Famous shipwrecks from the Ancient World

Thousands of ancient shipwrecks have been found on the seafloor and advances in maritime archaeology are helping researchers locate even more. A relatively small percentage of the ocean floor has been mapped, so it’s safe to assume that there are many more shipwrecks waiting to be discovered.
The history of Ancient Mediterranean cultures can be especially interesting to study and plenty of artifacts were left behind on land and in the sea. As civilizations developed in regions around the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, trade and transportation routes were formed, and shipbuilding industries boomed. As these civilizations grew and advanced, trade routes were extended across the seas, connecting cultures and leaving fascinating trails of evidence.

The Antikythera Shipwreck
The Antikythera Shipwreck (circa 60 BC) is the richest ancient wreck ever discovered. Greek sponge divers located the wreck by chance close inshore of Antikythera Island in 1900. They spent a year salvaging its treasures, with the help of the Hellenic Navy. The divers recovered hundreds of works of art including the fabulous bronze and marble statues that now fill galleries at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The wreck also relinquished a mysterious geared device, the Antikythera Mechanism.
Locals on Antikythera tell tales of giant marble statues lying beyond the sponge divers’ reach. Records from the 1900-1901 salvage indicate at least one large marble statue was dropped during recovery operations, and there are hints that others were dragged into deeper water under the mistaken belief they were just boulders. Meanwhile, ancient technology researchers and scholars wonder whether the site might be hiding another Antikythera mechanism, more pieces of the original, or at least some clues as to whom this mysterious object belonged to.
Speculation abounds, because no scientific study has ever been conducted on the wreck. Only one officially sanctioned investigation has been allowed since the 1900-1901 operation. Undersea explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau and the Calypso crew worked at the site for several weeks in 1976, with the approval of the Hellenic Government and under the supervision of Greek archaeologist Dr. Lazaros Kolonas. Cousteau knew where to dive, because he had previously visited the island in 1953, accompanied by MIT professor Harold “Doc” Edgerton. They dived for only three days in 1953, but saw enough to entice them back in 1976 to film a television show, Diving for Roman Plunder. The team dredged a section of the wreck to reveal more artifacts for the cameras.
Since that expedition, no one has dived the wreck until 2012.
Cue all-round excitement when a team of divers led by the Hellenic Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities went back for a proper look. The divers used closed circuit rebreathers and diver propulsion vehicles equipped, with high-resolution video cameras. In eight operational days, they circumnavigated the island at about 40 metres depth. At the wreck site, they found artifacts scattered over a wide area of the steep, rocky sea floor. These include intact pottery, the ship’s lead anchor and some puzzling bronze objects. The team believes that hundreds more items could be buried in the sediment nearby.
The Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports has directed their team to continue investigation of the wreck. Beginning in September 2014 and continuing for one month, they have mapped the site precisely with an autonomous robot carrying stereocameras and sonar. More detailed mapping of regions of interest was done during the 2019 expedition.
Aided by underwater metal detectors and an accurate site plan, they assessed the layout of the wreck and distribution of debris and material from it.
The recovery operations in 1900-1901 and 1976 offer tantalising proof of what remains: ceramic jars and galley ware, oil lamps, gold jewellery, silver and bronze coins, bronze statuettes, fine glass objects, remnants of the ship’s hull, elements of marble sculpture, and even human skeletal remains. Since the ship was transporting the highest quality of luxury goods, there is a very real possibility of unimaginable finds, similar in importance to the Antikythera Mechanism.

The Antikythera Mechanism (roughly 205-60 BC) is understood as the world’s first analog computer, created to accurately calculate the position of the sun, moon, and planets. It was found in 1901 off the Greek island of Antikythera, giving it its name.
The mechanism, thought to have originally been over a foot tall and housed in a wooden box, was discovered as a corroded lump of metal. There were so many artifacts retrieved from the wreckage that the oddly formed and unidentified lump went unnoticed until 1902 when it was seen by the Greek archaeologist Valerios Stais in a workroom at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Work on deciphering the meaning and purpose of the device began soon after and continues to the present day.

The Kyrenia Shipwreck

In 1965 a Cypriot diving instructor and town counsellor, 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 circa 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.
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.

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 BC, judging by the pottery cargo it carried. It was discovered by Throckmorton 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.

The Cape Gelidonya Shipwreck

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 realised 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 travelling metal smith. The ship was excavated layer by layer and every level was meticulously measured and recorded before being disturbed and removed.
Mycenaean pottery from the site and also from nearby land sites appeared to confirm the general idea that the Mycenaeans were the dominant ocean traders across the Mediterranean at the time. 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 scepticism, would eventually prove correct, when the Uluburun shipwreck was excavated. The Phoenicians are recognised as a major seafaring nation from the Mediterranean.

The Uluburun Shipwreck
Around 3,400 years ago a cargo ship set sail somewhere in the Aegean. Then a giant wave must have 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 colours 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 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 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.

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 BC 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 sulphite 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 stylised lotus blossom was found among the bronze items.
The Bajo de la Campana ship demonstrates, like the earlier Cape Gelidonya and Uluburun ships, that commerce by sea linked cultures and helped build trading empires – in this case, that of the Phoenicians. In time, they dominated the Western Mediterranean, established port cities and colonies such as Cartago Nuovo (today’s Cartagena), and ultimately clashed with the growing power of Rome.

Source: antikythera.org.gr, thecollector.com

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