Scorned Shipwreck Identified as Baron De Rothschild's Missing Schooner

Archaeologists had balked at spending to study a wreck found in 1976 off Israel - but now think it's Baron Edmond de Rothschild's missing schooner.

Haifa University

Now that it's finally been examined, a shipwreck found decades years ago off the Israeli coast turns out to be a long-lost ship that Baron Edmond James de Rothschild used to bring supplies from France to the Holy Land, suggest archaeologists from Haifa University. Lost from the record, the ship apparently sank very near its destination, the Israeli coast more than 100 years ago.

That would explain what happened to the mysteriously missing third ship the baron used to carry raw materials from France to a glass factory he had built at the coastal village of Tantura. The cargo also included roof tiles and other materials for the nearby, newly established Jewish town of Zichron Yaakov.

The baron was known to have sold two of his three ships, but the fate of the third had remained unknown. Now the wreck found off Dor Beach in1976 has been tentatively identified as that ship.

"The ship we have found is structurally consistent with the specifications of the Baron’s ships, carried a similar cargo, and sailed and sank during the right period,” stated Dr. Deborah Cvikel and Micky Holtzman, who are investigating the shipwreck.

Early Zionism and carbon-14

Map of Israeli coast showing Dor.
Google Maps

French-born Edmond James de Rothschild (1845 –1934), a banker by profession like others of his kin, was an ardent early Zionist.  He believed in peaceful coexistence by the dwellers in the land, and in building industry for the Jews to make a living. Among other things, in 1882, using grape species brought over from France, the baron opened wineries (including the Carmel Winery, which exists, and exports, to this day). He also built the glass factory at Tantura to make bottles for the wine, and commissioned three ships – sailed by Jewish crews - to transport the raw materials from factories in France to the glass factory at Tantura.

The Tantura factory was actually established and managed by Meir Dizengoff, who would become the first mayor of Tel Aviv.

As said, the two-masted wreck was found decades ago, but it was never thoroughly analyzed until now. In fact the archaeologists who first knew of the shipwreck settled for dating it to a 300-year range, from 1660 to 1960, based on carbon-14 dating of wood.

"The disadvantage of carbon-14 dating of newish ships is that it gives us a very wide range, 300 years in this case," Cvikel told Haaretz. "It could tell us for instance if the ship is from the Ottoman era and not the Byzantine era, but it's difficult to narrow further."

The find was documented by the Israel Archaeology Institute in 1976 but for reasons of priority and economy, further investigation was shelved.

Giveaway factory stamp

Nonetheless, a later excavation in 2008 looked at the ship's contents, which included pots, earthenware, ceramic tiles, roof tiles, barrels, and crates. Analysis of rope found on the ship was crucial to narrowing the date range. Then a more precise dating of the vessel itself, and its last voyage, was enabled by findings on the pots, ceramic tiles, and roof tiles – some of which were stamped with the name of the factory in which they were manufactured. Further circumstantial evidence lies in analysis of the contents of a pot: it contained barium sulfate (BaSO4), used in glassmaking.

Six factory stamps found on the artifacts were all from French factories active in the late 19th century. Once they found the lion motif of a company called Guichard Frères, the date on which the ship sank could be narrowed still further, since this company appears in the Marseille commercial yearbook in 1889-1897.

Let it be clear that the jury's out – this might not be the baron's missing ship after all. People have been sailing and trading in the Mediterranean Sea for millennia. “However, there seem to be more than a few items that connect it with Zichron Yaacov, with the glass factory at Tantura, and with the baron’s ships," state the researchers. "Perhaps we can now conclude that the third ship was not sold and condemned to obscurity like its sisters, but sank with its cargo still on board.”