Maritime, underwater or nautical archaeology, as it is known these days, is a relatively young and flourishing branch of archaeological research today, as Christoph Bachhuber’s guest lecture on Wednesday has elegantly laid out. Many underwater archaeological projects of recent decades have extended our knowledge of the material remains of past societies into the maritime landscapes around the world, exploring submerged coastal settlements, harbors, shipwrecks, places destroyed by tsunamis and earthquakes, and ritual deposits in lakes and river beds. Check out for instance the website of “The Museum of Underwater Archaeology” at the University of Rhode Island, or the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A & M University, to see the variety of underwater archaeological projects ongoing around the world.
The two important contributions of these projects to archaeological research, in my opinion, are:
(1) they investigate the dynamic long-term history of the edge between the lands and the seas- the cultural history of coastal settlements and harbors which are submerged due to geomorphological processes or catastrophic events- and therefore illustrate the fluidity of coastal environments, their vulnerability.
(2) they tell us extensively about the use of maritime landscapes as landscapes of movement, inter-connectivity, travel and trade. This last point is elegantly discussed in Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell’s Corrupting Sea: a study of Mediterranean history (2000).
Shipwreck archaeology has revolutionized the way we understand the history of seafaring through the discovery and study of numerous shipwrecks of antiquity. On Friday I spoke about the famous Uluburun Shipwreck excavated off the coast of southwestern Turkey, and the excavation of the Byzantine harbour and the series of Byzantine shipwrecks associated with it in the Yenikapi neighborhood. Uluburun Shipwreck is dated to the Late Bronze Age, approximately 1300 BCE, the time of exceptionally intensive network of seafaring, entrepreneurial trade and diplomatic exchange in the Eastern Mediterranean. Pharaohs of the “New Kingdom” Egypt, Great Kings of the Hittite Empire, and various kings of Cyprus, Ugarit, Assyria and Mitanni, exchanged letters and gifts at the time and referred to each other as “brothers” (See Marian Feldman’s Diplomacy By Design). More significantly seagoing ships such as the Uluburun ship circulated the Eastern Mediterranean in a counter-clockwise route, hopping from one port of trade to another, connecting Egypt, the Levantine Coast, Cyprus, Anatolian coast, the Aegean Sea, the island of Crete and then back to the North African coast. Uluburun ship had sunk with this amazing cargo of raw materials, prestige artifacts and wonderful rare things, including 354 copper oxhide ingots, 175 discoid shaped glass ingots, a wooden-wax writing tablet, ostrich eggshells, numerous bronze weapons, gold jewellery, stone maceheads, 150 Canaanite jars full of olives, terebinth basin and perhaps wine, Cypriot oil lamps, Mycenaean stirrup jars, logs of Egyptian ebony, cylinder seals from Mesopotamia, a scarab bearing the cartouche of queen Nefertiti. Where have this merchant and his amazing ship not stopped along their voyage?
Uluburun shipwreck presents to us the drama and the politics of sailing in the Mediterranean in the beginning of the 13th century BCE. About a hundred years after the sinking of Uluburun ship, now we know through archaeological and literary evidence that the entire mercantile network of the Eastern Mediterranean would collapse, most probably not a sudden catastrophic event but a gradual process of decline, and as a result, the so-called “Peoples of the Sea” would invade Egyptian and Levantine cities, Mycenaean palaces while the Hittite Empire disappeared all together from the stage of history. But who were these Peoples of the Sea? I hope to bring this up later in the semester.