A deep dive into history
Raymond LeFrense participates in recovery of ship that sank 2,500 years ago
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.
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.