Oldest Shipwreck in World May Have Been Carrying Copper to Minoans

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Poisonous lionfish swims over 3,600-year-old copper ingots
Poisonous lionfish swims over encrusted 3,600-year-old copper ingots, site of the oldest shipwreck in the world Credit: Tahsin Ceylan
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Around 3,600 years ago, a small merchant vessel was sailing east from (possibly) the island of Cyprus, laden with copper ingots. It may have been making for the glorious palaces of Mycenae or possibly even distant Europe when it sank just off Antalya, Turkey — probably blown onto the rocky coast by a storm. Now discovered just off the coast, it is apparently the oldest-known shipwreck in the world, proposes Akdeniz University archaeologist Prof. Hakan Öniz, who headed the underwater study into the remains and reported on the find in the Palestine Exploration Quarterly.

The underwater excavation of the long-lost ship is being supported by the Ministry of Culture of Turkey, Antalya Museum and the Turkish Underwater Archaeology Foundation.

The investigation into the oldest shipwreck in the world, a site marked by a concentration of ingots, is being done entirely in situ on the sea floorCredit: Hakan Oniz

The bed of the Mediterranean Sea is littered with ships that foundered over thousands of years, some succumbing to battle or piracy, others to weather and currents. Many, like this one, have been found just off the coasts. Lacking equipment, ancient ships presumably hugged the shores insofar as possible for navigation purposes.

To be precise, what Öniz and the divers have observed so far is a pile of encrusted ingots on the seabed. The wooden hull is long gone, presumably eaten by marine worms, such as Teredo Navalis. “In the Mediterranean, it’s impossible to find organic materials over 500 years of age,” Öniz tells Haaretz. Unless, that is, they were covered by sand and were preserved in an anoxic environment, in which the bacteria associated with decay, and worms, could not survive.

The ingots (and some other things … Öniz isn’t saying yet) were found at a depth of 37 to 48 meters (121 to 157 feet), and clearly much of the ancient ship — or at least its uneaten cargo — remains covered by sand.

Öniz tentatively dates the ship to the 16th or 15th century B.C.E., based on the shape of the ingots it carried: Mainly pillow-shaped, which is typical of how smelted copper was shipped wholesale in the Late Bronze Age. By the 14th century B.C.E., the common shape of ingots had changed to so-called “ox-hide,” which resemble a stretched-out pelt with protrusions at each of the four corners (if the bovid had very short legs).

The concentration of ingots, apparently pillow-shaped copper being shipped for wholesale trade, found off the Antalya coast, apparently dates back about 3,600 years Credit: Hakan Oniz
As the diver sees it: Oldest shipwreck in the world identified by concentration of ingots

If the dating is accurate, the ship would be centuries older than the famous Uluburun shipwreck, which dates to the 14th century B.C.E.; and older than the slightly less famous Gelidonya wreck, which dates to the late 13th or early 12th century. Both Uluburun and Gelidonya are not far from the final resting place of this ship.

In support of the dating, similar pillow-shaped ingots were found in Minoan palaces and settlements on Crete that date to an overlapping period of time with the new wreck, meeting their mysterious end in the 1450s B.C.E.

In fact, it is possible that the ship was heading for Crete when it smashed on the rocks 50 meters off the coast in the ancient region of Lycia. A lot of ships met their maker in those somewhat treacherous waters.

Or it could have been headed for Troy, another famed user of bronze for weaponry. The Trojans were not known for their flower-picking. Or it could have been headed even further afield. Axes found in Swedish graves were dated to 3,600 years ago — about the age of this newly found wreck — and turned out to have been made of Cypriot copper, which had to have been shipped to the far north.

Sailing from Copper Island

The use of copper can be dated back as much as 10,000 or even 11,000 years in the Middle East, where it was hammered out of the ore without heating. The earliest-known smelted copper artifact was found in Beit She’an, Israel, and dated to about 7,000 years — which is when the Copper Age proper is defined as beginning.

Underwater excavation of the oldest shipwreck in the world: Copper ingots lying on the seabed by AntalyaCredit: Tahsin Ceylan

Copper, however, is soft, and by about 5,300 years ago, alloys with tin or arsenic or some other metal would create a metal stiffer, more useful than bronze.

