Diving through 22 Centuries: An Under-Water Report on Mediterranean Treasure
(Sunday Times, April 19, 1953)
From Ian Fleming, Special Representative of the Sunday Times
Last week Ian Fleming told the story of the great treasure hunt by Commandant Jacques Cousteau and his team of divers on the wreck of a Greek galley that sank in 250 B.C. off the Grand Congloué, a small island near Marseilles. Today, in an exclusive despatch, he describes a visit to the treasure island in the 300-ton research ship Calypso.
The mistral blew itself out during the night and we sailed at seven in the morning from the Vieux Port. Above the hullabaloo of the fishermen selling their miserable catch to the restaurant keepers (miserable in quality; the basis of bouillabaisse is scorpion fish and conger eel) there was a shout as three “week-end” divers from the submarine factory at Toulon jumped off the tram and ran for the Calypso just as we were casting off. “They’re typical,” said Cousteau, as he took his ship out fast between the ranks of fishing smacks and pleasure craft that line this beautiful and ancient harbour. “They get no pay. It’s dangerous—we lost one of our best divers during the winter—and yet they give up their spare time to the wreck.
“Very few of my divers are paid hands. Those that are are permanent members of the crew, who dive and man the ship as well. Today we have the proprietor of a vineyard, a building contractor and a garage hand on board, and now these men from Toulon.”
Human Machine Tool
I spoke to one of them—a young man as thick as a chest of drawers, with the curly black hair and fine swarthy features of a Phoenician. He had lost all the fingers of one hand on the detonator of a German mine, yet he was so strong that everyone used him as a sort of human machine tool. When anything had to be bent, broken or unscrewed it was brought to him and, with a great intake of breath, his hands would grapple with the object until it obeyed.
“I like diving,” he said, in answer to my question, “because each dive is a new adventure. And we will go anywhere with the Commandant.” The truth, I believe, lay chiefly in the second reason. I have seldom seen such a devoted team, nor such iron discipline with so little display of authority. The only orders issued that day were from the bridge to the engine-room.
The golden Notre Dame de la Garde, 300 feet up in the sky, looked down on us from her eminence above the town as we came out of the harbour into a heavy swell from the north-west.
Below the Pharo light the dramatic statue of a dead seaman in the arms of an angel was no encouragement to a fair-weather spear-fisherman who intended to pioneer underwater journalism; and the ghost of the Man In the Iron Mask hanging round the torture chambers of the Chateau d’If, which we passed to starboard, led to thoughts of the possible fate of the “man in the aluminium aqualung.”
The Calypso rolled heavily in the beam sea, and it was a relief to reach the shelter of the first of the barren, uninhabited islands that tail gradually off to the tiny rock of the Grand Congloué.
Commandant Cousteau talked on the radio-telephone to the team on the treasure island. “Calypso speaking. Hallo, Port Calypso. Hallo, Port Calypso. Over.” And the cheerful voice on the island came back, “Bonjour, Commandant. J’écoute.” Questions were asked about the state of the sea off the island, and about the results of the previous day’s diving. A ring had come up in the suction pump. Great excitement on the bridge. Was it gold? No, copper, but certainly a finger ring.
The archaeologist was dubious, but elated. The galley probably carried a crew of about 16, he told me. “They must all have had their personal effects on board—perhaps even some presents for girl friends in Marseilles. But there are months of work ahead before we shall see the whole picture. For the time being we only know that she sank in about 250 B.C and that she carried a big cargo of wine and medium-priced pottery of all kinds. All the rest is speculation.
“In July we are going to invite the world’s leading archaeologists to a reunion at Marseilles. By then we hope to have most of the wreck on display in the museum, and they will be able to argue it all out for themselves. There will probably be bloodshed. It will be great fun.”
This cheerful young expert from the Musée Borely in Marseilles is the butt and the mascot of the whole ship’s company. They play endless Jokes on him. The favourite one is to smuggle some mysterious object down to the wreck and then to bring it up all covered with mud—a doorknob or the handle of a chamberpot—and watch his excitement and delight change to mock rage. And yet when there is a real find they hang on his lips and listen with awe as he tells how it fitted into the life of more than 2,000 years ago.
Suddenly the island was ahead of us, a white rock sparsely covered with sea-grass and flowers and inhabited only by lizards and sea birds, rising straight out of the waves. The house-flag, depleting Calypso, daughter of Atlas and queen of the bottom of the sea, on a green background, fluttered up above the yellow cabin that with the rest of the installation cost so much blood, sweat and tears before the winter set in. We could hear the roar of the suction pump, whose thick tube is suspended over the sunken galley from a boom that reaches out from the base of the rock.
