There are two types of famous shipwrecks: those that were famous before they sank, like the Titanic, and those that became famous because they were discovered in their watery graves. Some have been deliberately discovered after much documentary research followed by tedious, hazardous, and complex searches in the areas where they sank.
And then there are the accidental discoveries. The “father of nautical archaeology” George Bass once said that Turkish sponge divers were his main source of leads for the now famous shipwrecks discovered in the Aegean. Similarly, when modern engineers in Istanbul chose the site for a railway tunnel underneath the Bosporus Strait to connect Asia and Europe, they did not expect to find a neolithic village dating back to 6000 BCE. Neither did they expect to find the remains of the Theodosian harbor from the Byzantine era. Thirty-seven shipwrecks later, archaeologists can now fill in the blanks of ancient shipbuilding techniques and trade connections, spanning centuries.
1. Evidence for Ancient Shipbuilding: The Famous Shipwreck from Kyrenia
In 1965 a Cypriot diving instructor and town counselor, Andreas Cariolou, discovered an ancient Greek shipwreck close to the port of Kyrenia in Cyprus. It was subsequently excavated by a team of archaeologists and students from Penn University. The ca. 2300-year-old famous shipwreck and its cargo were in such remarkably good condition that it was eventually raised and is now on view at the Kyrenia Castle museum. The famous shipwreck was studied in minute detail, and a full-scale replica, the Kyrenia I, was built according to its specifications with ancient tools and techniques. A second and third replicas were built later, with the last one completed in 2002 and named Kyrenia Liberty.
The wreck and its cargo, dating back to the time of Alexander the Great, held many wonderful surprises, apart from disclosing ship-building techniques of the time. The outside hull was covered in a thin sheet of lead for protection, and investigations showed that the ship was constructed according to the ancient shell-first method — the outside was constructed first, and then the inside of the hull.
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More than four hundred intact wine amphorae from different ports formed the main cargo — and 9,000 perfectly preserved almonds in their shells were found inside storage jars. The ship also carried heavy rock-cut grain-grinding millstones made from volcanic lava, possibly from Santorini, which also served as ballasts.
Scholars think that the ship’s home port may have been Rhodes, as most of the wine amphorae bear potters’ marks from there. More cargo was picked up along the way to Cyprus from other Mediterranean ports. Scholars believe that the crew consisted of a captain and three sailors as the eating utensils (spoons, cups, etcetera) recovered from the wreck are all in fours.
Spear points in the hull and marks on the outside surface have led scholars to believe that the ship probably sank after a pirate attack. It was barely one nautical mile from the safety of the port of Kyrenia.
2. The Extremely Ancient Dokos Shipwreck
The late Peter Throckmorton, a photojournalist with a keen interest in ancient shipwrecks, is to be credited with the discovery of many famous shipwrecks in Greek and Turkish waters. Among them, the Dokos wreck is thought to be the oldest shipwreck found to date. It dates before c. 2200 BCE, judging by the pottery cargo it carried. It was discovered by Peter in 1975 at a depth of fifteen to thirty meters near the Greek island of Dokos. It was excavated by the Hellenic Institute of Maritime Archaeology from 1989 to 1992.
The famous shipwreck’s cargo of ceramics included cups, vases, jugs, sauceboats, and other household items, presumably to trade along the coast and islands. It is interesting to note that ceramics like the sauceboats are from up to seven different regions of Greece, and all date to before the use of the pottery wheel — concurrent with the Minoans. Apart from the largest horde of pottery recovered to date, the famous shipwreck also carried lead ingots for trade.
3. The Shipwreck That Changed Arachaeology at Cape Gelidonya
The first ever ancient shipwreck to be excavated underwater was discovered by a sponge diver from Bodrum in 1954 in the waters off Cape Gelidonya, Turkey. A photojournalist from New York, Peter Throckmorton was in the process of gathering information about wreck sites from sponge divers and fishermen around the Turkish coast. In 1958 he took some people to the site, including Honor Frost — a scuba diver and archaeologist. Frost realized the antiquity of the wreck, and that it may be Phoenician. Throckmorton convinced the University of Pennsylvania and others to excavate the site. Leading the excavation from 1959-60 was a young George Bass, who became known as the father of nautical archaeology, and Joan du Plat Taylor, who later became known as a pioneer in maritime archaeology.
The team had to adapt land excavation methods to cope with the underwater work, and their success led to other excavations of ancient wrecks. It also led to the establishment of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology and the founding of the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology.
The excavation team recovered a large number of copper ingots, tin, scrap bronze metal, and metal working tools, which led to the conclusion that the ship might have belonged to a traveling metalsmith. The ship was excavated layer by layer and every level was meticulously measured and recorded before being disturbed and removed.
Mycenean pottery from the site and also from nearby land sites appeared to confirm the general idea that the Myceneans were the dominant ocean traders across the Mediterranean at the time. George Bass, however, floated the idea that the metal and other objects, mainly from Cyprus, indicated early Syro-Canaanite origins — making them proto-Phoenician. The trader’s weights carried on the ship were also Middle Eastern rather than Greek. His controversial idea, after years of ridicule, would eventually prove correct, when the Uluburun shipwreck was excavated. The Phoenicians are recognized as a major seafaring nation from the Mediterranean.
4. The Uluburun Shipwreck and Its Incredible International Cargo
Around 3,400 years ago a cargo ship set sail somewhere in the Aegean. The weather was favorable with just enough wind — a beautiful sunny day on the azure blue sea. The sturdy lines of the precious cedar wood ship were graciously shaped under the wide expanse of the single sail. And then the storm came just as the sun was setting. The captain shouted for the sail to be furled. The three Syro-Canaanite sailors quickly jumped to it, their fishing net already pulled up and stowed away. The few terrified passengers hurried to their cabin. The crew had weathered many storms before, but this one was different. It ripped and lashed the creaking ship until a giant wave tipped the hull causing a sharp dive from which there was no recovery.
