A shipwreck in the Holy Land reveals the tenacity of ancient traders as empires changed
MAAGAN MICHAEL, Israel: An ancient shipwreck found off the coast of Israel loaded with cargoes from across the Mediterranean shows that Western traders were still coming to port even after the Islamic conquest of the Holy Land, researchers say.
A surprise storm? An inexperienced captain? Whatever the reason, the merchant ship made from fir and walnut trees and carrying containers of delicacies from distant lands sank in shallow waters off what is now the Israeli coastal community of Maagan Michael over 1,200 years ago.
This was around the time when the largely Christian Byzantine Empire was losing its grip on this region of the eastern Mediterranean region and Islamic rule was expanding its reach.
The shipwreck, dated to the 7th or 8th century AD, is proof that trade persisted with the rest of the Mediterranean despite the religious divide, said Deborah Cvikel, a nautical archaeologist at the University of Haifa and director of the excavations.
“The history books, they usually tell us that…trade almost stopped. There was no international trade in the Mediterranean. We mainly had smaller ships that sailed along the coast to cabotage,” she said.
But that no longer seems to be the case.
“Here we have a large shipwreck, the original ship of which we believe was about 25 meters (82 feet) long, and…laden with cargo from all over the Mediterranean.”
Artifacts on deck show that the ship had docked in Cyprus, Egypt, possibly Turkey and possibly as far away as the North African coast.
The excavations are supported by the Israel Science Foundation, the Honor Frost Foundation and the Institute of Nautical Archeology at Texas A&M University.
SHIPS GRAVEYARD IN SHALLOW SEA
The coast of Israel is full of ships that have sunk over millennia. The wrecks are more accessible to study than elsewhere in the Mediterranean because the sea is shallow and the sandy bottom preserves artefacts.
A storm could move the sands and expose a relic, which happened with the new discovery at Maagan Michael. Two recreational divers spotted a piece of wood protruding from the bottom and reported it to authorities.
Eight seasons of excavation later, Cvikel’s team has mapped much of the 20-meter-long, five-meter-wide wooden skeleton that remains.
Using underwater vacuums to clean 1.5 meters of sand, they found more than 200 amphoras which still contained ingredients from the Mediterranean diet, such as fish sauce, and a variety of olives, dates and figs .
There were navigational tools like ropes and personal items like wooden combs, as well as animals including the remains of beetles and six rats.
“You have to be very careful because some of the remains, like fish bones, rat bones or olive pits, are so tiny they could be lost in a split second,” Cvikel said.
Some shipments bore symbols of the Christian Byzantine church, and others bore Arabic inscriptions.
Researchers hope to find a room to display the ship in its entirety to the public, otherwise they will cover it in sand and leave it on the sea floor with the countless other wrecks.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)