By June 24, 2008 0 Comments Read More →

Ancient Seafarers Bequeath Unintended Legacy, Osnat Misch-Brandl, BAR 11:06, Nov-Dec 1985.

Thousands of bronze artifacts spill from the amphora in which they were discovered.Rockefeller Museum displays underwater finds

Underwater archaeology, no longer in its infancy, is rapidly becoming a youth. A current exhibition by the Israel Museum at Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum of recent finds recovered from Israel’s coast illustrates this growth.

As Israel was an ancient land bridge between Asia and Africa, so it was a sea bridge among Mediterranean ports. Vast numbers of ancient ships sailed the coastal sea lanes linking Greece, Anatolia, Syria and Egypt. The coastal sea lanes were dangerous, but they were less so than the open sea. In any circumstances, however, voyages were hazardous, and many of the ships went to their marine graves off Israel’s coast, which has few snug harbors or even bays or indentations that might offer some protection from a sudden storm. The ancient mariners thus involuntarily bequeathed to future generations their treasure troves, now slowly being recovered. Small-scale recovery of artifacts from the sea by fishermen, swimmers and amateur divers has been going on for a long time but now their efforts are being dwarfed by professional archaeologists using sophisticated modern equipment.

The science of underwater archaeology was stimulated by diving equipment developed during World War II for military purposes to enable divers to go deeper and remain submerged for longer periods. Jacques Cousteau, the father of modern diving, developed instruments for locating and recording objects, as well as methods of underwater photography.

It was only in 1960 that the first underwater excavation led by an archaeologist-diver occurred- George Bass of the University of Pennsylvania discovered and recovered the remains of a wooden ship sunk off the Turkish coast at the end of the Late Bronze Age.

Since this pioneering excavation, underwater archaeology has developed alongside land archaeology as an independent scientific discipline.

Modern ecological conditions have also contributed to the increase in underwater finds. The Aswan Dam at the first cataract of the Nile has prevented silt from continuing to flow in huge quantities into the Mediterranean as it had in the past. This silt often buried sunken treasure. Tons of sand have been removed from Israel’s shoreline for construction purposes, which has lessened the sand density. In addition, a coal-unloading causeway on the central Israeli coast at Hadera acts as a breakwater, reducing the swirling sands of the seabed that bury sunken treasure.

Thus, traditional patterns of stormy winters and placid summers in the Mediterranean, new ecological conditions, recently developed archaeological tools like the airlift for digging underwater sand, and diving equipment that allows longer, deeper dives, have all combined to produce the fruitful new discipline of underwater archaeology.

Experts estimate that shipwrecks lie submerged about every 300 feet along Israel’s coast, making it a veritable graveyard for sailing vessels over the millennia.

During the past 15 years, a team of underwater archaeologists from the University of Haifa and the Israel Department of Antiquities has been exploring a nine-and-a-half-mile section of Israel’s coast just south of Haifa.a

The excavation season is usually restricted to a three-month period from January through March. In the winter, rough waters uncover the sunken objects; summer conditions resilt them.

Some of the finds have been remarkably preserved, protected from oxidation and decay until recent changes in the marine ecology revealed their presence.

The artifacts recovered date from the Canaanite period (Late Bronze Age—1550–1200 B.C.) to the Mameluke period (1250 to 1517 A.D.).

From the Canaanite period, the archaeologists recovered artifacts from as many as three wrecks in a two-mile strip.b One cargo included broken horse-bits and a hoe—perhaps intended for resmelting in a metallurgical operation since the cargo also included lead ingots and pieces of copper ingots. A second cargo of copper and tin ingots was found nearby.

A third cargo included not only lead and tin ingots, but also a sickle-shaped bronze sword.

Many of the tin, lead and copper ingots are incised with Cypro-Minoan characters and probably passed through Cyprus in transit. This still undeciphered language was used in Cyprus in the 14th and 13th centuries B.C. It is not clear whether the symbols indicated ownership or value.

