A deep dive into his­tory

Ray­mond LeFrense par­tic­i­pates in re­cov­ery of ship that sank 2,500 years ago

The Gulf News (Port aux Basques) - - Front Page - BY BRYAN TAIT

Ray­mond LeFrense’s day job is in the oil­fields of Al­berta.

But last sum­mer he was able to in­dulge his pas­sion and have a once-in-a-life­time ex­pe­ri­ence at the same time.

LeFrense, orig­i­nally from Isle aux Morts, is a cer­ti­fied scuba diver. In Au­gust, he trav­elled to Cyprus to par­tic­i­pate in an un­der­wa­ter arche­o­log­i­cal ex­pe­di­tion, ex­am­in­ing a cargo ship that sank more than 2,000 years ago. The ex­pe­di­tion was a joint ven­ture of the Univer­sity of Cyprus and the United King­dom-based Nau­ti­cal Arche­ol­ogy So­ci­ety.

“It was pretty amaz­ing,” LeFrense said. “I didn’t 100 per cent know what I was get­ting into.”

LeFrense said some­times an ex­pe­di­tion like this would only af­ford him the op­por­tu­nity to ob­serve.

But this ex­pe­ri­ence was hands-on.

“Right from Day 1,” LeFrense said. “There’s not too many times you’ll be able to go some­where and touch an ob­ject that’s been on the sea floor for 2,500 years.”

LeFrense said the ex­pe­di­tion was an in­ter­na­tional part­ner­ship, with par­tic­i­pants from Canada, the United States, Eng­land, Nor­way, Fin­land, Czech Repub­lic, Poland, Greece and Cyprus.

“To meet that many peo­ple from dif­fer­ent places in the world that all came to­gether for a com­mon goal, it was pretty amaz­ing,” he said.

LeFrense was in Cyprus for four weeks. The time was split between train­ing ses­sions and dives to the wreck.

“In the day­time we had to take ad­van­tage of day­light and typ­i­cally you have bet­ter sea con­di­tions in the morn­ing,” he said. “So in the morn­ings we were up early and on the boat to do the div­ing for the day.”

Divers would spend about 20 min­utes on the wreck at a time.

“Be­cause it was fairly deep, you had to do de­com­pres­sion,” LeFrense said.

LeFrense said he’d never done any­thing quite like this be­fore, al­though he did work on a wreck in Spain that was in shal­low wa­ter and had been rav­aged by storms over the years, leav­ing mostly pieces.

He said the first time see­ing the wreck was amaz­ing.

“You’re in the Mediter­ranean, you’re stand­ing on this boat and the wa­ter is just this turquoise blue, crys­tal clear,” he said. “But the wreck is so deep, you can’t see it from the sur­face.”

LeFrense said vis­i­bil­ity un­der­wa­ter would de­crease the deeper down he went.

“I kind of had an idea of what it would look like, but it’s not the same as when it comes into fo­cus in your own eyes,” he said. “As I was de­scend­ing, I was ac­tu­ally amazed to see that even though the ship was gone, from the out­line of the am­phorae you could still make out the out­line of where the bow was and where the stern was.”

As the am­phorae came into view, LeFrense said just know­ing how an­cient they were and how long they had sur­vived un­der­wa­ter was re­mark­able.

LeFrense said each diver did a sin­gle dive each day, but be­cause of the num­ber of divers, five to eight dif­fer­ent teams were go­ing to the wreck each day.

Each team had dif­fer­ent tasks de­pend­ing on what needed to be done.

LeFrense said there were three grids set up on the wreck.

“We were work­ing at the bow, with two at the mid-sec­tion,” he said.

LeFrense said as the month pro­gressed, the goals changed.

“When we first go there, what we had to was re-es­tab­lish pre­vi­ous work,” he said. “There was a whole bunch of the am­phorae that had been tagged, so ba­si­cally they’re given a se­rial num­ber.

“They had a draw­ing of all the am­phorae on the bot­tom and what their re­spec­tive num­bers were, so we had to take these sketches down on the first few dives and iden­tify the proper am­phorae with the num­ber, and if the tag was miss­ing, we had to put a new tag on.”

Dur­ing that process, LeFrense said the num­ber of divers var­ied, but there would al­ways be one with a cam­era and one with a large mea­sur­ing stick to de­ter­mine size of the var­i­ous am­phorae.

Once ev­ery­thing was doc­u­mented and pho­tos had been taken, divers could re­move the first layer of am­phorae.

“What they’ve dis­cov­ered in their re­search is that the ship pretty much sank in­tact to the bot­tom,” he ex­plained. “So there’s ac­tu­ally three dis­tinct lay­ers of am­phorae, and they’re still in the same po­si­tion as when they were loaded on the ship 2,500 years ago.”