In 1982 a Turkish sponge diver discovered metal objects on the seabed near Kas, which turned out to be copper ingots. The Institute of Nautical Archaeology led excavations at the site from 1984 to 1994. George Bass and his team identified it as a late Bronze age wreck. It was carefully and systematically excavated and everything was meticulously recorded layer by layer because by this time they were well versed in adapting archaeological methods to underwater conditions.
The cargo included trade goods from at least seven different ports. The main cargo contained over 350 copper ingots from Cyprus, and enough tin (of unknown origin) in the exact ratio of 10:1 to make bronze. Raw materials included more than two hundred glass ingots in various colors including cobalt and purple, and Baltic amber nuggets, 150 Jars of terebinth resin (used for incense burning), elephant and hippopotamus ivory, ostrich shells, true African ebony, and twenty-four stone anchors. Gold and other precious and luxury objects were among the manufactured items, as were several musical instruments. These and other personal items would indicate that there were probably passengers on the ship.
Many of the recovered objects led to much speculation — such as the gold ring with a cartouche of the beautiful and famous Egyptian queen Nefertiti’s throne name “Neferneferuaten”. It should be mentioned that the name and person of Neferneferuaten forms part of a complex and controversial debate surrounding the Egyptian Amarna period. Was this gold ring part of the scrap metal consignment on the ship, or a precious ring of a royal Egyptian envoy? The dates so far established for the wreck could apply to both the Amarna period and shortly after.
The biggest controversy arose when George Bass published his interpretation that this ship and the Cape Galidonya wreck were from the Middle East rather than Greece — claiming they were Syro-Canaanite, and thus Phoenician, and so asserting that the Myceneans were not the main or only traders in the Aegean at the time. This sent George Bass on an arduous path of investigation through ancient texts, artifacts, and archaeological excavation reports. He was proven right.
In the process he also proved that several of Homer’s descriptions were accurate, having once been taken as mythical embroidery. One of these descriptions relates to Odysseus’s ship in which he lays down brushwood over basket-weave before putting cargo in the hull — exactly as found in the wrecks. The Cape Galidonya and Uluburun wrecks proved yet again, as in the case of Schliemann’s Troy, that Homer knew what he was talking about.
5. A Wealthy Phoenician Shipwreck: The Bajo de la Campana
In the hazardous waters off Spain’s Bajo de la Campana lies a submerged rock reef where many a ship has found a watery grave over the millennia. One such wreck turned out to be a Phoenician merchant ship. Although only a tiny piece of wood was salvaged, the cargo held an astonishing array of items. Much of it was recovered from a sea cave at the bottom of the cliff. The wreck is dated to the seventh century BCE and was excavated from 2008 – 2011.
Phoenician trade routes spanned the Mediterranean and beyond. It is posited by the excavators that this ship was on its way to a Phoenician colony in Spain with supplies when it sank. The cargo included copper, tin, lead sulfite ore (used in the process of extracting silver), red ochre, resin, amber from the Baltic region, elephant ivory tusks, and other raw materials. Manufactured goods included many types of ceramics like cargo-carrying amphora, jars, oil lamps, bowls, jugs, perfume jars, wooden combs, an ivory knife handle, a limestone pedestal, a green stone rod, and several furniture parts.
Seven of the ivory tusks are inscribed with several Phoenician letters. A few other goods have inscribed Phoenician graffiti and manufacturer or owner marks. A bronze forearm with a hand holding a stylized lotus blossom was found among the bronze items.
Famous Shipwrecks: Those who Dared and Lost
Since the early years of underwater archaeology in the 1960s, the science has grown to near iconic status with equipment and technology to match. The very fact that something could lie undisturbed for centuries or millennia protected from human activity since the day it disappeared under the water makes it more authentic — a time capsule that captures one brief moment.
The Institute of Nautical Archaeology in Bodrum, Turkey, and George Bass’s colleagues have since revisited many early excavations. Their innovative methods and “make-do” equipment have been replaced by state-of-the-art research vessels, R.O.V.’s, and perfectly designed machinery, but the painstaking handwork remains similar. The Institute is, directly and indirectly, involved in projects across the world.
The discovery of a seventh century BCE Mediterranean wreck noticed by a navy submarine led to cooperation between Oceanographers like Bob Ballard and archaeologists like Laurence Stager who further opened the deeper oceans for more wonderful discoveries. Universities and oceanographic institutes like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are constantly developing better equipment. Projects with specially equipped research vessels, sonars, R.O.V.s, mini-submarines, and preservation laboratories on board, are searching the bottom of the seas and oceans.
There are many other wrecks worth mentioning. The Mediterranean Archaeology Association in Antalya, Turkey, discovered a wreck dating from 1600 – 1500 BCE in the Mediterranean with ingots older than Uluburun’s as recently as 2018. At Fournoi, a Greek island group lies at a convergence of trade routes, and more than fifty-eight ancient wrecks have already been discovered and probed, with cargos from the Black Sea, Spain, Italy, Africa, Cyprus, and the Aegean.
One of the most famous shipwrecks from ancient times is probably the Antikythera wreck because of the intriguing and complex Antikythera mechanism that has baffled and frustrated scholars for years — and it is a wreck that keeps on giving!
Finally, a perfectly preserved bronze age ship is sitting on the bottom of the Black Sea… waiting.