Nautical Archaeology and Biblical Archaeology 4

22 Jun

Shipwreckecked Plant Remains

Cheryl Ward Haldane

By studying shreds and scraps of plant tissues from archaeological investigations, archaeobotanists learn how people used plants in the past. Such remains are usually waterlogged or desiccated by their environment, or are charred by cooking or burning. Although late-nineteenth-century excavations in Egypt and Scandinavia produced sensational finds of ancient plant remains, archaeobotany’s greatest growth came in the 1960s when excavators like Robert Braidwood sought to learn when animals and plants were domesticated in the Near East. Archaeobotanists followed the pioneering example of Hans Helbaek and began to study plant remains to learn about ancient peoples and how they used the world around them.

The introduction of flotation processes to separate charred organic material from dirt was a revolutionary step in archaeobotany. The larger, more varied samples obtained by flotation allow more exact comparisons with modern and ancient ecological and economic systems, ways of manipulating plant products, and patterns of resource exploitation.

In the Near East, charred seeds are the most common plant remains. Agricultural crops such as wheat, barley, peas, lentils, beans, and flax are often present on land sites. On the other hand, only three charred grains have been identified in more than 600 samples from 10 eastern Mediterranean shipwrecks, although a single sample from a Byzantine wreck yielded more than 600 grape seeds. Shipwreck archaeobotany produces abundant remains of fruits, nuts, and spices seldom found on land sites.

Shipwreck Archaeobotany

In the Mediterranean, shipwrecks usually appear as low mounds of shipping jars (amphoras) on the seabed. Waterlogged and charred plant seeds, twigs, leaves, fruits, wood, and other plant tissues, as well as animal and fish bones, insects, dung, and hairs can be found in samples taken from the site, even if the wreck is exposed.

During the first 15 years of scientific exploration, beginning in the 1950s, serendipitous finds of fruit stones and nuts from many Mediterranean shipwrecks suggested the variety of wares transported by sea and the potential value of archaeobotanical analysis of such remains. It was not until the 1970s, however, that archaeologists attempted to systematically retrieve plant tissues that were not part of the hulls of ships. Between 1974 and 1980, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) sponsored four excavations in which archaeobotanical investigation was standard procedure. In each case, the organic samples proved that the shipping jars had carried wine, but traces of previous cargoes and other materials aboard the ship provided us with additional information about the production and exchange of goods.

In 1984, INA began excavation of the Late Bronze Age shipwreck at Ulu Burun, Turkey. George F. Bass, director of the excavation, enthusiastically supported the idea of retrieving every possible bit of organic material from the wreck for study. The dedication of the excavation team resulted in a unique assemblage of plant remains that offers a glimpse into a little-known aspect of ancient life. It is interesting to note that all but two of the plants identified so far are among the relatively few plants named in the Bible, where scarcely more than 100 of the 2,300 plant species found in biblical lands are mentioned (Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible 1962: 285).

The ship’s cargo mirrored records of royal tribute exchanged by Late Bronze Age Egyptian and Near Eastern rulers and included the most luxurious and expensive items of the time: copper, tin, and glass ingots; gold and silver jewelry; unworked elephant and hippopotamus ivory; Egyptian ebony logs (Dalbergia melanoxylon); and several small and large stirrup jars that archaeologists believe carried perfume (Bass 1986; Pulak 1988).

As excavators raised more than 100 Canaanite shipping jars, we learned that the ship had also carried about half a ton of terebinth resin from Pistacia terebinthus, identified by John Mills of the National Gallery of London and the Hairfields of Mary Baldwin College (Hairfield and Hairfield 1990). The chunks of resin retain their sharp, pungent, turpentine-like odor today. Although the terebinth, or turpentine tree, is mentioned in the Bible (Isaiah 6:13; Hosea 4:13, Revised Standard Version) and other ancient texts, this huge quantity of resin was puzzling at first. But Mycenaean Greek Linear B tablets, Egyptian texts, Classical Greek writings, and modern ethnographic evidence provided the clues we needed to understand why the resin was included with the exotic and valuable goods carried on the ship.

A group of Linear B clay tablets, dating to the end of the Bronze Age, lists the names of plants possibly used in perfumery, cooking, and medicine. Among these names is ki-ta-no, translated by Jose Melena (1976: 180) as terebinth nuts. The word occurs rarely, and the Ulu Burun cargo suggests that terebinth resin, rather than its edible nuts, may have been the intended meaning (Bass 1987).

