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Portugal to begin its first deep-sea exploration of ship wrecks with UConn expertise (Released: 9/15/98)

by Renu Aldrich, Office of University Communications.

Storrs , Conn. -- Portugal, the first country to systematically navigate the high seas, will begin its first deep-sea marine archaeological expedition off its coast in the Atlantic Ocean with the expertise and assistance of marine scientists and students at the University of Connecticut.

Richard Cooper, director of the Marine Sciences & Technology Center, signed a five-year agreement for the University with Autonomous University of Lisbon this summer. The agreement will allow UConn faculty, technical experts and students in marine sciences to work on excavating the rich historical record that lies at the bottom of the ocean floor near Portugal.

"There have never been deep-sea archaeological explorations there before," Cooper says. "This project is not a treasure hunt -- it's a project to study Portuguese marine history. We expect to find items of importance in several categories. The vessels themselves as well as spices and gems from the Far East and other very unique and valuable artifacts."

Peter Calvet, executive director of the Portuguese Cultural Foundation (PCF), says Portugal has one of the oldest deep-sea shipwreck graveyards in the world. He says he hopes the expedition will recover some of the legendary ships of history.

"There are a number of ships that are well-known to historians for having participated in well- documented battles, or were victims of hurricanes and have never been recovered because of their depth in the ocean," he says. "A particular wish, which is shared by the entire world community, is the possibility of finding a caravel, the Portuguese ship of exploration. The ship was the vehicle for many of the world's most famous explorers such as Columbus, Magellan, Cabot and Verazzano, but has never been examined by scientists. An intact caravel would be one of the most valuable artifacts ever to be retrieved from the sea."

The PCF is a non-profit organization, based in Rhode Island, dedicated to promoting Portuguese culture in the United States. Calvet initiated the exchange between the universities, asking UConn to become a partner in the expedition because of the university's marine science expertise and experience in deep-sea diving systems.

"Marine archeologists typically do not work at great depths (under 100 feet) and since many of the best shipwrecks off the coast of Portugal are deeper than 100 feet it was imperative to work with people with this kind of experience," Calvet says. "Although the idea of multi-disciplinary research is not unique, bringing together marine scientists from the United States and humanities people from Portugal is indeed a first. I strongly believe that the match between the two universities is what makes this project possible."

Portugal has recently revised its laws permitting only non-profit educational and cultural institutions to work in its waters. Artifacts recovered will be owned by Portugal and will be displayed at museums there as well as at UConn, Cooper said.

Cooper and officials from Portugal and Autonomous University have identified two areas off Portuguese mainland coastal waters where they will begin with a detailed 3-D sonar survey of the ocean floor in the summer of 1999. These areas are strongly suspected to have wrecks from the 15th-18th centuries, vessels that went down because of heavy storms or pirates. Upon examination of the survey, specific sites will be chosen for exploratory diving and artifact recovery.

Coincidentally, Calvet says the last world's fair of the millennium is being held in Lisbon this summer with the theme: The oceans, a patrimony for the future. Also involved in the expedition are departments in the Portuguese government including the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Science & Technology as well as the commercial fishing community.

UConn Graduate and undergraduate students, especially from the Coastal Studies Program, will benefit a great deal from the project, Cooper said. The program, which offers two undergraduate degrees, offers a cross-section of marine and social science courses to provide academic training and practical experience needed by industry and the scientific community.

The UConn portion of the project is being supported by the non-profit Ocean Technology Foundation, which Cooper founded two years ago to encourage the advancement of marine sciences and technology. The joint project, which was two years in the making, may extend to other areas such as the Azores, the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea, Cooper said.

The agreement with Autonomous University also calls for an exchange of faculty, technical experts and students in business, computer science, ocean engineering and other areas.