The teams would re­peat that process with the sec­ond layer.

“It’s very sys­tem­atic,” he said. “It’s an amaz­ing vol­ume of work that they want to ac­com­plish.”

LeFrense said it’s even more re­mark­able con­sid­er­ing how small a win­dow the teams have to work in. He said he was told the month-long ex­pe­di­tion he par­tic­i­pated in cost ap­prox­i­mately 250,000 eu­ros.

“That all has to come from spon­sor­ship and univer­sity fund­ing and grants,” he said. “It takes a cer­tain amount of time to se­cure that fund­ing.”

Af­ter­noons and early evenings were spent in the class­room, learn­ing how to doc­u­ment the site and find­ings, and lec­tures on pho­togram­me­try.

LeFrense said a group in Europe that pro­motes his­tor­i­cal cul­ture to Euro­peans had given a grant to the univer­sity to de­velop a 3D model us­ing pho­togram­me­try tech­niques.

“You think about mow­ing your lawn, your do­ing your rows as your mow­ing, that’s ex­actly the sort of sys­tem only it’s with pho­tos,” he said.

LeFrense said pho­tos are taken from a slightly el­e­vated po­si­tion and a com­puter pro­gram takes the pho­tos and cre­ates the model.

He said the end goal is to have a room at a mu­seum in Cyprus where vis­i­tors can view a 3D holo­graphic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the ship­wreck us­ing vir­tual re­al­ity tech­nol­ogy.

Even though the time spent at the wreck site is brief, the next stage takes even longer.

LeFrense said it takes about a year to process ev­ery­thing the team re­cov­ers in that month.

“On the one hand you’d like to be able to do more work,” he said. “But then all you would be do­ing is cre­at­ing more back­log be­cause the univer­sity can’t pre­serve the ar­ti­facts we’re find­ing now in a month.”

He said the am­phorae are clay, and af­ter two mil­len­nia un­der­wa­ter they can’t just be brought to the sur­face to dry out.

“The salts will crys­tal­lize, and they ex­pand and the am­phorae would just break apart,” he said.

LeFrense said am­phorae were placed in large vats with a 50-50 mix of salt wa­ter and fresh wa­ter to start the de­salin­iza­tion process. He said the wa­ter is changed each month and the salt con­tent pro­gres­sively low­ered.

It takes about a year to com­plete that process, then the am­phorae can be set out to dry and they have ap­prox­i­mately the same struc­ture as when they were made.

LeFrense said the project has been go­ing on for about 10 years al­ready, and he es­ti­mated it would be an­other 10 years be­fore it was com­plete.

Dream project

The en­tire ex­pe­ri­ence led LeFrense to make con­tacts with sev­eral divers who ex­pressed in­ter­est in LeFrense’s dream project.

Grow­ing up in Isle aux Morts, LeFrense re­mem­bers when Wayne Mushrow found two as­tro­labes off the coast and dis­played them at the town’s com­mu­nity cen­tre.

LeFrense said that mo­ment got him hooked on ma­rine arche­ol­ogy.

As a de­scen­dant of Ann and Ge­orge Har­vey, who res­cued sur­vivors of the Despatch in 1828, LeFrense said some­day he’d like to put to­gether an ex­pe­di­tion to lo­cate rem­nants of that ill-fated ship.

“I have names of peo­ple who are will­ing to con­trib­ute,” he said.

He said the Nau­ti­cal Arche­ol­ogy So­ci­ety’s CEO, Mark Beattie-Ed­wards, of­fered to help LeFrense with re­search on the Despatch and an­other wreck that oc­curred in 1838.

LeFrense said he’d jump at the op­por­tu­nity to par­tic­i­pate in an­other ex­pe­di­tion like this.

“It was a priv­i­lege,” he said, adding the ex­pe­di­tion’s or­ga­niz­ers only trusted a hand­ful of the par­tic­i­pants to bring the am­phorae to the sur­face.

“They’re del­i­cate items, you can break them, it needs to be done in a very con­trolled man­ner,” he said.

Thanks to LeFrense’s ex­pe­ri­ence and train­ing as a diver, he was one of just six out of a group of 30 who brought the items to the sur­face.

“I got to bring four of them to the sur­face my­self,” he said. “I would be more than will­ing to go back, and I think they would be more than will­ing to have me.”


Ray­mond LeFrense, orig­i­nally from Isle aux Morts, par­tic­i­pated in a unique op­por­tu­nity last sum­mer. LeFrense was part of an ex­pe­di­tion re­cov­er­ing items from a 2,500-year-old ship­wreck off the coast of Cyprus.

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