Oldest Deep-Sea Shipwreck Found Near Israel

Bronze Age shipwreck rewrites maritime history

Archaeologists with the IAA examining the two ancient jars from the world’s oldest shipwreck. Courtesy Emil Aladjem, IAA.

While surveying the floor of the Mediterranean 55 miles off Israel’s coast, the international energy company Energean made a startling find: the oldest deep-sea shipwreck ever discovered. Located over a mile below the waves, this deep-sea shipwreck could rewrite the history of ancient seafaring, showing that Mediterranean sailors left the safety of the coastline much earlier than previously thought.

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Sinking to the Deep

Peeking out from the mud of the seafloor, a heap of Canaanite jugs was all that could be seen of the ancient cargo ship, which had lain dormant on the bottom of the Mediterranean for more than 3,000 years. Upon seeing the jugs through the cameras of their deep-sea submersible, Energean researchers knew they had come across something unique. They reached out to the staff of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), who were able to identify the pots as Late Bronze Age Canaanite amphorae. Upon closer inspection, they determined that the amphorae date to the 14th or 13th centuries BCE.


Heap of storage jars discovered in the world’s oldest known shipwreck. Courtesy Energean.

The discovery is first-of-its-kind proof that Bronze Age sailors traversed open waters, out of sight of any nearby coast. Previously, the only other cargo ships from this time that had been discovered were the Cape Gelidonya wreck and the famous Uluburun boat, both of which were found in shallow waters off the coast of Turkey.

“The academic assumption until now,” said Jacob Sharvit, Head of the IAA Marine Unit, “was that trade in that time was executed by safely flitting from port to port, hugging the coastline within eye contact. The discovery of this boat now changes our entire understanding of ancient mariner abilities. From this geographical point, only the horizon is visible all around. To navigate they probably used the celestial bodies, by taking sightings and angles of the sun and star positions.” It is unknown why the ship sank, although the leading hypotheses are either that it was caught in a storm or attacked by pirates.

Unable to explore the shipwreck with conventional diving equipment, the IAA teamed up with Energean to retrofit the company’s remote-controlled submersible to carefully extract two of the vessels from the ship and bring them to the surface for analysis, as well as to get more information on the sunken ship. “The robot’s survey and mapping of the site clarified this to be a sunken ship circa 40–46 feet long that was transporting hundreds of vessels, of which only some are visible above the ocean floor,” said Sharvit. “The muddy bottom conceals a second layer of vessels, and it seems that wooden beams of the ship are also buried within the mud.”


Control room of the Energean ship during the retrieval mission. Courtesy Emil Aladjem, IAA.

Amphorae like those found with the wreck were the primary vessels of transportation during the Late Bronze Age, able to carry large amounts of oils, wine, and agricultural products. According to Sharvit, “Finding such a great quantity of amphorae on board one single ship is testimony to significant commercial ties between their country of origin and the ancient Near Eastern lands on the Mediterranean coast.”

Over a two-day operation, the team managed to safely extract two amphorae, carefully taking them from different areas of the ship to minimize any disturbance to the rest of the cargo. The IAA plans to carry out more extensive excavations soon, which will provide an incredible opportunity to investigate a ship that has been largely unaffected by human activity or coastal wave action.


The deep-sea submersible being pulled from the sea. Courtesy Emil Aladjem, IAA.

The Late Bronze Age was a period of immense trade and advancement in maritime technology, which allowed large volumes of goods to be shipped by boat. This led to a flourishing of port cities across the Mediterranean and an increase in international relations, well known from ancient texts such as the Amarna Letters. However, we also know from texts that it was a period of increased piracy, including the infamous Sea Peoples, who significantly disrupted Egyptian trade routes with the Levant.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Phoenician Shipwreck Located off Coast of Malta

Archaeologists to Probe Antikythera Shipwreck with Hi-Tech Diving Suit

Copper Ingots Found in Ancient Shipwreck off Turkish Coast

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:


The Galilee Boat—2,000-Year-Old Hull Recovered Intact

Caesarea Beneath the Sea

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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