A shipwreck found in 1982 at Uluburun on the southern coast of Turkey was systematically explored. It yielded unique insights into the Late Bronze Age economy and commerce. Little is known, however, about the port cities on the south and west coast of Turkey, which must have been frequented by such traders. Excavations in now silted-up but still visible harbor basins may produce numerous additional objects, perhaps even entire ships.
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In 1982, a sponge diver near Cape Uluburun in southern Turkey, 8.5 kilometers southeast of Kaş, discovered copper items in about 60 meters of water. The objects were part of a Late Bronze Age wreck that was subsequently excavated between 1984 and 1994 as the so-called ship of Uluburun under the direction of the U.S. underwater archaeologist George Bass and his Turkish colleague Cemal Pulak. The ship had a length of 15 to 16 meters and a width of 5 meters. Its planks and keel consisted of cedar trees from Lebanon that, according to dendrochronological analysis, were felled after 1305 BCE. The stone-made anchor as well as the ceramic kitchen wear used by the crew suggested that the homeport of the ship was Canaan located near the present border between Israel and Lebanon.
The ship of Uluburun had a capacity of at least 20 tons. It mainly carried raw materials but also some finished goods. The main commodities were about 1 ton of tin and 10 tons of copper in the form of 354 large oxhide ingots with an average weight of 24 kilograms. The remaining cargo included 175 disc-shaped glass bars in at least four different colors that most likely were supposed to imitate lapis lazuli, turquoise, amethyst and possibly amber. Over a hundred pots on board contained mastic or pistachio resin, constituting the second largest consignment after the metals. Mastic is known to kill certain bacteria and has been used as a preservative in wine since the 6th millennium BCE.
Many of the trade goods found on the ship of Uluburun were already known from tomb paintings or documents in Egypt, including the Amarna letters. Most of the merchandise had its origin in Syria, Canaan or Cyprus. The ship is therefore likely to have come from the east and to have traveled to the west. The crew consisted of Canaanite merchants and seamen. Some valuables such as swords and daggers indicate that the crew was accompanied by messengers or representatives of the buyers, who monitored the trade. Two of these were high-ranking Mycenaeans. A third person may have come from the northern Aegean.
Worldwide leadership in underwater archaeology
Was the third foreigner on board a Luwian? It is conceivable that Mycenaeans and Luwians, at least in some instances, jointly monitored the long-distance trade and that in these cases ships were accompanied by representatives of both Aegean coasts. The main purchasers – in the south as well as in the north of the Aegean – may have also sent inspectors to watch over their goods. The high value of the cargo could imply that there was more than one recipient.
With the systematic and comprehensive excavation of the Late Bronze Age ship of Uluburun, Turkey has become world-class in underwater archaeology. We know of numerous trade objects thanks to this excavation. Since these in a large part had already been depicted in Egyptian grave representations in western Thebes, we know now that the artists there did not freely invent the content of these depictions. The port cities on the south and west coast of Turkey, however, where the ship should have made stops, remain unknown. Deep-reaching excavations in the right places would have the potential to turn Turkey into a global reference for land-based prehistoric archaeology as well.
In some locations in western Turkey, for example at Kesik Tepe near Hisarlık, silted-up harbor basins are clearly visible today. It seems likely that in the sediments of these basins, contents could be found that had fallen overboard while loading and unloading. During the wars of Troy, entire ships could have sunk in the harbor. Because of the oxygen-deficient depositional environment at the bottom of such harbor basins, organic material, such as leather, might still be preserved there. With scientific prospecting methods, the most promising sites for first explorations could be identified. All it takes is the courage to launch excavations in a depositional environment – rather than on a citadel hill – and the knowledge of where to start those excavations.