The History and Significance of the Uluburun Shipwreck
The shipwreck of Uluburun, just off the southwest coast of Turkey, offers us great insight into the trade organisation of the Mediterranean. This article will discuss the archaeology and the significance of the Uluburun shipwreck.
The shipwreck was accidentally discovered in 1982 by a sponge diver. When it sank in the 14th century BCE, it was following a conventional course around the eastern Mediterranean -from the Levant to southern Anatolia, to the Aegean and then to the North African coast.
The ship, which was about 50 feet long, was built of cedar in the ancient shell-first tradition, with pegged tenon joints securing planks to each other and to the keel. Some of the hull planks were preserved under the cargo. They were fastened with pegged mortise-and-tenon joints. All mortise-and-tenon joints on the planking were pegged with a c. 2 cm diameter peg driven into the tenon on each strake. Spacing between adjacent pegs on the same plank averaged 23 cm.
It has been speculated that the Uluburun shipwreck was of Cypriot design, due to the amount of ingots of tin excavators found. The ship carried ten tons of copper and one ton of tin. The cargo consequently represents the “world market” bulk metal in the Mediterranean. The tin from Uluburun is, at this time, the only pre-Roman tin with a reasonable provenance (, p.2). The question of the provenance of copper and tin has been intensively studied during the last two decades by Gale and Stos-Gale. The authors meticulously traced the origin of copper oxhide and bun-shaped ingots in the Medi-terranean back to Cyprus (Hauptmann, Maddin & Prange , p.2). Cyprus was the principal supplier of copper for Ugarit, after the ore had been processed locally and the only known ingot mold comes from the metallurgical workshop of the Ugaritic queen’s palace at Ras Ibn Hani. Letters from the archives confirm that the kingdom of Ugarit exported manufactured objects, but that raw metals were also re-exported. So the Uluburun shipwreck gives us valuable insight into the trading communities in the Mediterranean.
There was a wealth of trade goods onboard the ship. These included 100 ingots of cobalt-blue and turquoise glass, a ton of terebinthine resin in amphorae (for use as a cosmetic or perfume component), ebony logs from Egypt, elephant tusks, hippopotamus teeth, ostrich and tortoise shells, and a host of fruit and spices (Matthews, p.459).
At the time of excavation, the Uluburun was the deepest shipwreck to be completely excavated by underwater archaeologists. It presented risks to the divers and excavation time for each diver was limited to 15 to 20 minutes per dive, two times a day.
The Uluburun shipwreck has fed into virtually every aspect of research on trade and society in the late Bronze Age Aegean and Levant. It is because of this shipwreck, and others like it, that has been able to illuminate the intensity of commercial trade during the Late Bronze age.
Hauptmann, Andreas., Maddin, Robert & Prange, Michael (2002) On the Structure and Composition of Copper and Tin Ingots Excavated from the Shipwreck of Uluburun, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research,The American Schools of Oriental Research.
Matthews, Rodger (2005) The Human Past – The Rise of Civilization in Southwest Asia, Thames & Hudson, London.