Well-Preserved Bronze Age Shipwreck ‘Changes Our Entire Understanding’ of Ancient Mariners

Well-Preserved Bronze Age Shipwreck ‘Changes Our Entire Understanding’ of Ancient Mariners

A company drilling for natural gas off the coast of Israel has stumbled upon a 3,300-year-old ship on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, its cargo still intact. The wreck was found about 56 miles (90 kilometers) from the coast, a surprising distance from land for such an ancient vessel.

The approximately 40-foot ship (13 meters) was found at a depth of 5,900 feet (1,800 m) about a year ago, surrounded by hundreds of jars. Though the ship is not being recovered—at least not for now—the Israel Antiquities Authority recovered two of the jars for investigating. At such a depth, the wreck and its contents were undisturbed by ocean currents and fishermen, leaving the items in pristine condition.

“The discovery of this boat now changes our entire understanding of ancient mariner abilities,” said Jacob Sharvit, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s marine unit, in an authority release. “It is the very first to be found at such a great distance with no line of sight to any landmass.”

Jars littering the ocean floor around the wreck.

The recently discovered wreck was found much farther from the coast than researchers typically find Late Bronze Age vessels in the region. This discovery is revolutionizing our understanding of the capabilities of ancient mariners. The antiquities authority suggested the ship may have sunk in a storm or been attacked by pirates, leading to its descent to Davy Jones’ Locker.

The find indicates that the ancient sailors had better navigation skills than known. But it’s interesting to put this impressive seafaring into perspective; after all, Polynesian seafarers colonized the islands of the south and western Pacific Ocean over the last 25,000 years, according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. But both groups were almost certainly using the positions of objects in the sky—the Sun and stars—to navigate without sight of land.

The jars recovered from the wreck were identified as Canaanite, a group of ancient people who lived in the Levant. In 2022, a separate team of researchers found a 3,000-year-old comb inscribed with the first sentence known in the Canaanite script, which had to do with getting rid of head lice.

Despite the remarkable age, distance from land, and state of preservation of the Bronze Age wreck, it’s not even the most famous ship found on the seafloor this month. That title belongs to Quest, the last ship of the explorer Ernest Shackleton, which was found near Canada’s eastern coastline after sinking in 1962. That discovery came two years after the discovery of the wreck of Endurance, perhaps Shackleton’s most famous vessel, which was found at a staggering depth of 9,800 feet (2,987m) after sinking in 1915. Endurance was also very well-preserved, sitting upright at the bottom of the Weddell Sea in waters devoid of wood-eating organisms that can lay waste to shipwrecks elsewhere. Last year, another shipwreck—the 129-year-old wreck of the Ironton—was found preserved and with all three masts upright on the bed of Lake Huron.

Of course, part of what makes the recent find all the more impressive is that it’s about 2,900 years older than those preserved wrecks from a century ago. It speaks to how much history can be gleaned from an object if it’s forgotten about by everyone but Mother Nature.

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