his horns curl neatly around his face. I don’t touch him very often, but when I do I know that I am holding something which was once held by someone in a temple, praying to a god, part of a society which I have spent my whole adult life thinking about. The act of physically touching something touched by someone two millennia ago is a connection that never fails to jolt me out of complacency and back to work.
The ship will stay at the bottom of the ocean: the lack of oxygen will keep it preserved. But this week, it reminded us that the past is never lost. It’s just waiting for us to discover it.