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Ancient Fascination With the Deep Sea

Updated: Jan 22

Human fascination with the ocean's depths dates back thousands of years. Long before the age of modern technology and oceanography, there was a natural curiosity to explore and discover what lay beneath the surface.


5,800 BCE - present: Freediving into the Unknown

Evidence of shells and 8,000-year-old pearls discovered at archaeological sites suggests that the people of Mesopotamia were one of the first to engage in primitive underwater exploration primarily focused on freediving for pearl oysters. Freediving has a rich and extensive history, from the Ama divers of Japan to the Yahgan Indians of the Cape Horn region. Many coastal communities relied on food from the ocean and were prepared to push the boundaries of their bodies whilst gathering shell fish, seaweed, pearls and other resources.


Depiction of Ama Divers, "Abalone fisherwomen," Katsushika Hokusai, 1835-1836 © Musée Guimet, Paris / Thierry Olliver

500 BCE: Legendary Ancient Divers Scyllias and Cyana

Among the most renowned freedivers of their time were Scyllias and his daughter Cyana, famed for their salvaging work. These divers specialized in recovering cargo from sunken vessels. In 500 BCE, they were commissioned by the Persian King Xerxes to carry out their salvage work during one of the numerous conflicts between the Persians and Greeks. Not wanting to lose these invaluable divers, Xerxes refused to permit their return home upon completing their work. In retaliation, they destroyed one of Xerxes' fleets by diving into a stormy sea and cutting the mooring lines of the vessels at anchor.


Cyana cutting mooring lines of Xerxes' fleet.
Cyana cutting mooring lines of Xerxes' fleet. Public Domain.

325 BCE: Early Attempts at Measuring Ocean Depth

Early mariners were the first pioneers of deep-sea exploration, albeit with limited tools and technology. They would drop weighted lines overboard to gauge the depth of the ocean, a method known as sounding.


One of the earliest documented efforts to measure ocean depth was by the Greek philosopher and historian Pytheas, who lived in 325 BCE. Pytheas ventured around north-western Europe, creating some of the earliest known maps of the region. His explorations marked an early attempt to understand the vastness of the ocean. The details recorded by Pytheas were interpreted 500 years later by Ptolemy in 200 AD.


A 1490 Italian reconstruction of Ptolemy's Map of the British Isles.
A 1490 Italian reconstruction of Ptolemy's Map covering the British Isles. National Library of Wales.

345 BCE - 1500 AD: The First Diving Bells

As humanity's desire to explore the ocean's unknown depths increased, one intriguing tale from Aristotle, published in 1886 in France, suggests that Alexander the Great, at the age of 11, entered a glass case reinforced with metal bands and was lowered into the sea by a chain over 600 feet long. Aristotle's account mentions, "...they enable the divers to respire equally well by letting down a cauldron, for this does not fill with water but retains the air, for it is forced straight down into the water."


As scientific inquiry blossomed, inventors experimented with various diving designs. For example, Leonardo da Vinci sketched several diving systems and prototypes of modern goggles and fins over 500 years ago.


A page from Codex Atlanticus shows a Leondardo da Vinci sketch of a diving system.
A page from Codex Atlanticus shows a Leondardo da Vinci sketch of a diving system.

While these early machines may not have achieved full functionality, they symbolize humanity's fascination with the deep sea, and the legacy of this curiosity lives on in today's oceanic endeavors. Lessons learned from early seafarers and explorers have paved the way for the birth of modern ocean exploration.


References

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