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Ancient Phoenician Ships Found off Israel's Coast

A team of oceanographers and archaeologists led by Robert D. Ballard of the Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Connecticut, and Lawrence Stager of Harvard University has found two ancient Phoenician ships wrecked in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Israel. Found more than 1,000 feet (305 meters) below the surface, they are the oldest vessels ever discovered in the deep sea. The ships were most likely lost in a violent storm around 750 B.C.E., during the time of Homer. The project was partly sponsored by the National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council. 

The two ships are believed to have sailed from Phoenicia, now Lebanon, laden with large cargoes of wine, carried in hundreds of ceramic amphorae; they probably sank on the way to Egypt or Carthage. The amphorae date between 750 and 700 B.C.E. and sit on the sea bottom as if the ships landed upright. 

The larger of the two ships is about 18 meters long, making it the largest pre-classical shipwreck discovered. The smaller one is more than 15 meters long. Heavy stone anchors lie at bow and midship. Crockery for food preparation, an incense stand and a wine decanter mark the galley. These and other items leave little doubt that Phoenician crews manned the two ships, Stager said, possibly as part of a fleet of cargo carriers.

The story began in 1997, when Ballard’s team used the U.S. Navy’s nuclear research submarine NR-1 and the robotics system JASON from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to locate and explore the largest concentration of ancient ships ever discovered in the deep sea. North of the Straits of Sicily they explored and carefully mapped five Roman trading ships dating from 100 B.C.E. to 400 C.E.. Following that expedition, the NR-1 proceeded to the Middle East, where it conducted a search for the lost Israeli submarine Dakar. Although unsuccessful in finding the Dakar, NR-1’s advanced sonar detected a number of wrecks lost in international waters at a depth of 1,000 to 3,000 feet, some 30 miles from shore. 

This month Ballard returned to the same area with Woods Hole’s MEDEA/JASON system as well as a deep-water, side-scan sonar system. Using this technology, they were able to locate these targets and then explore them with their remotely operated vehicle JASON, equipped with lights and high-quality television cameras. 

Based upon these images and a number of artifacts recovered from the wreck sites, Stager was able to establish the ships’ age, origin, cargo and probable destination. 

“It is clear from this discovery as well as that off Sicily in 1997 that the deep ocean holds great promise to the field of archaeology,” Ballard said. “More important discoveries should come in the near future that could significantly alter our present understanding of ancient maritime trade.” The ships are the oldest ever found in the deep sea, Ballard said; the oldest shipwreck ever discovered was a trading ship from 1300 B.C.E., found off Turkey. 

The Phoenicians were a seagoing people who populated the coast of the Levant from about 1200 B.C.E. to 146 B.C.E. These well-preserved shipwrecks open a new chapter in the archaeology and history of Phoenician shipping and seafaring. They reveal the deep-sea routes the Phoenicians sailed in the eastern Mediterranean, the size and types of cargoes they carried, the ports they visited and their trading partners. For the first time it is possible to evaluate how accurate ancient artistic renditions and literary accounts of these ancient mariners really are. 

The expedition, sponsored in part by the National Geographic Society, the United States Office of Naval Research, and Leon Levy, also included Dana Yoerger and Hanument Singh of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, David Mindell of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Shelly Wachsmann of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University, and Louis Whitcomb of Johns Hopkins University. 

The expedition will be featured in National Geographic magazine. 


More information about Phoenician ships: 

Phoenician ships
left: warship, 1500-1000 B.C.E.
right: trade ship 1500 B.C.E.

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