We know from several classical authors that terebinth resin was highly valued. Accordirig to Theophrastus (Enquiry into Plants 9.2.2; see Hort 1916: 223), “There are also differences in the resin obtained from different trees. The best is that of the terebinth, for it sets firm, is the most fragrant, and has the most delicate smell; but the yield is not abundant.” Dioscorides (De Materia Medica I.71.1–6; see Wellmann 1958: 67–70) describes the preparation of terebinth resin for “good smelling” emollients and perfumed oils and notes that, when boiled, terebinth resin was also valued for coloring perfumed oils. Pliny (Natural History 13.2.7–8; see Rackham 1945: 103) notes that terebinth resin was used in perfumes and acted as an astringent to retain scent.

Theophrastus also provides us with a possible source for the resin: a … Around Syrian Damascus it [the terebinth tree] is abundant, large and beautiful; for they say there is a mountain all full of terebinths, but nothing else grows there.” Modern residents of Syria and Turkey collect the resin and prepare it for sale in bazaars and perfumer’s shops (White house 1957). Although terebinth grows elsewhere around the Mediterranean, only in its eastern areas do winter temperatures drop low enough to cause the tree to produce resin.

If not for perfume manufacturing, the resin lost at Ulu Burun may have been intended to be used as incense. Victor Loret interpreted the Egyptian word sntr as terebinth resin. If he is correct, Egyptian texts refer to thousands of liters of the resin being imported each year to Egypt from the Syro-Palestinian coast to be burned in ritual fumigation (Lores 1949).

Like the terebinth resin, fruits of Coriandrum sativum (coriander) are found on the Ulu Burun wreck and mentioned in Mycenaean Greek Linear B tablets. The distribution of coriander seeds in shipping jars, dunnage samples, and samples from beneath ingots suggests that the seeds were stored in baskets or woven bags which scattered their contents as they decayed. Linear B documents describe up to 720 liters of coriander seed mixed with wine, honey, and other spices in perfumery, and used in smaller amounts as a condiment (Ventris and Chadwick 1956: 221–30). According to Cynthia Shelmerdine (1985), coriander fruits were used to prepare the astringent solution necessary to hold the scent of a perfume with an olive oil base. Melena (1974: 155) has pointed out that coriander fruits were also offered to a local Mycenaean deity. Coriander was regarded by the Mycenaeans as being of Cyprian origin (Ventris and Chadwick 1956: 221), but Melena (1974) has suggested that it was grown on Crete. It is mentioned only twice in the Bible (Exodus 16:31; Numbers 11:7), in both instances simply to compare the appearance of manna to its seed. The value placed on coriander by other ancient societies can be seen in the half-liter of seeds that accompanied the pharaoh Tutankhamun in his golden tomb (Derby, Ghalioungui, and Grivetti 1977: 798).

A third possible source of astringent for ancient perfume manufacture—pomegranate juice—may be seen in the contents of one of seven large storage jars (pithoi) from the Ulu Burun shipwreck. A preliminary sorting of a sample from this 1.4-meter-tall (about 41/2 feet) pithos produced more than 1,000 seeds, flower parts, and fragments of skin from what were once whole pomegranates.

Pomegranates were so valued in antiquity that they were presented as evidence, along with figs and grapes, when the spies sent to Canaan by Moses reported: “We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit” (Numbers 13:27). Images of the pomegranate used to decorate clothing (Exodus 28:33–34, 39:24–25) and the capitals of the pillars (I Kings 7:18, 20, 42, and others) are further indication of the prominence of this fruit, whose juice was used in a spiced wine (Song of Solomon 8:2).

Although no Linear B word has been translated as pomegranate, the classical writers often refer to its astringent qualities in perfumery and medicine, and to its use as a flavoring for wines as well as its use as an edible fruit and a natural dye.

Pomegranates ripen in late August or September, suggesting that the ship may have sailed late in the season. Until medieval times, sailing in the Mediterranean was restricted to the months between late April and early September because of storms. Although it seems likely that the pomegranates aboard the Ulu Burun ship were fresh, it is possible that the fruits were from the previous autumn. Columella (Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella on Agriculture 5.10.16; see Forster and Heffner 1954: 97) provides instructions for preserving whole pomegranates for more than a year, and modern Turkish villagers store pomegranates year-round using similar methods.

