A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks (7 page)

BOOK: A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks
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The big question raised by the Cape Gelidonya wreck – how representative it might have been of trade at the time – is put in a stunning new light by the Uluburun wreck. The two cargoes may be opposite ends of a spectrum, with Gelidonya representing more mercantile trade and Uluburun mainly royal gift-exchange or tribute, or they may represent the same mechanism of trade but differences in scale – and even though the Gelidonya cargo was considerably smaller, it still contained enough metal to make 500 swords, sufficient for a small army. Finds made there on further dives in 1987–2010 included two Mycenaean stirrup-jars and a sword, pushing it closer to the range of artefacts found at Uluburun. The Uluburun cargo may have been exceptionally
large, representing a high degree of risk-taking when consignments might normally have been split among several ships to reduce the potential for loss in wreck – something that we shall see again three thousand years later in discussion of another very rich cargo, that of the
Santo Cristo di Castello
off Cornwall.

Another possibility is that the two wrecks represent the difference between a time of great prosperity in the late fourteenth century
and the more precarious decades around 1200
. The emotional uncertainty of that later period, veering from confidence to ominous warnings to fear, is seen in a remarkable discovery at Ugarit that has a direct bearing on the Cape Gelidonya wreck. In 1970–71 the Syrian military dug a bunker on the south side of the city mound, about 200 metres from the royal palace and a little over a kilometre from the harbour at Minet el-Beida. A clay tablet was discovered in the spoil, and in 1973 more than a hundred more fragments were found. When excavation became possible in 1986 a large house was revealed, and by 2002 more than 650 tablets had been discovered – making it the largest clay tablet archive from Ugarit outside the royal palace.

Many of the tablets were in Akkadian cuneiform in the Ugarit alphabet – the script that could have been used on the Uluburun wax tablet – and show that the house belonged to a merchant who was also a royal agent, dealing on behalf of the king of Ugarit with the pharaoh of Egypt and the kings of Cyprus and the Hittites, among others. The reference to rulers whose dates are known allows the archive to be pinned down closely to 1220–1190
, about the date of the Gelidonya wreck. The merchant's name was Urtenu, and he was a man of high status as well as literary inclinations – among the finds was a chariot similar to Egyptian chariots found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, suggesting that it may have been a royal gift to him, and one of the tablets contained part of the
Epic of Gilgamesh
, the flood story that was a foundation myth of the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia and the Near East.

At first, everything seems prosperous, with the documents revealing Urtenu brokering deals at the highest level:

Thus Kusmesusa, king of Alasiya (Cyprus), say to Niqmaddu, king of Ugarit, my son. All is well with me, my households, my horses and my chariots … In exchange of the gift which you had sent me,
I send to you thirty-three [ingots of] copper; their weight is thirty talents and six thousand and five hundred shekels.

Fascinatingly, the copper consignment is similar in size to the Gelidonya cargo, and the date of Niqmaddu III's reign, about 1225–1215
, puts it close to the estimated date for the wreck – making this the oldest known example of a ‘bill of lading' that can be related to a wreck discovery, even if it may not refer to that specific shipment. By the time of Niqmaddu's successor Ammurapi the documents take on a very different tenor, no longer being about royal gift-exchanges but about survival – instead of references to chariots and horses we see the Akkadian word
, meaning hunger. In a letter from the Egyptian pharaoh Merenptah, who ruled from about 1213 to 1203
, the pharaoh quotes Ammurapi from a previous letter to him: ‘In the land of Ugarit there is severe hunger. May my Lord save it, and may the king give grain to save my life … and save the citizens of the land of Ugarit.' Even more desperately, Ammurapi pleads with a Hittite official: ‘If there is any goodness in your heart, then send even the remainders of the (grain) staples I requested and thus save me.' These documents attest to the stark reality of famine, itself partly a function of the prosperity of maritime trade up to that time – the growth of city-states such as Ugarit led to population increase that put pressure on local hinterlands, leading to a dependence on imports for subsistence foodstuffs that might not be available if those sources too were suffering from the same natural calamity, in this case a drought that seems to have affected much of the Near East in the late thirteenth and twelfth centuries