Lead mines were scarce in the ancient world. They are known to have existed only in Greece, Crete and Anatolia. Copper, the first metal used by man, was more plentiful. It was mined from a very early period in Israel in the Negev. Tin, on the other hand, was a precious metal because it was so rare. It was mined far from the centers of civilization in the eastern Mediterranean. Tin mines that may date from the third and the second millennia B.C. have been recently discovered in Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Ancient Mesopotamian records mention anaku, which may mean tin, as a metal brought there from the East.

All three metals—copper, lead and tin—are used in the manufacture of bronze, as well as for other purposes.

In addition to the metal objects, 11 stone anchors were found. Canaanite anchors were made of soft limestone or sandstone with holes cut for the rope. Some weighed over 500 pounds. Stone anchors held the ship at anchorage by sheer weight, not by grappling action.

Another underwater site produced Hellenistic objects mixed with cargo from a Mameluke ship. At first, the archaeologists thought that the Mameluke ship had been carrying a quantity of Hellenistic objects for scrap. Further excavation made it clear, however, that two different ships—one Hellenistic and one Mameluke, and separated by 1,600 years—had sunk at precisely the same spot, their cargoes intermingling.

The Hellenistic ship was heavily laden with scrap bronze. Five coins indicate that it was probably loaded in the late second century B.C., about 125. Storms and currents had scattered the cargo over several hundred yards of seabed.

The most interesting and important discovery from this Hellenistic ship was an amphora, a tall jar with a narrow neck and bottom, packed with over 200 pounds of bronze artifacts, some deliberately broken to fit them through the narrow opening of the jar.

The amphora itself was in secondary use. It probably originated in Rhodes in the third or second centuries B.C., where it was used for wine. Some of the resin that originally sealed the wine inside was still preserved.

When the amphora was used a second time, more than 100 years later, it was stuffed with coins, bracelets, bracelet fragments, parts of fittings, ingots, hundreds of nails, handles, weights, silversmith’s tools, calipers, arrowheads, a ladle handle, a scale pan and various scraps—all intended for resmelting and recasting into new bronze objects. These finds were exceptionally well preserved, with hardly any oxidation, because until quite recently they had been thoroughly covered with sand. A particularly interesting find inside the amphora was twelve pieces of bronze that had been intentionally broken to fit inside the jar. When restored in the Israel Museum’s laboratories they formed a fragment of the himation or draped mantle of a Greek-style statue. Some inlaid silver threads forming a floral design were still intact. The statue dated to the fourth or third century B.C.

Nearby, in the open sea, the archaeologists found bronze fragments from a number of other statues—fingers, toes, locks of hair, an ear and a penis. These fragments, too, were no doubt intended for resmelting and recasting.

Unfortunately we cannot identify the ship’s owner. Probably he was a metal trader, going from city to city, buying and selling scrap metal.

The Mameluke cargo included lumps of copper coins, a pair of basalt millstones, a block of iron that might have originally been a sack of nails, and some bronze artifacts, including lighting devices such as candlesticks, lampstands and suspended glass and bronze lamps, mortars and pestles, domestic utensils, decorative pieces for doors and boxes, and parts of a balance. Even a few wooden ribs of the Mameluke ship, trapped by heavy objects, survived.

The coins, which enable us to date the Mameluke wreck, were all minted in Syria. The most recent commemorated the Mameluke sultan Al-Malik al-Nasir Faraj who ruled from 1399 to 1412. The latest coin is dated to 1404, so the ship must have been sunk shortly thereafter.

What finds the future will bring, no one knows. The current finds, however, form a fascinating display. Come to Jerusalem and see for yourself.

a. These excavations have been led by Ehud Galili and Nisim Shmueli of Haifa University and Shelley Wachsman and Kurt Raveh of the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums.

b. Between Kfar Samir and Kibbutz Hahotrim.

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