The Uluburun is the oldest shipwreck in the world discovered by divers. Rico Besserdich unearths the secrets behind this grand ol' dame.
1300 BC: A merchant ship, laden with treasures from seven different cultures and commodities of Cypriot origin, was traveling on a 1,700-mile trade route when it sank for unknown reasons at Cape Uluburun (near Kas on the south coast of the Antalya region of Turkey). Much knowledge about prehistoric trade and nautical navigation during the late Bronze Age, including secrets that could rewrite history, began a slumber on the seabed for 3,300 long years.
1982 AD: A Turkish sponge diver discovered the remains of the wreck. This triggered euphoria among archaeologists around the world and the later recovery and analysis of the findings definitively established underwater archeology as a serious science. Science was able to answer 1,000-year-old questions, driving traditional analysts into desperation and changing the existing historic worldview substantially.
Named after the place where it was discovered (Cape Uluburun), the Uluburun is the oldest known shipwreck in the world and a finding of superlatives. She brought answers to many questions, but she also introduced many new mysteries that science has yet to explain, even today.
The Bronze Age
The Uluburun sank during the so-called Late Bronze Age. The Bronze Age – it sounds terribly old, doesn’t it? It is! It was a time when the invention of the wheel was as remarkable as the invention of social networking today.
The Bronze Age succeeded the Stone Age and is the predecessor to the Iron Age. It lasted from about 2200 to 800 BC, but did not occur everywhere at once, because different cultures experienced different stages of development.
The namesake of this period was the metal alloy bronze, which comprises 90 percent copper and 10 percent tin. The use and processing of metals was already known to human, but it was limited to sterling metals (naturally occurring pure metals), such as gold, silver and copper.
The “invention” (mainly in Europe and the Middle East) of Man’s first alloy (which was much harder than copper) triggered a worldwide change with lasting consequences. We could say the last trip of the Uluburun was, in some way, a consequence of these changes.
Along with the invention of bronze, the necessity to organise a “metallurgy chain” became apparent. Production needed tin, which was rare and not available everywhere. The appropriate logistics became essential.
With bronze, it became possible to accumulate wealth that was easy to transport: Bronze ingots were a common payment currency of the time and where there is wealth, conflicts arise. The simultaneous emergence of heavily fortified settlements and the invention of the sword show that our ancestors experienced troubles with jealous neighbours who tried to get a piece of the pie.
Bronze also caused a serious upheaval in the social structure. The access to, and control of, resources (such as metals, metallurgy, communications and trade routes) resulted in the emergence of an upper social class and induced differentiation among people, the consequences of which we still feel even today.
The geographically uneven distribution of metal deposits (particularly tin) resulted in a far-reaching and almost global trading network that also spread cultural ideas in addition to goods. Bronze was essentially pioneering the cross-border communication of knowledge between cultures. Even today, good ol’ bronze has an essential word to say in the world of digital communication: No computer works without the elements of bronze. No bronze would mean, no online social networks.
While Uluburun sailed the seas, the world-famous bust of Nefertiti was made in Egypt. Odysseus returned home from his long odyssey. The Egyptian Pharaoh Echnaton established the first monotheistic religion. Moses’ successor Joshua led the Israelites and the Hittites dominated an area five times larger than Germany. These were turbulent times from Haithabu to Karnak, as well as at Cape Uluburun on the southern Turkish coast, and this is where a merchant ship with a cargo of priceless goods sank to its grave.
The ship was built of cedar using the so-called “spigot technique”, which involves building the outer hull first and adding the underlying “skeleton” (the frames and bars) later. One thousand years after the demise of the Uluburun, this technique was still used to build Roman and Greek ships.
Archaeological finds in Egypt suggest that the archetype for this ship probably came from ancient Egypt. In particular, Pharaoh Echnaton drove the development of more resilient oceangoing ships to advance trade and transport at the time.
However, a fine structural difference with the Uluburun is that its pegs were not secured by wooden pins. This technique would later be called “Fenike-mortising” by the Romans. The Uluburun was certainly built for use at sea, which refutes the thesis that sailing in the Bronze Age was done exclusively within sight of the coast.
Because only about 3 percent of the ship’s original hull was recovered, drawings from ancient Egypt, specifically the pictorial representation of the “fleet of Queen Hatshepsut in the land of Punt” (1500 BC), provided a significant visual reference for reconstructing the ship.
After extensive research, we now know that the Uluburun was 15 metres long, five metres wide and had a draft of 1.4 metres. Her cargo is estimated to have been 20 tonnes. The width of the ship’s trim was six centimetres, and the pegs were at a distance of 20 centimetres.
The ship used a triangular sail, which provided a maximum speed of two nautical miles per hour, and two rudders to manoeuvre.
The Turkish research group “360” proved this ship was oceangoing in 2005. By using techniques and materials from the late Bronze Age only, the “360” group built an identical replica of Uluburun and successfully sailed the Mediterranean.
This was the probable route of the Uluburun: From her homeport on the Levantine coast, she sailed fully loaded to her (unknown) Mycenaean destination port. At night, she anchored in ports along the Turkish coast. The planned way back may have then taken her towards Marsa Matruh in northwest Egypt. The currents and winds in the area suggest such a route, as the Uluburun was unable to cross winds due to her simple sail.