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Finding a Ship From 400 B.C.

A Greek sailing vessel as depicted on an ancient vase.
Last week I wrote about the marooned Alexander Selkirk and the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe. This week I read an article about what may be the oldest intact shipwreck which was found in the depths of the Black Sea.

It was found more than a mile down, and in water that deep there is little oxygen and that slows down decomposition, so it is well preserved.

It was the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project that found the ship which as been confirmed as the oldest intact shipwreck known to mankind. It has been radiocarbon-dated to roughly 400 B.C. That dating means that this trading vessel was sailing in the days of Plato and Sophocles. The city-states of ancient Greece had colonies all around the Black Sea.

It was discovered along with dozens of other shipwrecks during an 800-square-mile survey of the seabed.

Pottery depicting Odysseus tied to the mast
so that he is not tempted by the siren Parthenope
Ships of the same design have been found on ancient pottery, such as the Siren Vase, which is dated several decades earlier than the ship.

The same group has discovered more than 60 sunken ships in the Black Sea from different eras.

Robinson Crusoe


In 1709, a Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk was rescued from an island where he had been marooned for more than four years. He probably was at least partially the inspiration for the character of Robinson Crusoe in the novel by that name.

As a young man, Selkirk worked as a privateer. That was a nicer word for a pirate. But it was a pirate sanctioned by the British monarchy so that they could harass and loot Spanish and Portuguese ships. Like any other pirates, their goal was to bring home as much wealth as possible.

Selkirk sailed under Captain William Dampier on a voyage in 1703 to South America. After a year at sea, his ship sighted three islands, the Juan Fernández Archipelago, about 400 miles off the coast of Chile. It was good place to stop and restock as they found fruit, turnips and fresh water.

Captain Stradling ruled the ship Selkirk was on, Cinque Ports, and the sailors stocked up on food. Stradling didn’t think they should waste time repairing the ship, but some of the sailors, including Selkirk, strongly disagreed. Selkirk thought the ship was in such bad condition that it would sink if not repaired. Alexander argued publically with the Captain.

Finally, Selkirk said he would stay on the island if the ship was not repaired. The rest of the crew agreed with Alexander, but were not willing to stay on the island.

Selkirk was left with a few weapons, a cooking pot, tobacco, rum, cheese, and the Bible. The story is told that at the last minute Selkirk panicked and begged to be let back on board, but then Captain Stradling refused and sailed off.

Selkirk thought a ship would appear soon to rescue him, but he ended up spending four years and four months there.

He learned to survive and used the vegetables he found and relied on goats on the island for meat and milk. At first, he shot the goats for meat, but after he ran out of bullets, he would chase them down.

The island was infested with rats that had come on earlier ships that had anchored there. They would bite Selkirk during the night, so he adopted some feral cats.

He made clothing and a shelter from goatskin. He set himself on a hilltop so that he could look for ships. He did not want a Spanish ship to find him because he feared being captured and tortured. Spanish ships did come ashore for food and water and he hid.

On February 2, 1709, a British ship called Duke sailed into view. The captain, Woodes Rogers, was amazed but doubtful of the story of the bearded wild-looking man who could barely speak coherently. But also on board was Selkirk's former captain, William Dampier, who knew Selkirk.

Captain Rogers liked and helped Selkirk, and Selkirk helped nurse Rogers’ diseased men on the island.

Selkirk learned years later, that he had been right about the Cinque Ports  ship's condition when he abandoned ship. It sank off the coast of Peru shortly after he was left on shore. Only a few men survived, but they were captured by the Spanish and tortured in prison.

Robinson Crusoe with his Man Friday
after he had freed him from cannibals

The novel based on Selkirk's story, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, is written as the autobiography of a castaway. Though fiction, some readers believed it was a true story. Much like more modern books and movies, it is "based on a true story." It was first published in 1719.

We do not know how British writer Defoe learned of Selkirk’s story. I read that Defoe may have met Selkirk at a pub, but he probably only read news reports about him.

Defoe filled in most of the details from his own imagination. In the novel, the castaway spends 28 years on a remote, but not deserted, island in the Caribbean. Crusoe is shipwrecked on the island, as this excerpt shows:

"Nothing can describe the confusion of thought which I felt when I sank into the water; for though I swam very well, yet I could not deliver myself from the waves so as to draw breath, till that wave having driven me, or rather carried me, a vast way on towards the shore, and having spent itself, went back, and left me upon the land almost dry, but half dead with the water I took in.

