According to the definition, a wreck is a sunken or damaged ship. Most people associate it with a rusty iron structure or the wooden skeleton of a ship underwater. Underwater archaeologists have a different approach: they also call a wreck the cargo of a Bronze Age ship they found off the coast of Turkey, although they have not yet located any structural remains.

In fact, at least until today, we haven’t come across a single piece of wood with which the ship was built, nor have we found anchors, and it seems to me that they should exist: they were undoubtedly thrown when the ship was pushed against the rocks, reveals Dr. Andrzej Pydyn, professor at the Center for Underwater Archaeology at the University of Toruń.

In Uluburun (a wreck discovered in the 1980s), ten of them were found, and it’s evident that the ship attempted to save itself by throwing anchors, which unfortunately didn’t serve their purpose. However, we are sure that the copper ingots didn’t end up in the water for any reason other than a maritime disaster. That’s why we call what we’ve discovered a wreck.

Firstly, the location is evidence of this. Leaving Antalya bay for open sea is dangerous from a navigation point of view: currents and wind direction change. At Cape Gelidonya, there’s still a lighthouse, and not far away is a Bronze Age wreck found in 1958.

The whole area, where many ships from different chronological periods have sunk, is a paradise for underwater archaeologists. Additionally, it’s hard to imagine that scientists will discover anything here other than a wreck, as access from the coast to the sea in this place is practically impossible. The dock is surrounded by rocks, which descend abruptly into the water. Furthermore, the route leading from Antalya bay was very important during most of the Bronze Age. It was a natural waterway used for sailing westward, towards the Aegean Sea, and eastward, towards Cyprus and Syria-Palestine.

Secondly, diving and carefully looking underwater, it’s possible to see copper ingots covered with concretions arranged like a slope descending rapidly. The relics begin at 35 meters underwater and extend to over 50 meters deep. Some may even be found at greater depths. So far, we’ve dived with air-filled cylinders, so we haven’t had much time to explore: the first descent lasted 20 minutes, the second, on the same day, 15 minutes, says Professor Pydyn. It would have been interesting to prepare other gases, such as trimix (a mixture of oxygen, helium, and nitrogen used when descending below 50 meters), and dive deeper, below 55 meters.

Thirdly, a maritime disaster is indicated by the arrangement of the found cargo. The ship must have been pushed against the rocks and sank fairly quickly. It was heavy, and when the hull was damaged, it sank deliberately, and the cargo slid down the slope, which is very steep at this point.

Fourthly, the absence of wood is not unusual. In the Mediterranean, any wooden part of a ship not covered by sediment from the bottom or cargo is eaten by shipworms (Teredo navalis). It can be compared to a large shipworm that consumes wood very quickly. It’s found in waters salty and warm enough for it, which is why Baltic wrecks are much better preserved, but, as a consequence of climate change coming from the west, it has begun to appear here as well: now it’s found off the coasts of Denmark and Germany. A researcher from Nicolaus Copernicus University estimates the likelihood of finding wood at around 20%.

The main task of the researchers was to document, mainly photogrammetrically (reconstructing the shapes, sizes, and mutual position of objects on the ground from photographs), 3D models of the seabed and the monuments on it, and to resume what was visible. The main artifacts of the site are the characteristic copper ingots shaped like bull hides, each weighing about 20 kg. So far, about 30 pieces have been excavated, and many more remain underwater.

Preliminary analyses show that the copper from the surface layer is contaminated, containing a large amount, up to 10%, of iron compounds. It seems to be contamination related to deposition processes, says Professor Pydyn. The copper we know from Uluburun is exceptionally pure, and I suspect that of the wreck studied is similar, although clearly older. We are analyzing it in the laboratory. There are also fragments of bronze vessels. We ourselves are curious to see what will be found beneath the copper cargo, and if we will find anything there.

Researchers usually get excited when they find individual bronze objects in northern Europe. Meanwhile, underwater archaeologists have discovered a wreck in the Mediterranean loaded with copper used in bronze production. It’s not the first or largest ship of this type found off the coast of Turkey, but it’s probably the oldest. Its discovery may demonstrate that copper bullion appeared before 1500 BC, earlier than scientists had previously thought.

Bronze Age wrecks are unique mainly because of their chronology. Archaeologists have discovered smaller ships in various parts of Europe and the Mediterranean, but so far, they have only identified three copper-bearing ships. The first (called Gelidonya for its resting place), dated around 1200 BC, was found by sponge fisherman Kemal Aras in 1954. Four years later, Peter Throckmorton, an American journalist and amateur archaeologist interested in ancient wrecks, learned of the find. He organized the first dives near Cape Gelidonya and handed the objects discovered underwater to Professor Rodney Young of the University of Pennsylvania, who in 1960 organized an archaeological expedition to the entrance of Antalya Bay, led by George Fletcher Bass. This was the beginning of underwater archaeology, and Bass is called the father of underwater archaeology, reports Professor Pydyn. In a similar period, the 1960s, the Vasa was excavated and began to be preserved in Sweden, and the Danes discovered Viking ships sunk in Skuldelev. I had the pleasure of working at Gelidonya because Bass invited me to join a project carried out in 2010, on the 50th anniversary of the first research at the site.

