Bronze-Age Ship with Cargo Fit for a King

By Billings, Malcolm | History Today, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Bronze-Age Ship with Cargo Fit for a King


Billings, Malcolm, History Today


A UNIQUE ARCHAEOLOGICAL TREASURE, recovered from the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, will soon be on display for the first time at the Museum of Underwater Archaeology at Bodrum, Turkey. The find, made in 1982, is a treasure ship that sank at the height of the Bronze Age thirty-four centuries ago.

The ship and her cargo are well protected by the walls of the fifteenth-century Crusader castle at Bodrum. The dressed stones of the castle are themselves an artefact of the ancient world. A survey carried out during the 1960s and 1970s by the Danish archaeologist Dr Christian Jeppesen revealed that much of the castle is constructed using materials from one of the seven wonders of the ancient world -- the fourth-century BC Mausoleum. Tumbled and ruined by earthquakes, the Mausoleum of King Mausolus became a convenient quarry for the Knights of St John of Jerusalem when they started to build their great Crusader castle on the coast nearby in 1402.

Standing at the end of a promontory, it dominates the town of Bodrum and its harbour, and houses one of the Mediterranean's most important collections of ancient shipwrecks. Artefacts fill every tower and dungeon: the Knight's Chapel has a reconstruction of the stern of a Byzantine cargo ship; two floors of the `English Tower' are full of rare medieval Islamic glass recovered from an eleventh-century wreck; and the medieval treasure ship itself has had part of its hull rebuilt using the original timbers and is on show in a special gallery. There have been more than thirty years of scientific investigation of the seabed, and the search has been so prolific that every courtyard and corridor overflows with objects brought to the surface by American and Turkish divers working with the Texas-based Institute of Nautical Archaeology.

Turkish sponge divers were responsible for the Museum's greatest find. Mehmet Cakir told archaeologists in 1982 that he had seen some unusual objects on the seabed at Uluburun, an isolated stretch of coast about 5.5 kilometres east of the fishing port of Kas. He described them as looking like `metal biscuits with ears'. When Dr George Bass, President of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, dived on the site he found rows of flat ingots of copper lying on the sloping seabed, about 170 feet beneath the surface, where they had sunk when the ship hit the cliff face. What the sponge diver had reported as ears were in fact the carrying handles at the corners of each ingot.

Excavation began in 1984. It took eleven years to raise the several thousand objects on the seabed. No excavation using conventional scuba-diving gear had ever ventured so deep and each diver was allowed only twenty minutes on the bottom, and could dive only twice a day. It was long and frustrating work for the archaeologists. Each season they would set up camp on the towering cliffs overlooking the site. They lived and worked on platforms cantilevered out over the sea and were supplied by the Institute's research vessel, Virazon, and a regular groceries boat from Kas.

The conditions were harsh but the archaeologists, led first by George Bass and later by his former student Cemal Pulak, were rewarded with a unique glimpse of Bronze Age trade. `We found that the principal cargo had been copper ingots -- about 350 of them. Each one weighed about sixty pounds -- the equivalent of an ancient talent'. The ship, about fifty feet long, contained an unplundered cargo that could have been a tribute to a king: ten tons of copper ingots along with nearly a ton of tin -- enough raw materials to fit out a small army with weapons; logs of ebony and cedar, a unique find for the Bronze Age; elephant tusks and hippopotamus teeth, probably from Syria where they were hunted as late as the fifteenth century BC; terracotta jars containing pottery and jewellery, including a gold pendent in the shape of a falcon clutching a hooded cobra in each of its talons.

A single gold chalice was found near the stern. …

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