Since ancient times man has
sought ways to go below the sea level. The history of diving starts from
the antiquity when man was not aware of the dangers of the unnatural habitat
and the physiological changes that occur in the human organism. He dived
in the sea depths using very simple devices. What attracted him so strongly
under the water surface? First and foremost, sea life was a source of food
– it provided tasty crabs, mussels, fish, turtles, and other sea creatures. The
shiny “stones” found in oysters also caught diver’s eye. Book XVI of the
Iliad proves the existence of divers before the Homer period (i.e. 7-th
century BC) – “… how active he is and how well he dives. If we had been
at sea this fellow would have dived from the ship’s side and brought up
as many oysters as the whole crew could stomach…” In the past, sponges
were much in demand and they were gathered from the sea bed in large quantities.
Mother-of-pearl ornaments that were found in the Egyptian pyramids (built
roughly 4500 years BC) are another evidence for developed diving in this
remote epoch. It is well-known that pearl shells cannot be hunted in any
other way but by unsticking them from the sea floor. Pearl shells were
also popular among peoples from other ancient cultures. For example, the
Emperor of China received an oyster pearl tribute around 2250 BC.
Manuscripts show intricate
paths in the history of spearfishing. In 1976, a strange discovery was
made in a gorge on Wrangel Island. Among the tools of an ancient Eskimo
village was found a spear with a bone head dated about 4000 years. Certainly,
it served as a weapon for underwater fishing in the north conditions.
Salvage work (finding treasures
and valuables from wrecked ships) had long been practiced in the past.
In 300 BC the people of Rhodes in the eastern Mediterranean had a law which
defined the amount of payment for divers who managed to salvage property.
The deeper the diver went, the more money he received.
of the past saw the advantages of life underwater in military operations.
Hidden under the sea surface with the help of primitive devices, ancient
warriors stroke a blow on their enemies who believed they were safe being
surrounded by the expanse of water. Pictures of underwater assaults can
be found on vases and utensils from Egypt and Phoenicia, in stories and
sayings, in written documents and later in pictures, films and books –
“History” by Herodotus, “Historia Naturalis” by Pliny, etc. In his book
“History of the Peloponnesian War”, Thucydides tells about divers who performed
military tasks such as drilling the hulls of enemy’s ship and cutting ships’
rigging and mooring lines. The earliest illustration of underwater warriors
is the famous Assyrian bas-relief from 880 BC which is now exhibited in
the British Museum. The bas-relief depicts submerged Assyrian warriors
who chase an enemy ship breathing from leather skins. The historian Herodotus
depicts the battle of Artemisium which took place in the 5th century BC.
In the period of the Persian Wars, the Greek Scyllis was taken prisoner
by the Persian King Xerxes. When Scyllis found out that the powerful Persian
fleet was intending to attack the Greeks, he grabbed a knife and jumped
in the water. The Persians thought that he had drowned. In the night, Scyllis
cut the Persian ships from their mooring lines and swam away, thus saving
the Greeks from certain death. He used a hollow reed to breathe under water.
Another curious story is
the one told by Thucydides about the siege of Syracuse by the Greeks in
414 BC. The Syracusans fixed some thick wooden stakes in front of the harbor.
The stakes did not come out of the surface and damaged the Athen ships
like underwater rocks. However, Athen divers pulled out the stakes and
cleared the way for their ships.
Dion Casii provides fascinating
evidence about the use of “Urinators” (that’s what divers were called in
ancient Rome). He describes the siege of Byzantium by Septimius Severus.
The great Roman fleet blocked all outlets on the sea. One day, the Romans
noticed with surprise that their ships floated without wind and oars towards
the enemy fortress. It turned out that the ships were towed with ropes,
which were secretly attached by underwater warriors from Byzantium to the
bottom of the ships.
It is also known that during
the siege of Tyre in 332 BC, Alexander the Great had to cope with kalimboi
(the Greek name for diving warriors).
How did the ancient divers
manage to stay submerged? The whole history of diving is based on the struggle
of man for breathing and prolonging the time of being below the water surface.
With his first steps into the underwater world, man was confronted with
the necessity to better the devices he used for diving. The earliest divers
submerged naked, with a stone which served as weight. They felt the influence
of the major factors that opposed man at diving – lack of breathing air,
increased water pressure and low temperature. That is why the development
of diving in its earliest stages is connected with the improvement of technological
devices which facilitate human stay under water.