Nautical Archaeology and Biblical Archaeology

22 Jun

Nautical Archaeology and Biblical Archaeology

George F. Bass

From the beginning, the relationship between the new field of nautical archaeology and more traditional terrestrial archaeology in biblical lands has been symbiotic. They should not be considered separate fields. Neither can ignore the other in our attempts to learn about the past.

The recent rash of exciting discoveries in biblical waters shows that nautical archaeology, like numismatics, demands specialized training over and above that gained through standard courses in archaeology, history, and languages.

Advantages of Nautical Archaeology

A study of shipwrecks concerns more than just their hulls. Nautical archaeology is an integral part of Near Eastern archaeology, as it is of classical, historical, medieval, and Far Eastern archaeology. It cannot stand alone as a separate branch of archaeology, but when drawing on knowledge gained through traditional terrestrial excavation, nautical archaeologists can provide unique information not found by digging on land.

The Late Bronze Age shipwreck being excavated at Ulu Burun, Turkey, by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A & M University, provides excellent examples of the interplay between finds made on land and those raised from the sea (Bass 1986, 1987; Pulak 1988; Bass, Pulak, Collon, and Weinstein 1989).

It now seems that the ship sank off Ulu Burun during the second half of the fourteenth century BCE or, perhaps, the very early thirteenth century. We have used pottery for this rough dating. Should we, however, find something on the site that provides a more exact date, such as an inscribed tablet, then the situation would be reversed: Because of the large quantity of ceramics from various lands in the closed deposit formed by the wreck, we would be able to date many types of Near Eastern, Cypriot, and Mycenaean pottery more closely than has previously been possible. This, in turn, would help other archaeologists date their strata and tombs on land.*

Another example of how nautical archaeology and traditional Near Eastern archaeology benefit one another is our study of the famous cuneiform tablets found just over a century ago at el-Amarna in Egypt (Moran, Haas, and Wilhelm 1987). Because those tablets give detailed lists of raw and manufactured materials sent from the Syro-Palestinian coast to Egypt, often in the same century in which the Ulu Burun ship sank, we thought that they could reveal something about the nature of the ship’s last voyage.

The Ulu Burun ship’s cargo so closely matches tablet descriptions of royal tribute shipped from Near Eastern rulers to the pharaoh in Egypt that it almost surely was a royal cargo. For example, tablets list shipments of 80, 100, and 200 talents of copper from the King of Alasia. The Ulu Burun ship carried around 200 copper ingots, each weighing about 60 pounds. If the talent equaled around 60 modern pounds, as is believed, it is clear that the Ulu Burun cargo equals the largest royal shipment of copper described in the tablets (if we ignore the listing of a shipment of 500 units of copper in which the unit is probably not a talent but a lesser weight).

Terrestrial finds, in this case, help us toward an understanding of the Ulu Burun ship. The ship, in turn, might help us interpret the Amarna tablets. As large quantities of copper were shipped only from the land called Alasia, at least sometimes and perhaps always on royal Alasian vessels, the Ulu Burun wreck might actually represent a royal vessel of Alasia. A determination of the nationality of the Ulu Burun ship, therefore, would add fuel to the controversy surrounding the identification of Alasia, which most scholars believe was Cyprus.

I am not completely convinced of this identification because the primary evidence for it is the mention in the tablets of the great quantities of copper shipped from Alasia to Egypt and because, in antiquity, Cyprus was the major source of copper in the eastern Mediterranean. It has not been proven, however, that the copper mentioned in the tablets was mined in Alasia—only that the King of Alasia was shipping it. Thus, if the Ulu Burun ship with its cargo of copper proves to be other than Cypriot, the identification of Alasia as Cyprus could be somewhat weakened.

Yet another example of how the Amarna tablets help us understand the Ulu Burun ship, while the ship, in turn, sheds new light on the tablets, is provided by the glass ingots excavated at Ulu Burun. In 1973 Leo Oppenheim suggested that the words mekku and ehlipakku on the tablets mean raw glass. His interpretation was not universally accepted; because neither raw glass nor glass ingots had ever been found on a Bronze Age site, there was no way to prove it one way or the other. Dozens of discoid ingots of cobalt-blue glass have been found stacked on the Ulu Burun ship. While this discovery strengthens Oppenheim’s theory, the tablets tell us that mekku and ehlipakku were shipped from the Near East, especially Tyre, and this, in turn, suggests the source of our ingots, although similar glass has yet to be found on land in the vicinity of Tyre.