Worse was to follow: a terror was descending from the north, a wave of invasion that was to obliterate Bronze Age civilisation in the Aegean and Near East and threaten Egypt itself. The identity of these invaders is uncertain, but they were probably a mix of migrants from north of the Black Sea – perhaps pushed south by the drought – along with warlike peoples of the Aegean who integrated with them and the remnant Mycenaeans, the survivors of the destruction of the citadels. The Egyptians called them ‘Sea Peoples', a term that does not convey the fear among those who stood in their path. That can be sensed in one of the last letters in the archive, written by Ammurapi to the Hittite governor of Carchemish but seemingly never delivered:

I wrote you twice, three times … regarding the enemy!… May my lord know that now the enemy forces are stationed at Ra'šu, and their advance-guard forces were sent to Ugarit. Now may my lord send me forces and chariots, and may my lord save me from the forces of this enemy!

This letter may have been written in the last days of the lives of Ammurapi and Urtenu; the city of Ugarit was destroyed in one cataclysm around 1190
, with widespread evidence of fire and many arrowheads found in the ruins. The destruction was so complete that the city was never reoccupied and was lost to history until a local farmer accidentally broke into a burial chamber in 1928. A similar pattern of destruction is seen across the Aegean and the Near East – at Mycenae and the palace of Pylos, at the Hittite capital Hattusas and in the coastal sites to the south of Ugarit. The evidence for the end of the Bronze Age in the Aegean and east Mediterranean is not of peaceful transition but of violence and annihilation – showing how rapidly a world of prosperity and peace, of cultural flowering and achievement, can be brought down, as so often, by a combination of human agency and natural calamity.

For the next few centuries much of this world was plunged into a dark age, but out of this period a new beginning was forged with the widespread appearance of iron technology by the ninth century
. Unlike bronze, which was always in limited supply because of the scarcity of tin, iron ore was widely available, the technology once mastered was open to all and the metal produced superior points and blades, meaning that weapons and tools were no longer restricted to an elite. Combined with the end of the palace-based societies of the Bronze Age, this technology provided the basis for new social, political and economic structures that eventually led to the first experiments with democracy. The ‘Age of Heroes' was not forgotten – the
and the
were first written down in the early part of this period, and in Athens the foundations of the Mycenaean citadel on the Acropolis were deliberately left visible – but it was a time of new cultural efflorescence, of Pericles and Pheidias and Plato, of the Parthenon and great works of sculpture and literature and philosophy, in a period brought vividly to light by a wreck of the fifth century
excavated in the Aegean Sea.

Wine trade in the Golden Age of classical Greece in the 5th century BC

In 1998 I was one of several academics invited by George Bass to join an expedition being planned to excavate a wreck of the classical Greek period off the Aegean coast of Turkey by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA). It was to be the first excavation by INA of a wreck from the fifth century
, at the height of classical Athens, and one of the most exciting projects carried out since the excavation of the Uluburun Bronze Age wreck. That summer I held a Visiting Scholarship at St John's College, Oxford, and devoted myself to finding out all that I could about ships of that period from pictorial and literary evidence. In the Ashmolean Museum I studied depictions of ships in ancient Greek vase paintings and was surprised at how few there were from the prosperous years of the mid-fifth century
; it was clear that a wreck could offer unique evidence for vessels and cargoes of that period. The scarcity of depictions led me to references to ships in works of literature and philosophy, and in the Bodleian Library I studied the oldest surviving manuscript of Plato's
, copied by a monk in Constantinople in the ninth century
. I was especially drawn to Plato's analogy of the ‘Ship of State', likening the governance of a city-state to the command of a vessel. It was fascinating to see ships being presented in this way, not just as vessels of war and heroic achievement as they had been by Homer several centuries earlier but also as metaphors for considering democracy, the rule of law and the best management of government, issues that were first debated extensively in the fifth century
and continue to be so today.

The museums and libraries of Oxford seemed a long way off when I stood a year later on the INA research vessel
preparing to make my first dive on the wreck. The rocky headland of Tekta
Burnu was only a stone's throw away, and in the other direction on the horizon lay the Greek island of Chios. It was a place of sun, sea and rock, the features that draw people to the Mediterranean as others
might be to a desert – to a place where the elements seem to distil life to its essence. Below me where the sunlight danced over the water I could see with extraordinary clarity into the depths, through curtains of bubbles rising from divers and breaking on the surface. I put one hand on my mask to stop it from being ripped off as I hit the water, hooked my other thumb around the strap of my cylinder twin-set to keep it from striking the back of my head and leapt in, bobbing up and waiting for the signal from the timekeeper on the boat. When it came, I quickly emptied the air in my buoyancy compensator and plummeted down, knowing that I only had twenty minutes until the timekeeper banged a signal for the time to ascend – and that every second on the bottom must count.