On board the Calypso the powerful German compressors began to clatter as the air cylinders were filled to 300 lb. pressure for the divers, the first of whom was already climbing into his skin-tight foam-rubber suit. We had hardly tied up, a cricket pitch away from the rock, before he was over the side and the day’s work had begun.
And so it went on all through the day, web-footed Martians stumping heavily to the ladder and disappearing, suddenly light and graceful, into the gunmetal depths. The reassuring fountain of bubbles that meant all was well 150 feet below, the chronometer ticking away their minutes, and the occasional rifle shot to the surface of the sea to recall some enthusiast who had overstayed his 15 minutes on the wreck.
A steady, well-devised , cautious routine that left no room for mistakes. And every half an hour the thrilling chatter of the winch bringing up the wide net container piled high with the treasures the divers had put into it.
Something Rich and Strange
Then we all hurled to the dripping muddy pile of gifts, like children unleashed on a Christmas tree, carrying anything strange or new in triumph to the archaeologist, sorting, cleaning , panting under the weight of the objects that under the sea the divers had lifted so easily, quickly clearing the container so that it could go down again to this wonderful bargain basement whose doors had been thrown open to us by Cousteau.
I cannot describe the romance and excitement of the scene better than to say that it contained at the same time elements from King Solomon’s Mines, Treasure Island, and The Swiss Family Robinson.
The sea had become glassy calm beneath a strong clear sun, swarms of fish played around the ship among the rich food rising from the disturbed sands of the wreck. The seagulls chattered and cawed among their nests in the cliffs, and Commandant Cousteau’s two sons, aged 12 and 14, played and swam and climbed, to remind us all that this whole affair of buried treasure really belonged to the children in all of us.
After lunch, and a good deal of argument, I was allowed to go down as far as my physical resistance would allow, so that I could see the reverse of the medal—the serious business of skin-diving in 25 fathoms. The Mediterranean looked extremely black and deep. I even wondered whether National Health Insurance covered this alien hazard, and when it came to spitting in my mask to clear it I found it difficult to summon the necessary saliva. I put on 30 lb. of equipment and went over the side, and looked down into limitless grey depths and tried to remember to breathe quietly through the aqualung. I swam slowly down and drifted with my arms round the broad tubes of the suction pump. It rattled and shook against me with the upward jet of stones and broken pottery. I looked up at the distant hull of the ship and at the idle screw. The surface of sea was a sheet of mercury illuminated in one spot, like a star sapphire, by the sun.
My fellow-diver came down past me in a wake of bubbles, and the yellow compressed-air cylinders on his back and his blue webbed feet-disappeared beneath me. As I let go of the tube and went slowly after him I wished I had done something like this before.
Full Fathom Five
About halfway down to the wreck my ears began to hurt, and I swam sideways to the line that reached down to the rope container. They continued to hurt. Cousteau had said they would and that I must wait until the pain stopped. I waited, and watched a swarm of sardine-size fish pass by on some common errand.
I went down a few more yards until I could see the distant figure of my fellow-diver flickering round a black area on the bottom—the deep excavation in the after-part of the galley. The pain would not relax and I made my way reluctantly up the cold grey corridor to the surface. “You would have burst your eardrums if you had gone deeper,” said Cousteau cheerfully as my equipment was stripped off me. “I knew the pain would stop you making a fool of yourself. It needs several dives to train the Eustachian tubes. Anyway, now you know what these men have been doing all through the winter. The sun doesn’t often shine for us like this.”
He went back to the post by the rail that he never left when one of his men was below.
On that day we brought home 64 three-foot amphoras, 20 of them in pristine condition, many black-finished saucers and plates, a fine wine jar for the table, much timber from the hull —pinewood planks, 18 inches broad by l 1/2 inches thick, pierced transversely with thin staves to mortise them into their neighbours—a three-foot heavy length of oak judged to have been part of the rudder-oar, a heavy lead running-ring thought to have been attached to the sail, and a handful of square-cut bronze and copper nails up to a foot in length.
A Medium Day
“A medium day,” said Cousteau, as he brought the Calypso quietly in among the life of the Vieux Port at ten o’clock that night. We dispersed exhausted to our beds, leaving this tireless man and his devoted crew to their final labours.
When I got back to my room I looked up a quotation which I had taken from “The Aquarium,” by Philip Gosse, the great naturalist who a hundred years ago was the first to teach our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers to poke about the rock pools and discover the secrets of the sea. This is what he wrote in 1854:
A paragraph went the rounds of the papers a month ago to the effect that an eminent French zoologist, in order to prosecute his studies on the marine animals of the Mediterranean had provided himself with a watertight dress, suitable spectacles and a breathing tube, so that he might walk on the bottom in a considerable depth of water. Whether a scheme so elaborate was really attempted I know not, but I should anticipate feeble results from it.
I poured some peroxide into my aching ears and took the lid off my typewriter.