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The Institute of Nautical Archaeology began an excavation of a Bronze Age shipwreck in 1984 that ended in 1994. The Uluburun site is the world's oldest known shipwreck and dates from the 14th or 13th century B.C.. The Project Director was George Bass, Bass has long been regarded as the founder of nautical archaeology. Over the past 37 years Bass has pioneered the methodical scientific excavation of many ancient shipwrecks. Along the way he founded the highly regarded Institute for Nautical Archaeology and has written books and a manual on how to conduct archaeological underwater excavations. His exploits are legendary and many in the scientific community liken him to an underwater Indiana Jones.
The location of the wreck is Uluburun, Turkey. Researchers believe that the ship was probably Levantine or Cypriot in origin. Not only is this the oldest shipwreck, its discovery has also led historians to questioned long-held ideas about Bronze Age merchant seafaring.
In 1982 a local Turkish sponge diver named Mehmet Cakir reported to his captain that while diving he had sited some oddly shaped metal objects on the seafloor near Uluburun. For the past few years the INA had been teaching sponge divers to be on the look out for specific items that might indicate the existence of an ancient wreck. Mehmets find was immediately reported to the Museum of Underwater Archaeology, at Bodrum, where the INA has it's Turkish base.
In the summer of 1984 Bass made his first dive and was astounded by what he encountered.
Deep beneath the waves, 150 feet down, Bass sited row upon row of copper ingots and hundreds of amphora scattered about the debris field. Accompanied by a dedicated crew, Bass worked on the site for 11 summers. The excavation had financial backing through the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society and a few other organizations, but finances were extremely limited. Bass and his nautical archaeology crew often felt the lack of money and were often forced to dive under adverse conditions. Due to lack of money the crew often made dives breathing simple compressed air instead of heliox, the helium-oxygen mix recommended for divers operating at such extreme depths. The divers soon began to experience nitrogen narcosis, a sometimes deadly condition that allows nitrogen to accumulate in a diver's system and impairs a divers decision making process. Even with these tremendously adverse conditions Bass was vigilant when it came to the safety of his crew. Years before he had witnessed the agonizing death of a sponge dive who died from decompression sickness, also known as the bends, an excruciating and often fatal result of nitrogen bubbles blocking the flow of blood at critical junctures. The harrowing image of the dying man still haunted his memory.
This shipwreck contained the single largest collection of artifacts ever found in a single place. Not only were there many artifacts but the cargo in the ship was an expensive one. It included gold, ivory, tin ingots, copper ingots, glass ingots, ebony logs, ostrich eggshells, opercula, tortoise carapaces, and resin for burning incense. Copper was the main cargo, it was shipped in the form of flat four- handled "oxide" ingots. Bass and his team found these ingots in extraordinary number. They found not only copper but pure tin ingots as well.
The glass found at the wreck is the earliest known intact glass pieces. The manufactured cargo onboard the ship was Cypriot ceramics, finewares, pomegranates, olive oil, thousands of little glass beads, cups crafted to look like rams heads, and Canaanite jewelry. More tin vessels and jewelry were found on this ship then had been found on all the other shipwrecks before it.
The shipwreck lay on an extremely steep rocky slope at a depth ranging from 44 to 52 meters, with items strewn down to 61 meters. Dendrochronological dating on a piece of presumably freshly cut firewood suggests that the ship sank 1306 B.C. Tools made of bronze include awls, drills, chisels, axes, adzes, a and a saw. Bronze spearheads, arrowheads, daggers, swords, and stone maceheads were found. Evidence that points to fishing on the ship include lead net and line sinkers, netting needles for repairing nets, fishhooks, a harpoon, and a bronze trident. Cemal Pulak, a graduate student at he time, uncovered pieces of wood and fragments of ivory. After putting them together he realized he had found a diptych. This artifact is now thought to be the worlds earliest book, it is made up of two wooden panels hinged together with ivory with recessed surfaces to hold wax for writing. Another interesting artifact that was found on the wrecksite is a bronze female figure that is clad in gold and may have served as the ships protective deity.
bronze female figure
Most of the weapons and tools show clearly that the majority of the crew was Cypriot or Cannanite at least two of the men aboard the ship must have been Myceneans. Their presence is revealed by a pair of lentoid seals, two swords, a pair of pectorals, spear heads, curved knives, and amber beads in the Mycenean fashion. Also were more than two dozen pieces of fine and coarseware pottery. A bronze pin, spearheads, and a stone ceremonial scepter macehead, hint connections to the lands to the north of mainland Greece.
By the time the excavation ended the team had discovered 10 tons of copper, a ton of tin and hundreds of priceless artifacts. The INA divers completed an unbelievable 22,413 dives. The wreck and its contents have been relocated from the seabed to a Turkish museum where it will be on permanent display along with related photographs and journals.
Photographs courtesy of the INA and Texas A&M University