I dropped down beside the rocky slope, arms and legs extended as if free-falling, one hand on my nose to equalise the pressure in my ears and seeing the colours filter out until everything became blue. Fifty metres is traditionally considered the limit of safe air diving, with depths below that risking blackout from oxygen toxicity and the increasing effects of narcosis, a feeling of euphoria caused by breathing nitrogen under pressure. I could sense that already as I rounded a corner at forty metres, a thickening of the air that made me want to go deeper, the fatal seduction that had been the end of many divers in the early years before the effect was fully understood. Seeing the wreck for the first time, it was as if I were swimming into the photo I had been shown the year before – a pile of pottery amphoras on a sandy ledge above a drop-off into the abyss, one of the most exciting things I had seen underwater and an image that seemed to have come straight from the photos in the books that had so inspired me as a boy.

Half an hour later I had returned to a metal frame suspended below
and began breathing pure oxygen from a regulator extending down from the vessel. Nitrogen narcosis goes as soon as a diver ascends, but breathing nitrogen at depth also saturates the bloodstream with gas that can form bubbles as the pressure reduces, lodging in the brain or the spine and causing the ‘bends' – a description of the physical effect as a diver experiences crippling pain.
had an onboard recompression chamber should a diver surface with symptoms, but to avoid that all divers carried out decompression stops while still underwater to allow enough nitrogen to be breathed out for surfacing to be safe. As I hung there for twenty minutes, feeling re-energised by the oxygen, I reflected on what I had seen and the wider context for
a wreck of this date. The sun-bleached columns of the Parthenon in Athens, the vase-painters in the workshops beneath the Acropolis and the philosophers debating as they looked out beyond the city to the sea – never far away in Greece, and the key to the success of the city-states – were all part of the story that could be told by this wreck, and I knew that the excavation in the weeks ahead could shed fascinating light on those decades at the high point of classical antiquity.

Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarrelling with one another about the steering – everyone is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation … Him who is their partisan and cleverly aids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain's hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seamen, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not – the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer's art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling.

In this passage from Plato's
The Republic
, written in the early fourth century
and translated by the nineteenth-century Oxford scholar Benjamin Jowett, Plato's mentor Socrates uses the analogy of a ship to describe the governance of a state and some of the pitfalls that he saw in democracy – how the ideal ruler, the navigator, combines ability with knowledge, but how the citizens of the state can be misled into following another. Every time a modern politician uses the phrase ‘Ship of State' they are evoking not only Plato but also the ships with which his audience would have been familiar: the powerful galleys, the triremes, on which many had served as citizen-soldiers, and the wide-bellied merchantmen on which they had travelled from city-state to city-state in this most maritime of worlds. Ships are pervasive in the
of Homer, in the books by the historians Herodotus
and Thucydides that tell us much about the wars and politics of fifth-century
Athens, on vase-paintings and in the works of the great playwrights of the period. One of the first words in ancient Greek that I ever learnt, from translating Aristophanes' comedy
The Frogs
, was
, meaning helmsman – the word used by Plato as an analogue for philosopher – and I was not the first student to be struck by the onomatopoeia of the Greek for ‘heave ho, heave ho,' ‘
ō opop, ō opop
', the commands that gave rhythm to the oarsmen as they drove the triremes with their bronze rams into the sides of the enemy ships, winning the naval victories that made the ‘Golden Age' of Athens possible.

The forty-eight years between the end of the war against Persia in 479
and the beginning of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in 431
were a time of extraordinary intellectual and cultural achievement, dominated physically by the great temples on the Acropolis in Athens. Whereas in other cultures such splendours might be associated with an elite, removed from the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, in Athens they represent a society in which people from all walks of life participated in politics, where thinkers such as Socrates were not just talking to an educated few and where all citizens regardless of wealth fought side-by-side. For that reason, the evidence from archaeology for day-to-day life can be seen against a rich backdrop, one where those quintessential images of ancient Greece provide a context for people represented by even the most humble artefacts – giving an extra dimension to the story that can be told from a wreck dating to the years when the Parthenon was being constructed, when statesmen such as Pericles were experimenting with democracy and when Socrates was engaging people in dialogues that were making them think in ways that they never had done before.

