Wreckage offers further evidence of robust Mediterranean Late Bronze Age economy
A team of underwater archaeologists recently found the remains of an ancient shipwreck just off Turkey’s southern coast in the western Bay of Antalya. Underwater investigations of the region are sponsored by Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and date back to 1999. The discovery, recently made public in the latest volume of Palestine Exploration Quarterly, constitutes one of the oldest Bronze Age shipwrecks yet found in the Mediterranean and offers new insights into the vibrant old-world Late Bronze Age economy.1
The wreck was discovered approximately 50 meters off the coast of the Kumluca District of Turkey’s Antalya Province—the approximate location of ancient Lycia, or Lukka. The discovery shares the waters with two other notorious finds dating to the Bronze Age: the Uluburun and Gelìdonya wrecks. While the Uluburun and Gelìdonya date approximately to the end of the Late Bronze Age, or about the 14th and 12th centuries B.C.E. respectively, archaeologists have looked to the style of the molded copper casts onboard the new find to assign this ship a slightly earlier date of wreckage.
The primary cargo of the ship included a trove of copper ingots—or large masses of metal molded into a shape that was more convenient for storage and transport. Many of the ingots—which would have been smelted with tin in order to produce a stronger bronze alloy—were “pillow-shaped” with rounded edges, resembling closely their namesake. Archaeologists generally consider this style of billet to be a precursor to the well-known “oxhide” ingot—named for their resemblance to the stretching of a leather hide—popularly associated with the Uluburun wreck.
Just like clothing styles today, different ingot shapes went in and out of fashion, allowing archaeologists to reconstruct a seriation of different ingot styles. Although an absolute dating of these styles in the Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean remains somewhat uncertain, a preliminary assessment of the ship’s copper cargo indicates a mid-Late Bronze Age date, or approximately the 16th–15th centuries B.C.E.
Some news outlets have made the bold and outlandish claim that this discovery is the world’s oldest. However, despite predating the other infamous wrecks in the Bay of Antalya, the new discovery is by no means the oldest shipwreck in the world. The Dokos shipwreck, discovered in the Aegean about 60 miles east of Sparta, predates the recent find by as many as 1,000 years. Archaeological evidence from around the world suggests that humans have been seafaring for upwards of 50,000 years. The oldest shipwreck has thus likely not yet been found.
The remains of the wreck are submerged between 21 meters and 48 meters below the surface, situated on a 45-degree incline. The visible portion of the ship is approximately 5 meters wide and 14 meters long, the typical size of a Bronze Age Levantine merchant vessel, although debris from the ship is scattered and covered in sediment thus making full recovery and study of the vessel dubious. While archaeologists have been able to identify at least 78 in-tact ingots, it is likely that there are more nearby the wreckage, buried beneath rock and sand or fallen down the steep drop-off.
The wreck was studied in three phases. In October 2018, a research team—diving to a depth of 55 meters—and a safety team—diving only half as deep—carried out a total of 10 underwater expeditions in order to survey the site. Following this reconnaissance, a second series of dives captured a photo mosaic of the research area and gathered PhotoScans that are currently being processed in the Underwater Research Center in Kemer, Turkey (images a, b, and c below). The final phase of preliminary exploration of the wreck consisted of a side-scan, or dual-beam, sonar study that assessed the underwater topography of the coast in an attempt to understand the physical features that may have led the ship to sink approximately three and a half millennia ago.
Archaeologist Hakan Öniz, Head of the Division of Underwater Archaeology at Selcuk University and author of the recent publication in PEQ, suggests that the historically rough waters in this area were likely the cause of the wreck. He offers that the ship may have sunk “while running from a storm and trying to take shelter in a bay, battling the effects of flows that hampered its maneuverability.”2 Finding itself too close to the shore in rocky shallows, the hull probably snatched on a rock, tore open, and the cargo ship, weighted down with more than 1.5 tons of copper and tin cargo, fell to the ocean floor.
Excavating an underwater wreck at such depths presents considerable problems for archaeologists. SCUBA excavations beyond 55 meters begin to introduce health risks and safety hazards especially for long durations, so archaeologists tend to work in short shifts and budget time to steadily resurface. As an archaeological site demands precision and time to systematically study remains, the constraints that SCUBA demands of researchers present an added dimension of difficulty. Due to these restrictions, a more comprehensive excavation of the wreck has been delayed until later in 2019.
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Copper ingots of all forms can be found in museums across the Mediterranean from both terrestrial and underwater archaeological sites from Egypt to Crete. This appears to have been the primary mode of transporting large quantities of mined metals around the old world and the recent discovery of a ship hauling tons of copper and tine adds to the growing body of evidence that supports a complex international trade economy throughout the eastern Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age.
The aforementioned Uluburun wreck, initially studied by George Bass in 1984 and later by Cemal Pulak from 1985 to 1994, first gave archaeologists a pristine glimpse of what this flourishing luxury economy looked like. The cargo of the ship included more than 10 tons of copper and tin ingots that match the descriptions of royal gifts listed in the contemporary Amarna Letters as well as hundreds of jars and containers from Canaan and 175 glass ingots of cobalt blue turquoise and lavender. Swords from the Italian peninsula, hippopotamus teeth and blackwood logs from northern Africa, ivory tools and cosmetics, gold and silver jewelry, a feast of olives, figs, grapes and other foods, and countless other small finds round out the precious cargo of the Uluburun.
The diversity of luxury and utilitarian goods as well as the heterogeneity of their origins lead archaeologists to hypothesize a flourishing and cyclical Mediterranean trade system in which goods from Egypt, Canaan, Greece, Crete, and even parts of the distant western Mediterranean were connected in a complex network of exchange. This recent discovery off the coast of Turkey seems to add to the growing evidence in support of this robust economy.
Öniz was able to determine that the copper was extracted from mines in Cyprus and may have been on its way to some sort of smelting facility in Crete, Greece, or Ionia. It was likely making stops along the way in Canaan and Lycia and would eventually makes its rounds to Egypt or more distant locations.
Archaeologists hope to be back in the waters and exploring the remainder of the wreck shortly. Öniz announced that Selcuk University plans to organize a team of local and international specialists to carry-out a five-year excavation of the wreck. Perhaps further study will reveal a trove of cargo akin to the Uluburun?
Samuel DeWitt Pfister is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at The George Washington University.
1. Hakan Öniz, “A New Bronze Age Shipwreck with Ingots in the West of Antalya—Preliminary Results,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 151.1 (2019), pp. 3–14.
2. Öniz, “Bronze Age Shipwreck,” p. 3.
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