Pomegranates are rarely found in Bronze Age archaeological deposits on land, but there are two charred seeds in samples from the early third millennium BCE at Arad (Hopf 1978: 74); seeds and skin fragments from Bronze Age Jericho (Kenyon 1960: 371,392–393, and plate XVII.4; Hopf 1969: 357) and Twelfth Dynasty Egypt (Derby, Ghalioungui, and Grivetti 1977: 742); waterlogged seeds at Hala Sultan Tekke on Cyprus about 1200 BCE (Hjelmqvist 1979: 112); and in many finds from the seventh century BCE onward.

Pomegranate trees are mentioned in the funerary texts of Tuthmosis I (around 1530 BCE) and appear in tomb paintings of approximately 100 years later. The tomb of Sebkhotep shows two men carrying pomegranates (Davies 1936: plate XLIV): One carries a basket, the other a string of fruits tied together. A painting from the Late Bronze Age tomb of Menna shows two women, one of whom carries a bouquet that includes crimson pomegranate fruits (Davies 1936: plate LII). Sir Arthur J. Evans described ivory pomegranate buds and flowers from the Middle Minoan III period at the palace of Minos on Knossos (1921: 496).

The Ulu Burun shipwreck also yielded a few safflower (Carthamus tinctoria) seeds, several thousand fig seeds, an amphora full of olive stones, and two charred cereal grains: one wheat and one barley. Linear B texts also record these commodities, and all but safflower are mentioned frequently in the Bible. Several shells of almonds, also mentioned many times in the Bible, sumac (Rhus coriaria) fruits, and grape seeds complete the roster of economic plants; about 15 weed species are also represented.*

A puzzling discovery from other shipwrecks are the seeds, leaves and fruits of thorny burnet (Sarcopoterium spinosum), a spiny, knee-high bush best known for its possible use in the thorny wreath of Jesus. The most reasonable suggestion is that it might have been used as dunnage to create a protective cushion between the hull and its load. The Ulu Burun wreck has strengthened this hypothesis: In addition to providing more samples of seeds, entire plants, from branches to roots, were found on the lower surfaces of some of the approximately 200 four-handled copper ingots in the cargo.

Although the evaluation of samples from Ulu Burun is incomplete, some statistical analyses of about half the samples suggest some patterns in the distribution of plant remains. Of some 20 samples of charcoal, most are from scrubby trees of the family Leguminosae that line the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. The distribution of charred wood on the wreck seems to be fairly limited in area and may indicate a shipboard brazier or hearth. Charred seeds are strictly unrelated to the charcoal samples but can be correlated to the presence of an organic conglomerate of terebinth fruits, chips of resin, twigs, leaves, and mud. This conglomerate, found in about one-third of the shipping jars, may be the remains of a previous terebinth resin or fruit cargo. It is also possible that it represents imploded mud stoppers or caps (Pulak 1988). Interestingly, grape seeds found in the conglomerate are of a strikingly different shape from those found lying loosely in the ship’s bilge area. Because grape seed shape varies with the type of grape grown, these two categories probably have different origins.

As more samples from the Ulu Burun shipwreck are analyzed, the number of plant species found on this ship that once sailed along the Eastern Mediterranean coastline will grow. Simply identifying the species represented is not enough, however, and will serve only to tantalize students of ancient trade in the Mediterranean.

Studying other plant remains in jars that carried the resin may help archaeologists locate the port where the aromatic was loaded as well as learn about how jars were sealed and whether they were reused. Bass suspects that the ship traveled a circular route from the Syro-Palestinian coast to Cyprus and Mycenaean Greece or Crete before returning to the Levant via Egypt (1986: 296). If so, its cargoes of terebinth resin, coriander, and pomegranates may be added to the list of luxury items that indicate an established exchange network with markets demanding large-scale availability.


Underwater archaeobotany provides direct evidence of goods traded by sea and often produces botanical remains of plants unlike those found in charred deposits on land. The Ulu Burun shipwreck samples provide the largest Bronze Age collection of pomegranate, fig, olive, and terebinth remains, and the leaves and twigs in dunnage samples are unique representatives of Bronze Age flora used in this way. Ships, the people who sailed them, and the goods they took from port to port in the ancient Mediterranean were vital links between cultures. By studying organic as well as inorganic remains, we enrich our knowledge of humankind’s past.

(1990). Biblical Archaeologist, 53.


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