The wreck had been discovered in 1996 by a survey team from INA at Tekta
Burnu, ‘Lone Rock Cape', a remote headland mid-way up the western coast of Turkey just south of Izmir. The first photographs showed a pile of intact amphoras at the base of a cliff at 38–43 metres depth, with the slope descending to greater depths below. One amphora raised for study was identified as coming from the ancient city of Mende, on the Chalcidice peninsula in the north-west Aegean, and dating to the third quarter of the fifth century
– the pinnacle of classical Greece, the ‘Age of Pericles'. At that time, the coast of western
Asia Minor – modern western Turkey, known in antiquity as Ionia – was home to numerous Greek cities bound to Athens as part of the Delian League, an alliance formed after the defeat of the Persians that tied together the Aegean world both politically and economically, with tribute as well as commerce flowing towards Athens – effectively creating an Athenian empire, unifying the Aegean for the first time since the height of Mycenaean power some eight hundred years previously.

The discovery filled a chronological gap in the sites investigated by George Bass and INA since the Cape Gelidonya excavation described in the last chapter, with wrecks of fourth century
, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic date having been excavated but nothing yet from the fifth century
. Only one other amphora wreck of similar date had been investigated archaeologically, at Alonissos in the west-central Aegean, partly excavated by the Greek Department of Underwater Antiquities since 1992. The Tekta
site offered the opportunity for INA to bring its full resources and expertise to bear on a wreck of this period, with the prospect of complete excavation, the conservation and analysis of finds at INA's state-of-the-art facilities in Bodrum and display in the Museum of Underwater Archaeology in the castle in the town, alongside artefacts from other wrecks that had been excavated off south-west Turkey since 1960.

The development of classical studies as a discipline provides a broader backdrop for the excavation. From the eighteenth century, ancient Greek was part of the school curriculum in England, becoming so embedded that knowledge of it was compulsory for entrance to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge until 1920. Beginning with the Renaissance humanists, who brought much ancient literature back to light – some of it translated from Arabic copies made in the early medieval period – and carrying on through the Enlightenment, the study of ancient Greece became central to the intellectual outlook of many Europeans. From the late seventeenth century the ‘Grand Tourists' travelled to see the remains for themselves, visiting the ruins and shipping back sculptures, architectural fragments and vases to embellish their stately homes and fill museums. The world of antiquity that they reconstructed was an elevated one, pure and idealised like the white marble sculptures that they saw, but it was also one of extraordinary richness, with works of literature – history, philosophy, drama and poetry – unsurpassed in their own day, and art and architecture that they could only hope to emulate. The very word adopted for the study
of antiquity, ‘classics', was derived from the Latin adjective
, referring to the upper class of Roman citizens and the highest quality of literature – reinforcing the elite associations of this area of study but also its huge cultural value.

The expanding remit of archaeologists in the twentieth century beyond this world of temples and high art coincided with the first wreck discoveries and the advent of maritime archaeology as a discipline. As we shall see, wrecks have provided some of the greatest works of art from the fifth century
ever discovered, particularly in bronze, but their contribution is equally significant in telling us about day-to-day life and basic economic activity such as the transport of foodstuffs. This activity may seem far removed from the Parthenon and sculptures of gods and heroes, but in the tightly knit, geographically confined world of the Aegean – Tekta
was only 220 kilometres from Athens – such glories were never far from sight, and even sailors on small merchantmen traversing the Aegean are likely to have seen them. For us today, wrecks provide vital new information – often about the economic underpinnings of that world – but are also a stimulus to the imagination, giving a lens through which we can see those ‘higher' achievements afresh and put them in a wider historical context.

The wreck was challenging to excavate because of its location, with the nearest supply point being more than 20 kilometres away by boat, and exposure to the frequent meltemi winds from the north-west – possibly the same winds that had caused the ship to wreck. Diving took place by an international team under the direction of George Bass and Dr Deborah Carlson from
and a hired former minesweeper, the
, and from a wooden encampment on the rocky headland. Another challenge was the depth of the site, allowing only two dives with twenty-minute bottom times per day. I eventually carried out more than 100 dives on the wreck over two seasons, including surveying the deepest part beyond 45 metres and exploration in INA's two-person submersible.

BOOK: A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks
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