Ship of Kings

scuba do

  "I felt no emotion as I scanned the cargo for the first time that summer of 1984. I was standing upright, my diving fins resting on a rock outcrop 150 feet below the surface of the Mediterranean.

The world's oldest known shipwreck lay before me -- the shapes of jars and copper ingots dated back to the 14th or 13th century B.C. But I had no more than five minutes to plan its excavation."

George Bass, dean of underwater archeology, excavates a Bronze Age ceramic. Donald A. Frey, Institute of Nautical Archeology.
  So wrote George F. Bass, the dean of underwater archeology, in his National Geographic account of the wreck at Ulu Burun (see "Splendors of the Bronze Age" in the bibliography) . For the next ten years, Bass and his colleagues from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University painstakingly excavated a Bronze Age (defined) wreck that carried a royal cargo of copper, tin, ivory, ceramics, amber and precious wood.

Since its discovery by a Turkish sponge diver, the wreck at Ulu Burun has yielded thousands of artifacts -- from beads and fish hooks to hippo tusks and jars big enough to hold a man. Each artifact is a story in itself and, combined, the contents of the Bronze Age ship and its preserved parts are reforging what we know of ancient history, helping define the nature and extent of trade over the Mediterranean, the autobahn of the ancient world.

"These [wrecks] are filling gaps in knowledge, telling us things we didn't know before," says Bass, a Bronze Age specialist now in his 37th year as a marine archeologist. "We're interested because we have no written records that fully describe trade at the time."

Hitting a Homer run?
The significance of the wreck at Ulu Burun, says Bass, lies in the contents of its main cargo -- hundreds of copper and tin ingots, the stuff of bronze itself. Of the one thousand-plus ancient wrecks known in the Mediterranean, this wreck easily ranks as among the most important for the richness and variety of its artifacts, and for its remarkable state of preservation. The ship and its contents, says Bass, even have implications for the dating of the Odyssey, the epic poem attributed to Homer, and the Trojan War.

Two ivory-hinged wooden leaves were recessed to hold beeswax, a Bronze Age writing medium. Below, another Bass find, the reconstructed hull of an 11th century ship known as the "Glass Wreck" for its cargo of broken glass.   Having a great tome...Over the course of a decade-long excavation at forbidding depths, Bass and his colleagues have recovered 20 to 25 tons of material, including a Canaanite amphora full of glass beads, cobalt-blue glass disks, a gold chalice, an elaborate dagger, jewelry, Cypriot pottery, fish-net sinkers, ostrich-egg shells, sewing needles, drill bits and a bow drill. A trove of organic material -- ships planking, lengths of rope, latticework, twine, and quantities of seeds from pomegranate, fig, olive, coriander, sumac and various grasses and weeds along with almonds and pine nuts -- provides archeological detail rarely found on land, and offer clues to diet, shipbuilding techniques, manufacturing and life aboard ship.

"It was a royal ship," says Bass of the ancient trading vessel. "It's really extraordinary in the artifacts that had never been seen in modern times."

The ship went down, perhaps foundering in a storm on the rocky coast of what is now Turkey, in about 1317 B.C. The relatively precise date was courtesy of a short length of log, possibly a piece of firewood, found in the wreck. "Presumably, the log dates from about the time when the ship sailed," says Bass, and courtesy of the modern science of dendrochronology, archeologists could date the log, and hence the wreck.

Over the hull?

  "Only two other wrecks of the late Bronze Age have been found in the Mediterranean," Bass says, "and this wreck off the Turkish coast is unrivaled. Every shipwreck is like a miniature Pompeii. This one went down in a day" and took with it examples of the products and raw materials from seven civilizations that flourished at the time of King Tut and the fall of Troy.

While this spectacular find was discovered by an intrepid sponge diver, other oceanic secrets are found with the help of modern technology.

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