Punic Vessels at shipwreck in Spain

2,300-year-old Punic Vessels uncovered in ancient shipwreck

A team of underwater archaeologists have discovered more than 150 Punic amphorae in the remains of an ancient shipwreck, known as the Binisafuller shipwreck, near the ancient port of Sanitja on the island of Menorca, according to a news report in Popular Archaeology.  The relics have been dated to between 325 and 275 BC, making the shipwreck the oldest documented wreck in the region.

Sanitja, which is located in the Balearic Islands of Spain, is an area rich in history and archaeological finds.  Over the past eight years, the Underwater Field School in Archaeology has researched the ancient port of Sanitja via an intensive survey program and discovered 18 Roman shipwrecks with cargo, Roman amphorae, anchors, lead stocks and weights and other finds. However, the Binisafuller shipwreck is significant because it is the only wreck to pre-date the Roman period city of Sanisera.

Punic Shipwreck Cargo Remains

A view of the Punic shipwreck cargo remains at the Binisafuller shipwreck site. Courtesy Ecomuseum de Cavalleria, Sanisera Field School.

Sanitja, along with the surrounding islands, was conquered by the Romans in 123 BC, due to its ideal position as a natural port of anchorage on the North coast of Menorca. It was protected from the strong winds from the North by a long, curving arm of land which acted as a natural dike, thus creating an underwater natural barrier. For this reason, Sanitja had been a favourite amongst sailors until recent times; it was the case for the Romans, and for an even earlier group of people, the Punics.

The Punics were a group of western Semitic-speaking peoples from Carthage in North Africa who traced their origins to a group of Phoenician settlers, but also to North African Berbers. Unlike other Phoenicians, Punics had a landowning aristocracy who established a rule of the hinterland in Northern Africa and trans-Sahara traderoutes. In later times one of these clans conquered a Hellenistic-inspired empire in Iberia, possibly having a foothold in western Gaul. Like other Phoenician people their urbanized culture and economy was strongly linked to the sea.  Overseas they established control over some coastal regions of Berber North Africa like modern-day Tunisia and Tripolitania (modern-day Libya), Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, the Balearics, Malta, other small islands of the western Mediterranean.

Punics - Seafarers

The Punics were master seafarers. Image source.

The discovery of the Binisafuller wreck increases the knowledge of navigation and the Punic trade in the Balearic Islands between the fourth and third centuries BC, something that is still relatively unknown.  It is believed that many of the amphorae are related to the trade of alcoholic beverages, including the Ebusitan wine (Ibiza), widely consumed by the indigenous population of Menorca.  Others are believed to have carried beer that was made from barley.

However, Sanitja is about much more than Punic amphorae and shipwrecks. As excavations director Fernando Contreras explained in a recent report, "The existence of large amounts of artifacts from different periods speaks to the continuing activity that has taken place on the North coast of Menorca. The combination of land and underwater archaeological investigations in Sanitja are already providing excellent results which will be explored in depth during the next few years."

Featured image: Archaeological students with amphorae in Sanitja Port. Credit: The Sanisera Field School.

By April Holloway

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