I had so much presence of mind, as well as breath left, that seeing myself nearer the mainland than I expected, I got upon my feet, and endeavoured to make on towards the land as fast as I could before another wave should return and take me up again; but I soon found it was impossible to avoid it; for I saw the sea come after me as high as a great hill, and as furious as an enemy, which I had no means or strength to contend with: my business was to hold my breath, and raise myself upon the water if I could; and so, by swimming, to preserve my breathing, and pilot myself towards the shore, if possible, my greatest concern now being that the sea, as it would carry me a great way towards the shore when it came on, might not carry me back again with it when it gave back towards the sea."

That last paragraph is one hell of a sentence!

It wasn't until after Defoe’s death in 1731, that the idea that the novel was inspired by Alexander Selkirk took hold. But most literary scholars now do not believe that a single person inspired Crusoe and that Defoe combined multiple other buccaneer and survival stories.

I first read Robinson Crusoe as one of the Classics Illustrated comic books. I loved it. Reading that and Swiss family Robinson made we fantasize about living on a tropical island. I didn't want to be there like Tom Hanks in Castaway. I wanted that awesome Robinson family treehouse and all that stuff they took off the sinking ship to use. 

Daniel Defoe also wrote Moll Flanders (1722)a novel that is also written to seem like the true account of the life of the Moll from birth until old age.

If you want to visit Selkirk or Crusoe's island, the three Juan Fernández Archipelago islands are now officially named Robinson Crusoe, Alejandro Selkirk, and Santa Clara. Robinson Crusoe island was formerly known as Más a Tierra (Closer to Land) and is the second largest of the Juan Fernández Islands, situated 670 km (362 nmi; 416 mi) west of San Antonio, Chile, in the South Pacific Ocean.

The Patron Saint of Murderers and Other Odd Saint Stories

A patron saint (also patroness saint, patron hallow or heavenly protector) is a saint who in Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or particular branches of Islam, is regarded as the heavenly advocate of a nation, place, craft, activity, class, clan, family or person.

Saint Drogo by TheoJunior, on Flickr
There are some very odd Saints in the long list of Saints. For example, Saint Drogo (I know the convention is to abbreviate "Saint" as St., but that also means "street" and I don't want to offend any saints, just in case) is the patron saint of unattractive people and somehow also of coffeehouses.

More amazing is that Drogo was said to be able to bilocate - to maintain his actual presence in two totally different places at the same time. Witnesses claimed seeing Drogo working in fields simultaneously, and going to Mass. If that is true, I'd make him a saint for being able to be "in two places at once" rather than for being unattractive due to an affliction. That disfiguring affliction turned him into a recluse. I can find no connection to coffee and actually found that Drogo only drank warm water during his years as a recluse.

Saint Giles was said to have lived as a hermit in the south of France in the later 7th century and stayed alive on the milk of a female deer. How do you milk deer? Anyway, not only is he the patron saint of the city of Edinburgh, but also the patron saint of breastfeeding.

Saint Balthasar is traditionally considered to be one of the biblical Magi (AKA The Three Wise Men or the Three Kings) who visited Jesus in the stable at his birth. As the King of Arabia, he brought the gift of myrrh. (Extra Trivia: Myrrh is a natural gum or resin extracted from a number of small, thorny tree species and used as a perfume, incense, and medicine.) At that time, Africa was frequently equated with Egypt. Some Romani sideshow merchants and entertainers were (mistakenly) thought to have come from Egypt (that is where the corruption of Egypt leads to GYPsies). Therefore, rather unfairly, this Egyptian king became the patron saint of playing card manufacturers.

One depiction of St. Julian murdering his parents
- from a larger panel of art by Ansano Ciampanti

My favorite unusual origin story is Saint Julian the Hospitaller.

Most of the Saints get tagged as "patrons" for a number of things. Julian is attached to clowns and circus workers, innkeepers, fiddle players, jugglers, childless people - and murderers. What a mishmash of things for a Saint.

How does a Saint get associated with murder? In this case, because he was a murderer. (Though the church would clarify this as a "repentant murderer.").

His story is a variation on the classical Oedipus Rex, which he apparently had not read or he didn't learn a lesson from it.

Julian was cursed (by a hart, just to make the story even weirder) that he would kill his parents. So that this would not come to be, he left home and traveled far away to live his life. He lives this distant life, acquires his own castle, and a wife.

But his parents are desperately searching for their lost son, and they finally found his castle. Julian was away on a hunt, but his wife (who I guess didn't know about the curse) welcomed her in-laws and honored them by putting them up in their master bedroom.

While his wife is at church, Julian comes home, finds the couple sleeping in his dark bedroom, assumes that it is his wife with another man, and kills both of them.

He fulfills the curse, but is obviously wracked with guilt. In order to get salvation, he (and his wife) build an inn for travelers, and a hospital for the poor and other charitable works. He was forgiven for his crime when he gave help to a leper who turned out to be a messenger from God who had been sent to test him.

He is the patron of hotel keepers, travelers, boatmen and murderers - at least the repentant ones.