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Scientist searches for ancient pirates

Florida State University researcher Cheryl Ward is going to Turkey in search for traces of Roman-era pirates.
Florida State University researcher Cheryl Ward is going to Turkey in search for traces of Roman-era pirates.Florida State University
/ Source: The Associated Press

When the Roman Empire got tired of pirates terrorizing shipping lanes and nearly bringing the known world’s trade to a halt, it went after them hard.

Roman general Pompey reportedly took just 40 days to locate and wipe out the ships and crews that were preying on shipping. It has taken much, much longer for modern scientists to again find the pirates of the eastern Mediterranean.

Cheryl Ward, an anthropology professor at Florida State University, hopes she’s on the verge of locating some of the pirate ships that were a thorn in the side of the Romans 2,100 years ago.

Finding one or more them may help provide a unique window into what the larger world looked like at the time.

Terror of the 1st century
Ward is the main investigator in a major archaeological mission that will be trying this month to find evidence of the ships in the shallow water off the southern coast of Turkey.

The dream would be to actually locate one of their vessels, known as hemioliae — rowed ships that were the terror of the 1st century. Researchers know what they look like from Roman descriptions, but none has ever been discovered.

Ward and her colleagues hope to paint a picture of a different class of people than that of the Roman Empire, about which much is already known. That knowledge comes from what the educated, wealthy Romans left in written records and artifacts.

The pirates were the underclass.

“These were a bunch of unemployed guys,” Ward said Friday, preparing to leave for Turkey. “They turned to piracy. It was easy money.

“What’s the story of these people from what they left behind?”

Seeking a shipyard
First, her team has to find some remnants of their lives. “We would love to find a shipyard,” she said.

Ward will be exploring nearshore areas along the Turkish coast that used to be dry before erosion pushed back the shore. But she said she’d settle for parts of just one ship.

Pompey had 120,000 men and 270 ships looking for pirates. Ward has a few graduate students and some fellow researchers from a Turkish university.

But the pirate project has become a big topic in the archaeological world, and her work is part of a larger project. Researchers working on land also are studying the area of Turkey known as Cilicia — where many pirates were based.

Parallels to the present
Aside from the prospect of finding museum artifacts from the Roman era, Ward said contemporary man can learn a lot by studying societies of the past.

“Archaeology is telling the story of environmental degradation, of the collapse of civilizations, of the rise of ... new practices,” Ward said.

And there may be parallels to today’s global relations, said Meredith Marten, a graduate student working with Ward.

“If you can see how these people were subordinated or just kind of kept on the periphery, you can understand why these people would take such drastic measures,” Marten said.