Goods were being exchanged much earlier, but by the Bronze Age there was a brisk international maritime trade in the raw materials, including copper in the form of ingots.

Much of the copper in the late Bronze Age was mined in Cyprus, which began to produce it in the third millennium B.C.E. In fact, the island’s very name means “copper island,” Öniz says.

Isotope analyses have shown that most (though not all) of the ingots found in the Uluburun and Gelidonya shipwrecks likely originated in Cypriot copper.

Whether the newly found ingots also originated in Cyprus remains subject to extraction from the seabed, sampling and isotope analysis — but it is a reasonable postulation at this point.

No remains of the ship itself have survived after 3,600 years, but the cargo it carried, pillow-shaped ingots, couldn't have gotten there any other wayCredit: Tahsin Ceylan

“There were a few places that worked in copper production in central Anatolya too, but almost 80 percent of the ingots found in Uluburun and Gelidonya are indicative of Cypriot mines,” Öniz says.

At the newfound site, he and the divers have so far found 73 pillow-shaped ingots, as well as four round ingots (“bun-shaped”) that might be copper or tin. Though studied in situ on the seabed and encrusted, not to mention stuck to one another or to the seabed rock, their shape is discernible. These ingots seem to have more rounded corners than the later so-called “ox-hide”

The Uluburun wreck had 313 ox-hide ingots and four ingots, which their finders described as reminding them of “pillow-shaped ingots belonging to an earlier group of findings.” Ergo, its ingot cargo seems typical of a later date. That supports the suggestion that the newly found wreck is older than Uluburun.

Prof. Hakan OnizCredit: Ceyda Oztosun

The Gelidonya wreck contained ox-hide type ingots that date to between the 13th century and the first half of the 12th century B.C.E., Öniz says.

Both the Uluburun and Gelidonya wrecks also had some bun-shaped ingots.

While the production of pillow-shaped and ox-hide type ingots likely overlapped, there is general agreement that pillow-shaped ingots were earlier, and common in the 16th and 15th centuries B.C.E.

It bears adding that the newly found ones were big and heavy compared with examples of pillow-shaped ingots held at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Heraklion Museum in Crete and the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Turkey. The “new” ones max out at 46.4 centimeters (18 inches) in length and 31.3 centimeters (12 inches) in width, with a maximal thickness of 5.4 centimeters (2 inches).

Thutmose’s vizier dies

Further supporting the theory of the ship’s dating are pictures in ancient Egyptian tombs, showing pillow-shaped ingots similar to the ones in the newly found wreck.

For instance, tombs in Amarna show such ingots: for example, those of Ahmes, steward to King Akhenaten, dating to the reign of Akhenaten 1351-1334 B.C.E., and Huya, steward to Queen Tiye (mother of Akhenaten).

Ingots still identifiable, despite 3,600 years of encrustation, as pillow-shaped and therefore, probably copper exported by Cyprus, found just off the Antalya coastCredit: Tahsin Ceylan

So does the resting place of Useramon, vizier to the young Thutmosis III, who reigned from 1490 to 1436 B.C.E. Intriguingly, Useramon’s wall art shows 16 visitors wearing Minoan-style red, white and blue loincloths and holding Minoan-style pottery — and pictures of pillow-shaped ingots.

Another tomb, that of Useramon’s nephew Rekh-mi-re, who would serve as vizier through Thutmosis’ reign, also depicts a delegation of Minoans and similar ingots.

These copper ingots certainly got about, though it bears saying that our ship was either not headed for Egypt or was very, very lost.

The process of studying the discovery began with detecting the spread of its cargo by divers, then documenting the finds, then a series of sonar scans. “We didn’t find the wreck by sonar,” Öniz points out. “We used a side-scan sonar study to study the geographical position of the wreck and its environment, then used photo-scanning work and Autocad to draw the wreck.”

Nothing has been taken from the seabed at this point for fear of causing damage to this extraordinary, unique site, he tells Haaretz. They didn’t have the scientific infrastructure in place, for one thing. The next mission is to arrange funding for more undersea excavation, and sampling, which should enable carbon-14 analysis of any organic remnants, if there are any.

The next stage of research will be done in collaboration with Cemal Pulak,a veteran of the Uluburun study. Given that interest in the oldest-known shipwreck in the world is vast, government funding will probably be attainable. 

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