An ancient shipwreck preserves a time capsule from the Deep Bronze Age

The remains of the oldest shipwreck ever discovered in deep water, and perhaps the oldest complete shipwreck in any water, have been located in the Mediterranean Sea about 56 miles off the northern coast of Israel.

The Israel Antiquities Authority, which announced the find Thursday, said preliminary examination of two clay vessels known as Canaanite amphorae indicated that the merchant ship, about 39 to 46 feet long, sank between 1400 BC and 1300 BC, a time when the Egyptian empire stretched from what is now northern Syria to Sudan, and the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun briefly sat on the throne.

It is unclear whether the galley was the victim of a sudden storm, a headwind or an attempted piracy. But judging by footage recorded by a remotely operated submersible robot, the vessel settled to the bottom without capsizing, and the hundreds of cans in its hold survived virtually intact.

Cemal Pulak, a nautical archaeologist at Texas A&M University who was not involved in the discovery, said: “I consider any discovery of Bronze Age shipwrecks very important since shipwrecks from this period are extremely rare.” They are so rare that only two other cargo shipwrecks dating back to the Late Bronze Age are known in the Mediterranean: both found, unlike the current one, off the coast of Turkey, relatively close to shore and accessible using standard diving equipment. The most recent of these two discoveries occurred in 1982. Since then, no new spectacular finds have emerged.

The new Bronze Age wonder was detected last summer at a depth of about a mile during a survey conducted by Energean, a London-based company seeking to develop natural gas fields. The piece of seabed had been claimed by both Israel and Lebanon until a 2022 U.S.-brokered deal placed it under Israeli control.

Energean's remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, was tethered to a surface ship by a steel cable and controlled by a pilot on the ship who operated a joystick much like those used to play video games. About 3,300 feet below the surface – about 2,000 feet above the location of the sunken ship – even the faintest light has vanished, leaving a sunless realm known as the aphotic zone. The robotic ROV's cameras are equipped with powerful lights that pierce the perpetual darkness.

Last July, the ROV filmed what appeared to be a large pile of jugs on the seabed. The images were sent to the Antiquities Agency, which identified the jugs as late Bronze Age conservation vessels designed to contain, among other things, honey, olive oil and resin from the Pistacia atlantica tree. This resin was used as a preservative in wine and, in Egypt, as incense and as a varnish on New Kingdom-era grave goods.

After piquing the interest of the Antiquities Authority, Energean had two mechanical appendages built for the ROV capable of extracting artifacts from the pile with minimal risk of damage to the entire assembly. Over the course of two days at sea last May, the vehicle mapped the site and determined that the amphorae lay in a vessel half-buried in sediment. There was no sign of an anchor, a mast or the square sail typically used by Mediterranean trading ships of the time.

“The ship is preserved at such a depth that time has frozen since the disaster,” said Jacob Sharvit, director of maritime archeology for the Israel Antiquities Authority and leader of the May reconnaissance expedition. “Its body and contents have not been disturbed by human hands or affected by the waves and currents that impact wrecks in shallower waters.”

Extending its robotic arms, the ROV removed two canisters from the hull, one from each end of the vessel. Both turned out to be full of silt. “A trace element analysis of the vessel should resolve the question of what was inside when the ship sank,” Dr Sharvit said.

The 14th century BC in the eastern Mediterranean was a dynamic period of international trade and enormous wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. Scattered along the coast of the Levant were large Canaanite trading centers, distributing strategic and utilitarian raw materials and manufactured goods to the Aegean region and beyond. The main exports were copper and tin, which, when mixed, would produce bronze to make stronger agricultural tools that increased agricultural yields and produced weapons and armor to equip entire armies.

Much of what we know about the nature of Late Bronze Age trade is based on two shipwrecks excavated in southern Turkey: the first at Cape Gelidonya in 1960 and the second at Uluburun from 1984 to 1994. Using these finds, scholars have hypothesized that trade in the Late Bronze Age was accomplished by flitting safely from port to port, hugging the coast within visual contact with the shore.

A Turkish sponge fisherman in 1982 first reported sighting “metal eared biscuits” off a rocky promontory known as Uluburun. Scientists hypothesized that the ship he spotted was sailing from the Levant to Greece when it sank around 1300 BC. According to Dr. Pulak, director of the Uluburun expedition, the ship was carrying 10 tons of copper and one ton of tin, along with other goods. and exotic materials including a gold scarab engraved with Nefertiti's name, glass ingots, ivory, ebony, hippopotamus teeth, ostrich eggs, tools made from products from at least 11 Asian, African and European cultures and approximately 150 Canaanite amphorae, of which approximately 120 contained resin.

The ship previously found at Cape Gelidonya sank around 1200 BC. It also carried copper and tin, but in smaller quantities, as well as bronze scrap in the form of agricultural tools intended for recycling.

“These two shipwrecks exemplify different modes of trade,” Dr. Pulak said. “The Uluburun vessel represented elite long-distance interregional exchange, and the Cape Gelidonya vessel was involved in local coastal cabotage, or opportunistic trade, in which goods and services were bought and sold in ports for a quick profit.”

The newly found wreck suggests that Bronze Age traders traveled much further from ports.

“The discovery of this boat now changes our entire understanding of the navigational skills of ancient sailors,” Dr Sharvit said. “She IS the first to be found at such a great distance with no line of sight to any landmass. From this geographical point only the horizon is visible all around.”

Dr. Sharvit hypothesized that, lacking compasses, astrolabes, or sextants, seafarers in the 14th century BC probably relied on celestial navigation, taking sightings and angles of the sun and the positions of the stars. He said the wreck promises to advance scientific knowledge of Late Bronze Age trading patterns and the peoples who controlled them.

“The two previous Bronze Age shipwrecks marked trade routes between Cyprus, the Levant and places in the eastern Aegean Sea,” Dr Sharvit said. “Our wreckage suggests that a maritime exchange was conducted west of Syria and Canaan towards southern Cyprus, Crete and other Greek lands.”

Alternatively, he proposed, the doomed sailors on the ocean-going galley could set sail from an Aegean port, disembark their cargo at a Levantine port, and load the ship with Canaanite amphorae for the return voyage. Dr Sharvit said that if that were the case, the sailors could have been Mycenaeans, a civilization that had invaded Crete and much of southern Greece by 1400 BC and had a virtual monopoly on trade in the eastern Mediterranean.

Dr. Pulak called the three Bronze Age shipwrecks valuable time capsules. But while the Uluburun wreck was excavated over the course of 22,413 dives, Dr Sharvit said Israeli authorities planned to preserve the deep-water site as it is, without unearthing more wreckage for the time being.

“We think it's the best way to keep the shipwreck safe at this time,” he said. “We want to save it for the next generation, with better technology and methodology to dig to that depth.”

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