Rare shipwreck discovery photos challenge history: 'Groundbreaking'

The discovery, which was 'frozen in time since the moment of disaster', changes our understanding of the Bronze Age.

Bronze Age shipwreck discovery
Incredible findings in the Bronze Age shipwreck discovery.

It was the world’s first multinational civilisation. Mighty ships plowed the waves between Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece carrying riches, diplomats and troops between the ancient world’s first great empires.

But it all came crashing down in the space of a few decades around 1177BC. Exactly why isn’t known.

Surviving clay tablets talk of chaos, famine and swarms of raiding pirates.

Now an accidental discovery 90km off the coast of northern Israel promises new insight to an era shortly before these mighty warlord entrepreneurs, advanced new technologies and previously unimagined comforts all suddenly came to an end.

A petrochemical company drilling for signs of natural gas deposits has stumbled across the rare remains of a late Bronze Age ship. And it's both far enough offshore and deep enough to have remained largely undisturbed for more than 3000 years.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) says its cargo, including hundreds of intact ceramic amphorae — the ancient equivalent of shipping containers used to transport everything from wine to grains — represent a “groundbreaking discovery”. They say it is the "oldest ever" ocean-going ship ever found. Discoveries of a similar age have been found only in rivers, lakes and coastal harbours.

Oil painting Ulysses and the Sirens, by Herbert Draper
Tales such as the epic poet Homer’s The Odyssey hint of invading sea people have fascinated scholars of the Bronze Age for centuries. Source: Ulysses and the Sirens, by Herbert Draper

A robotic drone operated by British drilling company Energean stumbled across the 14m-long wreck buried in mud.

"When we sent them (the antiquities authority) the images it turned out to be a sensational discovery, far beyond what we could imagine," said company spokesman Karnit Bahartan.

The company and IAA have recovered two amphorae for analysis. Archaeologists have identified them as being of Canaanite origin, a people that occupied coastal Palestine before the Exodus of the Jews as described by the Jewish Torah and Christian Bible.

“The ship seems to have sunk in crisis, either due to a storm or to an attempted piracy attack – a well-known occurrence in the Late Bronze Age,” says IAA marine unit head Jacob Sharvit.

Then, as now, entire cities and economies were built upon the safe and regular flow of international trade goods. But a combination of events across the Mediterranean - including famine, plague, earthquakes and war - disrupted this network, causing entire empires to collapse.

Ships transported a range of goods including wine, oil, grains and fruit in amphorae and metals central to the civilisation’s success — copper and tin — were cast into portable ingots for processing at their destinations.

A simplified diagram of the Uluburun ship showing loaded goods.
Ships from the era had large cargo holds to transport goods. Source: F. W. Welter-Schultes et al/Journal of Molluscan Studies 74(1)
A map with arrows showing a ships movements in the Mediterranean Sea.
A map shows the route a ship of a similar age, the Uluburun, would have travelled in the late Bronze Age about 3,300 years ago. Source: F. W. Welter-Schultes et al/Journal of Molluscan Studies 74(1)

Archaeologists and historians generally assumed the trading vessels of the era remained within sight of the shore, making short “hops” between regularly-spaced ports.

These were built on well established routes carrying gold and grain out of Egypt, collecting cedar from Lebanon, copper from Cyprus and luxury goods from Persia (Turkey). Cargo ships then crossed the Aegean to Mycenaean Greece and Cyprus for olive oil and wine before allowing the prevailing winds to carry them across the Mediterranean to pick up the coast once again at Libya for the return to Egypt.

But Sharvit says the wreck’s position indicates its sailors knew how to use the sun, stars, currents and winds to find their way over greater distances - a skill not seen again in the Mediterranean for several centuries.

"The discovery of this boat now changes our entire understanding of ancient mariner abilities. It is the very first to be found at such a great distance with no line of sight to any landmass," Sharvit said.

At 1.8km deep, the wreck is far beneath the eroding influence of the waves. And it’s also out of reach of fishing lines and nets.

“The ship is preserved at such a great depth that time has frozen since the moment of disaster – its body and contents have not been disturbed by human hand, nor affected by waves and currents which do impact shipwrecks in shallower waters,” explains Sharvit. “It seems that a second layer of jars is also buried in the muddy bottom and apparently parts of its timber keel are buried deep in the mud.”

Jacob Sharvit points to screens showing images of the shipwreck captured by an under water drone.
Jacob Sharvit said to ship appeared to have sunk in a crisis. Source: IAA

The IAA has no deep-sea exploration capability of its own.

"They asked if we would be willing to do it for them, and it took us no time to agree," Bahartan said of Energean's role. "We knew that if we didn't do it, nobody would."

So, the deep-sea exploration ship Energy Star returned to the site with a team of archaeologists and engineers.

They studied the site and assembled a mechanism of ropes and nets to excavate and recover two amphorae for analysis. These are currently having their content analysed in a laboratory before being released for public display.

Image of the wreck captured by deep-diving exploration drone.
A deep-diving exploration drone captured images of the wreck 'frozen in time'. Source: Energean

Only two other wrecks belonging to this era have been found.

The famous Uluburun ship and Cape Gelidonya wreck both found off Turkey, were located close to shore.

Both provide unique insight to the immense scale and multinational nature of trade at the time.

The Uluburun ship carried goods from seven different nations, including 140 Canaanite amphorae. But its main cargo was 10 tonnes of Cypriot copper and one ton of tin. This was enough to equip a small army with bronze swords and armour.

There are, as yet, no plans to further excavate or recover the newly discovered wreck.

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