3,300-year-old amphoras raised from Med’s oldest shipwreck

Dr Karnit Bachartan (right) and Yaakov Sharvit with the amphoras (Emil Eljam / Israel Antiquities Authority)
Dr Karnit Bachartan (right) and Yaakov Sharvit with the amphoras (Emil Eljam / Israel Antiquities Authority)

Last Updated on June 21, 2024 by Steve Weinman

What is now the oldest-known shipwreck site in the Mediterranean Sea has been located by chance at a depth of 1.8km – and two of the estimated hundreds of intact amphoras onboard have just been recovered for research and display.

Because the ancient ship sank far from land – about 90km from the Israeli coast – its discovery has upset the traditional view that Bronze Age traders navigated solely by hugging visible coastlines. The 13/14th-century BC vessel is thought to have been Canaanite, the southern Levantine civilisation of the Bronze Age that would later become known as Phoenician.

The ship and its cargo were discovered during an environmental seabed survey by London-based natural-gas production company Energean, which went on to carry out the operation to extract the two amphora samples in collaboration with archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) this week. 

Amphoras exposed to the light of day after more than 3,300 years (Emil Alleg / Israel Antiquities Authority)
Amphoras exposed to the light of day after more than 3,300 years (Emil Eljam / Israel Antiquities Authority)

“It seems that the ship was wrecked as a result of distress encountered during a sea storm, or perhaps in the event of an encounter with pirates – a phenomenon known from the Bronze Age,” commented Yaakov Sharvit, director of the IAA’s Maritime Archaeology Unit. He described the wreck as the first and oldest discovered to date in the deep parts of the eastern Mediterranean.

“This is a world-class sensation,” said Sharvit. “The discovery shows the impressive navigational abilities of the ancients, the kind that made it possible to cross the Mediterranean Sea without any eye contact with the shore – since from this distance you can only see the horizon line around. 

“Most likely, the navigation was done using heavenly bodies – with the help of calculating the angles of the sun and the stars.”

Robot excavation

The heavy lifting on the project was carried out by Energean’s own environmental team. “As part of our ongoing activity for the discovery and production of natural gas in the deep sea, we conduct surveys to examine various environmental parameters using an advanced underwater robot,” said team-leader Dr Karnit Bachartan.

Control room of the Energean Star ship on 20 June ( Energean)
Control room of the Energean Star ship on 20 June ( Energean)
View of amphoras on the seabed (Energian)
View of amphoras on the seabed (Energean)
The amphoras are lifted out of the sea (Energean)
The amphoras are lifted out of the sea (Energean)

“In one of the surveys conducted about a year ago, we identified an unusual sight of what seemed to be a large cluster of urns resting on the surface of the bottom. We are in regular contact with the Antiquities Authority, and when we sent it the photos it turned out to be a sensational discovery, more than any of us could have imagined.”  

Over two days the wreck-site was surveyed and mapped from the ship Energean Star, revealing it to be 12-14m long and with hull timbers thought to be intact but buried deep in the sediment. Only some of the hundreds of jars were visible at the surface, with a second layer buried beneath the first.

The two amphoras were raised from two points among the cargo, with minimising disturbance to the site the priority. The vessels would have been used to carry oil, wine or fruit. 

‘Sensational discovery'

“Discoveries of such a large quantity of jars in the cargo of one ship indicates maritime trade relations in significant quantities from their country of origin, to the countries of the Ancient East on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea,” said Sharvit.

“This is a sensational discovery: in the Middle East only two other sets of ships from the Bronze Age are known – the Galdonia yacht and the Maulo Boron ship were both discovered near the coast of Turkey.” In both of these cases, however, the ships had been found near the coastline and in diveable depths. 

Contents of one of the amphoras (Energean)
Contents from one of the amphoras (Energean)

“This led to the widespread assumption that voyages at that time were made from port to port in a way that allowed eye contact with the shore to be maintained.

“The ship that has just been discovered changes the understanding of the way of sailing in the ancient world: it is the first that has been discovered that would not allow any eye contact with the shore. 

“There is a huge potential for research here: the depth at which the ship was discovered is so great that an assemblage has been preserved where time froze at the moment of the disaster.” The ancient cargo, said Sharvit, had not been disturbed by divers or fishermen, nor by wave or current action, as happens in shallower waters.

The amphoras are to be displayed this summer at a new museum in Israel. 

Also on Divernet: SHIP’S MASTS STAND OUT AT ROMAN HARBOUR SITE, ANCIENT RED SEA SHIPWRECK FOUND NEAR EL QUSEIR, UNDERWATER ‘TUB’ TURNS OUT TO BE ANCIENT HORSE, DIVERS REVEAL TREASURES FROM EGYPT’S LOST TEMPLES

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