Another raw material mentioned in the tablets is ebony, in a description of a shipment from the Egyptian pharaoh to the King of Arzawa, a land somewhere in what is now Turkey. Logs of ebony are also depicted in the fifteenth-century-BCE Tomb of Rekh-mi-rē where they are shown being brought to Egypt, along with elephant tusks, by Nubians (Davies 1943: plate XIX). (Ebony and ivory were similarly traded together by Rhodians to merchants of Tyre; see Ezekiel 27:18.) Was ebony the wood called hbny by the ancient Egyptians? The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1962) identifies it as “the highly prized core wood of the tree Diospyros ebenum Konig, imported from South India and Ceylon (and perhaps Ethiopia)” and points out its value to Egyptians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans as inlay with ivory. Because African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon), the wood from a tree that grows in tropical Africa, was used for furniture found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb, A. Lucas (1962: 435) believed it to be that which the Egyptians called ebony, and not the tree growing in India and Sri Lanka that we call ebony today.

The Ulu Burun ship carried logs of a very dark wood resembling ebony. In addition, the hilt of a Canaanite sword on board was inlaid with ivory and this same dark wood. In both cases it was identified, by Donna Christensen of the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory, as African blackwood. Lucas was almost certainly right. Once more, cargo from Ulu Burun has provided primary evidence for an exact identification of a raw material.

Drawings in the Tomb of Rekhmi-rē˒ also depict chiefs from the Land of Retnu (North Syria) bearing as tribute copper ingots, elephant tusks, spindle bottles, and Canaanite amphoras (Davies 1943: plates XXIIXXIII)—all items found in the Ulu Burun cargo. Similar items are shown in a painting of the royal storeroom, where the contents of some of the amphoras are identified by means of hieroglyphs. The inscription on one indicates that it contains a material called sntr (Davies 1943: plate XLVIII).

Sntr, which also appears in Egyptian texts, has been translated by Victor Loret (1949) as terebinth resin, the resin of the Pistacia terebinthus var. Atlantica tree. If this interpretation is correct, we may glean from some of the texts that tons of terebinth resin were imported from the Syro-Palestinian coast to Egypt for ritual fumigation.

During the excavation of the Ulu Burun ship we were puzzled by nearly a hundred Canaanite amphoras that had been filled with some type of resin. Cheryl Haldane guessed that this was terebinth resin because of her identification of Pistacia leaves in the amphoras, but identification of the actual resin was made by John Mills of the National Gallery in London, with refinements by the Hairfields of Mary Baldwin College (Hairfield and Hairfield 1990). The estimated ton of Ulu Burun resin, then, supports Victor Loret’s identification of the Egyptian word sntr as terebinth resin, and Loret’s study, in turn, provides another clue to the intended route of our wrecked ship and the nature of her cargo.

Egyptian tomb paintings further show us the various forms copper ingots took and that copper ingots of the kinds found at Ulu Burun were usually associated with Syrian merchants (Bass 1967: 62–67). Nautical archaeology, in turn, can solve puzzles posed by the same paintings. In one, for example, white ingots are stacked near copper ingots of the same shape (Davies 1943: plate XVIII). Scholars have wondered if the white ingots were lead, silver, electrum, or tin (Bass 1967: 64). The Ulu Burun ship has yielded the earliest known tin ingots, which were shaped just like contemporary copper ingots, suggesting strongly that the royal Egyptian storeroom simply held copper and tin ingots, the two ingredients necessary for making a bronze age.

Copper ingots, painted red or pink, are depicted above scenes of bronze-workers in several tomb paintings (Bass 1967: 65). In another painting of bronze-working, two unique red objects are painted above the bronze-workers (Davies 1943: plate LII). Although N. de G. Davies identified these red objects as a pair of newly cast bronze doors, he questioned their small size and pointed out that solid bronze doors hardly seemed reasonable (1943: 53). New discoveries at Ulu Burun might solve the problem. We have recently found on the wreck a new type of copper ingot that has two handles instead of the usual four; these ingots resemble the theorized bronze doors referred to above. Although we are far from certain, it is possible that these “doors” are simply ingots of the new type.*

Until we have raised and restored whatever of the hull survives at Ulu Burun, we must suppose that the ship looked something like those in the Syrian merchant fleet painted in the fourteenth-century Tomb of Kenamun at Thebes (Davies and Faulkner 1947). The wreck, in turn, tells us something about the painting that we might not have guessed. On the decks of the Syrian ships are large storage jars that one might have assumed held fresh water. We have reamed from the Ulu Burun ship, however, that this was not necessarily the case: At least two of the half-dozen such jars on the wreck held stacks of unused Cypriot export pottery (Bass 1987: 710–11), and another held whole pomegranates. The large jars, then, were the shipping barrels of the Bronze Age.


We have presented a sample of what students of the ancient Near East can learn from a single shipwreck. Other Late Bronze Age wrecks lie along the coast of Israel (Wachsmann and Raveh 1984; Galili, Shmueli, and Artzy 1986). None found so far have been as well preserved as those at Cape Gelidonya or Ulu Burun, but surely they exist in the Levant: When I last visited Lebanon, in 1984, it seemed that the walls of almost every coffee house and restaurant were decorated with Canaanite and Phoenician amphoras that had been pulled from the sea.

(1990). Biblical Archaeologist, 53.

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