1300 BC—A merchant ship, laden with treasures from seven different cultures and commodities of Cypriot origin was traveling on a 1,700-mile trade route when it sank for unknown reasons at Cape Uluburun (near Kas on the south coast of the Antalya region of Turkey). Much knowledge about prehistoric trade and nautical navigation during the late Bronze Age, including secrets that could rewrite the whole story, began a sleep on the sea floor—a 3,300-year-long sleep.
Science was able to answer 1000-year-old questions, driving traditional analysts into desperation and changing the existing historic world view substantially.
Named after the place where it was discovered (Cape Uluburun), the Uluburun is the oldest known shipwreck in the world and a finding of superlatives. She brought answers to many questions, but she also introduced many new mysteries that science has yet to explain, even today.
The Bronze Age
The Uluburun sank during the so-called Late Bronze Age. The Bronze Age—it sounds terribly old, doesn’t it? Indeed it is! It was a time when the invention of the wheel was as remarkable as the invention of social networking is today.
The Bronze Age in itself was the successor to the Stone Age and the predecessor to the Iron Age. It lasted from about 2200 to 800 BC, but did not occur everywhere at once, because different cultures experienced different stages of development in terms of bronze. We are talking here about a general and broad time window.
The namesake of this period was the metal alloy bronze, which comprises 90% copper and 10% tin. The use and processing of metals was already known to humanity, but it was limited to sterling metals (naturally occurring pure metals), such as gold, silver and copper.
The “invention” (mainly in Europe and the Middle East) of humanity’s first alloy (which was much harder than copper) triggered a worldwide change with lasting consequences. We could say the last trip of the Uluburun was in some way a consequence of these changes.
Along with the invention of bronze, the necessity to organize a “metallurgy chain” became apparent. Production needed tin, which was rare and not available everywhere. The appropriate logistics became essential.
With bronze, it became possible to accumulate wealth that was easy to transport; Bronze ingots were a common payment currency of the time, and where there is wealth, conflicts arise. The simultaneous emergence of heavily fortified settlements and the invention of the sword shows that our ancestors experienced troubles with jealous neighbors who tried to get their “undeserved” share.
Bronze also caused a serious upheaval in the social structure. The access to, and control of, resources (such as metals, metallurgy, communications and trade routes) resulted in the emergence of an upper social class and induced differentiation among people, the consequences of which we still feel even today.
The geographically uneven distribution of metal deposits (particularly tin) resulted in a far-reaching and almost global trading network that also spread cultural ideas in addition to goods. Bronze was essentially pioneering the cross-border communication of knowledge between cultures. Even today, good ol’ bronze has an essential word to say in the world of digital communication: No computer works without the elements of bronze. No bronze would mean no online social networks.
While our Uluburun sailed the seas, the world-famous bust of Nefertiti was made in Egypt. Odysseus returned home from his long odyssey. The Egyptian Pharaoh Echnaton established the first monotheistic religion. Moses’ successor Joshua led the Israelites, and the Hittites dominated an area five times larger than Germany. These were turbulent times—from Haithabu to Karnak, as well as at Cape Uluburun on the southern Turkish coast, where a merchant ship with a cargo of priceless goods sank to its grave.
The ship was built of cedar using the so-called “spigot technique,” which involves building the outer hull first and adding the underlying “skeleton” (the frames and bars) later. Even 1,000 years after the demise of the Uluburun, this technique was still used to build Roman and Greek ships.
Archaeological finds in Egypt suggest that the archetype for this ship probably came from ancient Egypt. In particular, Pharaoh Echnaton drove the development of more resilient oceangoing ships to advance trade and transport at the time.
However, a fine structural difference with the Uluburun is that its pegs were not secured by wooden pins. This technique would later be called “Fenike-mortising” by the Romans. The Uluburun was certainly built for use at sea, which refutes the thesis that sailing in the Bronze Age was done exclusively within sight of the coast.
Because only about three percent of the ship’s original hull was recovered, drawings from ancient Egypt, specifically the pictorial representation of the “fleet of Queen Hatshepsut in the land of Punt” (1500 BC), provided a significant visual reference for reconstructing the ship.
After extensive research, we now know:
- The Uluburun was 15 meters long, 5 meters wide and had a draft of 1.4 meters. Her cargo is estimated to have been 20 tons. The width of the ship's trim was 6cm, and the pegs were at a distance of 20cm.
- The ship used a triangular sail, which provided a maximum speed of two nautical miles per hour, and two rudders to maneuver.
- The Turkish research group “360” proved this ship was oceangoing in 2005. By using techniques and materials from the late Bronze Age only, the “360” group built an identical replica of Uluburun and successfully sailed the Mediterranean.
The following is the probable route of the Uluburun. From her home port on the Levantine coast, she sailed fully loaded to her (unknown) Mycenaean destination port. At night, she anchored in ports along the Turkish coast. The planned way back may have then taken her towards Marsa Matruh in northwest (...)