More than 30 intact copper ingots and dozens of fragments have been found at Gelidonya, but the most spectacular cargo was carried by a ship about 100 years older than Gelidonya: the Uluburun (which also owes its name to the place where it was found). Professor Cemal Pulak of Texas A&M University, who led the study of this wreck between 1986 and 1994, often emphasized that it was a royal ship. The richness of the cargo it carried still fascinates archaeologists today.

Let’s return to the chronology. The copper ingots have changed shape over the years. From there, we can roughly determine the age of the ship, explains Professor Pydyn. It seems that the wreck currently found is the oldest. The ingots we are finding are, typologically, from the oldest, from the 16th or even 17th century BC. In fact, we are already transitioning from the Late Bronze Age to the Middle Bronze Age. Gelidonya and Uluburun are associated with the Mycenaean civilization. In older archaeological literature, it was presented that in the Late Bronze Age, it was the Mycenaeans who controlled navigation and trade in the eastern Mediterranean. Our wreck, on the other hand, must have sailed in a time when Minoan culture still dominated.

Gelidonya is dated around 1200 BC. The age of Uluburun could be determined more precisely. The ebony that the jar contained was preserved on the seabed. Thanks to dendrochronological research by Professor Peter Kuniholm, it was determined to date from 1305 BC. Since the subcortical layers were missing, it’s assumed that the ship was built around 1316 BC. However, recent research shows that the exact date remains an open question. Scientists find it difficult to determine to whom both ships belonged. Uluburun carried a large amount of cargo from areas east of Cyprus. In the archaeological site, divers also found many artifacts related to Mycenaean culture. Similar objects were found in the Gelidonya wreck.

Both ships are assumed to have operated in the eastern Mediterranean, explains the Toronto archaeologist. Their main cargo was copper, which we can almost certainly relate to Cyprus. Research clearly shows that most of the copper used in the Late Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean came from Cypriot deposits. Much more complex is the issue of tin, whose origin is harder to determine. Large deposits were found in Sardinia and Cornwall, among other places, but those found in Gelidonya and Uluburun certainly did not come from them. The Taurus Mountains in Turkey, or those we know from Uzbekistan and Central Asia, seem more probable.

Gelidonya and Uluburun were found thanks to information from sponge fishermen. It’s a profession that has disappeared, but this people had their own type of boats, their own subculture, and much maritime knowledge.

I’ve tried to find out from the Turkish side how they specifically located this wreck, explains Professor Pydyn. They claim that they swam systematically and checked the bays. However, I think sponge fishermen reported back that there was a characteristic object on the bottom. It’s important to remember that these wrecks are quite difficult to detect: when you swim quickly, you see features that look like stones covered with calcareous concretions. It’s much easier to find, for example, a Roman wreck, where there will be dozens, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of amphorae lying on the bottom. But Bronze Age wrecks are not conspicuous. In the world of unofficial information, it was known that there was another Bronze Age wreck in the Gelidonya area. Is this it? I don’t know.

How do we know there was a third shipwreck? Once again, it’s information gathered from sponge fishermen. During meetings, they often shared memories of the time when sponge fishing was their main occupation. Some are more truthful, others less so. What happened with Gelidonya was that when they showed the wreck to archaeologists, everyone was fascinated, and the sponge fishermen said: we didn’t know you were looking for this, we thought you were only interested in amphorae and ceramic jars, recalls Professor Pydyn. There’s also a rumor among the archaeological community that another Bronze Age wreck was sunk by a small rock that is disputed territory between Greece and Turkey, so there probably won’t be anyone there for a long time yet.

Scientists emphasize that there must be more Late Bronze Age wrecks because the scale of copper trade was very large at that time. At that time, copper minerals were only mined in a few places in the Mediterranean, and the demand for copper was enormous, explains the archaeologist from Toruń. In Central Europe, metal production was based on contacts with circles from Anatolia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Carpathians, while for the eastern Mediterranean, the main source of this raw material was Cyprus. The Mycenaean and Minoan civilizations, in full development, as well as Egypt, needed a lot of copper. The scale of contacts was, therefore, very large, and the more ships sailed, the more sank.

The discovered wreck awaits the coming seasons. Unless scientists find spectacular relics, it will take two to three years to extract the copper from the bottom. The most impressive thing is the antiquity of this find, concludes Professor Pydyn. If it’s not the oldest, it’s one of the oldest wrecks. It confirms that copper trade was very ancient and complex. I think new analyses can further increase the value of this discovery.


Nicolaus Copernicus University of Toruń

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