3,300-year-old 'Titanic of the Med' Gives Invaluable Clues to Mideast's Past

The Uluburun Shipwreck is at the center of a study of five wrecks by Tel Aviv University's Yuval Goren. Where did the Ulubrun come from? And where was it headed?

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Wooden remains of wickerwork fencing, which may have lined the Uluburun's bulwarks to keep out waves in rough weather.
Wooden remains of wickerwork fencing, which may have lined the Uluburun's bulwarks to keep out waves in rough weather.Credit: INA
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

About 3,300 years ago a large ship left the northern Mediterranean Sea region carrying a treasure of copper, tin, glass, gold, silver and other materials to an unknown destination.

In 1983 the ship was accidentally discovered by a 13-year-old diving for sponges near the Turkish fishing town of Kas. The copper ingots led the youth to go to the curator of the local museum.

The shipwreck was dug up by an excavation expedition of underwater archaeologists, first under the leadership of Professor George Bass and later under Professor Cemal Pulak, both from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University. Excavating and documenting the 10,000 items found on the ship was a 10-year project. The late Bronze Age shipwreck, known as the Uluburun Shipwreck, is seen as one of the most important underwater discoveries of the second half of the 20th century.

“This ship is an immense source of information about that period, there’s nothing to equal the extent of those findings,” says archaeologist Professor Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University. Goren is about to publish a series of studies dealing with a selection of findings on ancient shipwrecks from the second and first millennium BC, a project he has been working on for eight years.

Goren’s essays focus on new findings from five shipwrecks dating to the same era, with the Uluburun Shipwreck as the jewel in the crown.

An archaeologist replicating and consolidating damaged ingots using an underwater curing epoxy and plaster. Credit: INA

“The amount of essays written about that shipwreck could fill an entire room. It’s an endless source of various studies, including one focusing on the jaw of a mouse found on the ship,” says Goren.

Shipwrecks tend to enthrall people, they capture and preserve one traumatic moment experienced by a group of people at sea and encapsulates their entire life. Some of them, like the Titanic, have become box office hits. Most will remain the domain of archaeologists, museums and aficionados.

“In archaeology shipwrecks are especially interesting. They’re like time capsules from the past that have frozen time. In some cases they preserve everything that was in them, especially when they sink fast and in deep water, that’s when they’re preserved in good condition. The slower a ship sinks and the shallower the water, the more exposed it is to currents, animals and plants that attack the findings,” he says.

Unlike ships that sink in the modern era, finding ancient ships is an archaeological asset, enabling scientists a glimpse of trade routes, political and diplomatic relations, various seafaring techniques and even the sailors’ way of life thousands of years ago.

“In the Uluburun Shipwreck case, the questions that interested us were, who did the ship belong to? Where did it come from and where was it headed? We’re dealing with a ship from the late Bronze Age, when the Ramses dynasty ruled in Egypt,” says Goren.

The ships Goren is studying were discovered in the Mediterranean region, mainly along the Turkish border. Without an engine or navigation instruments, their captains had to sail with the currents, navigating by the stars and landmarks on the shore. This forced them to maintain eye contact with the shore. “Since the Turkish shore is rocky and indented, numerous ships were shipwrecked as they sailed along it,” he says.

Cypriot pithoid krater containing Cypriot fineware pottery. Credit: INA

It is difficult to ascertain what the ship’s destination was. Goren said the ship’s cargo, which was unprecedented in wealth and volume, was probably a royal shipment by an Egyptian ruler to another ruler in the Aegean Sea region. It is likely that it played a role in the regional interests and politics of the time.

The findings also provide a clue to the wealth and abundance of those days and the political use they were put to. The cargo consisted of hundreds of copper ingots weighing a total of ten tons, a ton of tin rods, 300 “containers” mostly filled with tree resin weighing a ton, 30 glass ingots, gold, jewelry, silver, which was more precious than gold at the time, and African ebony trees.

“It’s a huge cargo in terms of the ancient world. It’s a huge amount of raw materials, therefore it’s likely to be a royal shipment…Egyptian jewelry including a gold beetle – which was sacred to the Egyptians – with Nefertiti’s name on it – was also found.”

The scientists believe the intended recipient was a man of status and power in Cyprus or Greece.

“In contemporary terms, the loss of such a treasure would mean the bankruptcy of the insurance company,” says Goren.

For archaeologists, the lost crew of the ships also provide a clue to the mystery. Unlike vessels from later periods, these ships had no decks. They were large vessels with that consisted of one level, and the crew walked around on the cargo. When the ship sunk, therefore, the crew jumped ship and swam away; their skeletons weren’t found, and it is not known how many people were in the crew. Findings from other ships indicate that the crew of such a ship would have eaten cooked fish, and the archaeologists found fishing hooks, clay pots and barbecues in one of the ships.

“The crew’s equipment helps us trace the route of the ship. For example, the water containers, or flasks, they used were made of clay, and would break every once in a while. When the ship docked along the way the crew would buy new equipment,” says Goren. Analyzing the material that this equipment was made from, it is possible to ascertain where it was produced, and the same goes for cooking pots, candles, and other things that the crew used on a regular basis. “These are exactly the things we are looking for,” he says.

One of the interesting things that Goren’s study found is that oil lamps, drinking flasks and jugs were produced on Israel’s north coast, between the Carmel coast and Tyre and Sidon in Lebanon. “In the study I claim that this is a Canaanite ship. Canaan was ruled then by the Egyptians, whose ships were fit to for the waters of the Nile but not for sailing the seas, and for that they used the ships of the Canaanites who they ruled. My hypothesis is that an Egyptian ruler wanted to send the ship to a ruler in the area of the Aegean Sea, and that it sunk.

The Egyptians had interests in this area, and the ships were an important political tool in those days. This wasn’t an organized fleet like that of the British Navy in the 18th century, but it had an important role,” says Goren.
The ships back then were mainly used for trade, he says, and there was no such thing as a “cruise.”

Another thing found on the early ships was weapons in good condition from the area of Israel, Syria and Lebanon and the Aegean coast. The archaeologists have not been able to explain how a large stone axe from the Black Sea area got on to the Canaanite ship. “We don’t have an answer for that, maybe one of the sailors bought it in a market. In fact, we don’t know anything for certain. That’s what’s great about archaeology,” says Goren.

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