Sunday, October 11, 2020
In 1982 a sponge diver told an archaeologists that he had seen "metal biscuits with ears" on the sea floor near a point called Uluburun, on the south Turkish coast about halfway between Cyprus and Crete. Thus was begun a grand archaeological project that took ten years to complete and eventually filled a whole Turkish museum with Bronze Age artifacts. Sailing ships were of course one of the most important new technologies of the Bronze Age. Developed, it seems, in Egypt, they dramatically shrank the world, leading to a surge in long-distance trade far beyond anything seen before.
At that time the Uluburun Shipwreck was the oldest seagoing vessel ever discovered, dating to around 1300 BC. The ship was around 50 feet long (15-16 m). It was constructed by fastening boards together using the mortise and tenon method, without much of a frame, a technique called "shell first." It would have been flexible in the waves but easily smashed if it hit anything.
This is a replica of the ship, the Uluburun II. The wood of the original was cedar from Lebanon. The stone anchors were also from Canaan, as were some of what were taken to be personal items belonging to the crew, so the ship probably sailed from the region later known as Phoenicia.
It's cargo is extraordinary, the best evidence available for trade in the Late Bronze Age.
Half of the 20-ton total was made up of more than 400 copper and tin ingots, in the ratio of 10:1 that was normal in bronze of the period. This in itself is fascinating since copper came from Cyprus and the tin from Turkey's Taurus Mountains, meaning the ingots had traveled some distance and passed through many hands before they were loaded onto this ship.
And the third biggest part of the cargo was 130 jars full of Terebinth resin, collected from a tree of the pistachio family and used for perfume, incense, and probably lots of other things. The pottery on the ship was mostly from either Cyprus or Palestine, but some was Egyptian
The rest of the cargo is even more remarkable. At least ten different cultures are represented, from sub-Saharan Africa (elephant ivory, ostrich egg shells) to the Baltic Sea (amber). This is a famous artifact, a gold Egyptian scarab that mentions Queen Nefertiti.
Display of gold artifacts in the Turkish museum.
Small idol and a gold medallion.
Ingots of blue glass; 175 glass ingots of various colors were found. Glass seems to have first been made by people in Egypt, but from a very early date it was also made in Syria, using identical techniques, and telling the difference between Egyptian and Syrian glass is hard. As you can see, glass was also traded as a raw material, so even if you could chemically source the sand that went into it that wouldn't necessarily tell you where it was finished. The minerals used to give it color were also widely traded, making further complications. So, no, we don't know where this came from.
Mace or scepter head made of Andesite from Bulgaria. If, as people usually assume, this ship was headed west to Crete or Greece, why was it carrying Bulgarian Andesite? This is just one of many puzzles.
The full list of the cargo includes tools, weapons, beads, ceramic lamps, a trumpet, two balances with stamped weights, lyres with tortoise-shell sound boxes, raw semi-precious stones such as agate and carnelian from Afghanistan, and more. It's a truly extraordinary find, with more interesting data than has come from the excavations of some whole cities. Archaeology is like that. Hard work is necessary but not sufficient; to really change our understanding of the past you also need to get lucky.