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Representational image of the Cape Gelidonya shipwreck generated by AI. Source: Krtola / Adobe Stock

Ancient Underwater Trade Secrets at the Cape Gelidonya Shipwreck


When a Turkish sponge diver discovered a shipwreck in the 1950s, little did he know that he had stumbled on the ancient remains of a ship laden with Bronze Age cargo. Later dubbed the Cape Gelldonya shipwreck, it ended up offering a fascinating window into what was once a “global” Mediterranean-centered economy that stretched from the Ancient Near-East to the Baltic region, dominated by ancient Near-Eastern and Cypriot actors.

The Story of the Cape Gelidonya Shipwreck Discovery

In 1954, Kemal Aras, a sponge diver from Bodrum, Turkey, discovered a collection of ancient artifacts during one of his dives off the coast of Cape Gelidonya in southwestern Turkey. Cape Gelidonya is a cape on the Teke peninsula, which is connected to the Taurus Mountains of southern Anatolia, near to which there is a group of five small islands.

In Greco-Roman antiquity, Cape Gelidonya was referred to as Chelidonia, which apparently means “swallows.” The largest of the five islands, the modern name of which is Devecitasi Adasi, is known to have underwater rocky protrusions near its shores which could easily cause trouble for a passing wooden ship.

At the time, Kemal Aras’ story caught the interest of American amateur archaeologist Peter Throckmorton who was cataloguing shipwrecks along the southwest Turkish coast. In 1959 Throckmorton confirmed the location of the site, recognizing that this was a very ancient shipwreck. The next year he was able to convince the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania to organize an excavation.

Cape Gelidonya in Turkey with its view of the Mediterranean. (nakedking / Adobe Stock)

Cape Gelidonya in Turkey with its view of the Mediterranean. (nakedking / Adobe Stock)

Excavations of the Cape Gelidonya Shipwreck

The excavation of the Cape Gelidonya shipwreck began in 1960 under the leadership of the diving archaeologist George Bass. The archaeological work involved is notable for being the first shipwreck excavation that was carried out to completion on the seabed, and according to the standards of terrestrial excavation. It was also the first to be directed by a diving archaeologist.

The Cape Gelidonya shipwreck dates to about 1200 BC. The ship probably belonged to a metalsmith who was most likely Cypriot, Syrian or Phoenician. The reason for its untimely demise is that the ship appears to have ripped its hull on a rocky pinnacle off the shores of Devecitasi Adasi while passing by the cape.

The artifacts found at the site are mostly tools and raw materials for metalsmithing. They include scrap bronze tools and weapons, copper and tin ingots, a possible stone anvil and stone polishers. These artifacts all suggest that the metalsmith may have been onboard. While archaeologists are unsure, the metalsmith could have simply been relocating or he could have been a traveling artisan.

The ship was constructed using mortise-and-tenon joints like in Greco-Roman antiquity. Brushwood was used as dunnage, which possibly explains why Odysseus placed brushwood in one of his ships in the Odyssey.

Phoenician ship discovered carved on the face of a sarcophagus. (Elie / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Phoenician ship discovered carved on the face of a sarcophagus. (Elie / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Broader Context for the Cape Gelidonya Shipwreck

The Cape Gelidonya vessel would have been active during what is called the Late Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean (1600 to 1200 BC). During this time, an extensive trade network spanned the Mediterranean. This trade network appears to have been predominantly controlled by ancient Egypt and the Phoenicians city-states.

The Phoenicians were a people that lived in the coastal Levant, a region consisting roughly of modern-day Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. The Phoenicians were organized in a loose confederation of independent city-states that flourished between 1500 BC and 300 BC. The main Phoenician cities were Sidon, Tyre, Byblos, and Arwad. Although Byblos had been in existence since at least the 3rd millennium BC, the other cities all arose around 1500 BC.

The Phoenicians were famous for being maritime traders, likely motivated by the fact that they were confined to a narrow strip of land with limited agricultural potential. For this reason, it is natural that the Phoenicians turned to maritime trade to increase their prosperity.

The Late Bronze Age is known to have been a time of economic prosperity for the Phoenician city-states. Egyptian influence in the eastern Mediterranean collapsed around 1175 BC with the migration of the Sea Peoples, including the Philistines known for settling the southern Levant.

This freed the Phoenicians from foreign domination. By the 8th century BC, they had founded trading settlements across the Mediterranean, including Carthage. Phoenician traders even went beyond the Strait of Gibraltar to reach Britain.

The Phoenicians were not the only powerful maritime traders in the Late Bronze Age, however. In 1200 BC ancient Egypt still would have been an important player in eastern Mediterranean trade relations. The ancient Egyptians are known to have traded with regions as far off as northern Europe. In one example, glass beads of Egyptian origin have been found among Danish grave goods dating to the same period.

The primary product that drew ancient traders from the eastern Mediterranean to Denmark appears to have been amber, which was highly prized for making ornaments in the eastern Mediterranean. Another part of northwestern Europe that appears to have played a role in the eastern Mediterranean economy was Britain which may have been a source of tin. Egypt, despite its status as a Bronze Age superpower, however, may have been reliant on Phoenician traders to actually get products from and to these distant locations.

Diver at Cape Gelidonya in Turkey. (anemone / Adobe Stock)

Diver at Cape Gelidonya in Turkey. (anemone / Adobe Stock)

Meaning of the Cape Gelidonya Shipwreck

Before the Cape Gelidonya shipwreck, it was generally believed that trade during the Late Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean was dominated by the Mycenaean Greeks. This is due to Greek artifacts found at terrestrial archaeological sites dating to that time. The Cape Gelidonya site convinced archaeologists, such as George Bass, father of underwater archaeology, that it was actually the Phoenicians who dominated maritime trade at this time.

Another important shipwreck that adds to the picture outlined by the Cape Gelidonya site is the Uluburun shipwreck. This shipwreck was discovered in 1982 off the coast of southwestern Turkey. The Uluburun shipwreck contains a diverse assortment of artifacts. The artifacts include copper and tin ingots for making bronze, gold jewelry as well as jewelry made from semi-precious stones such as agate and carnelian, and exotic raw materials such as Ostridge eggs and unworked elephant tusks.

The cultural regions represented in this shipwreck include the Near-East, the Mediterranean region, the Baltic and equatorial Africa. The Uluburun shipwreck is older than the Cape Gelidonya shipwreck. It dates to around 1330 BC and appears to have been an elite shipment of goods, possibly gifts between kings or wealthy merchants. It is also believed to be Canaanite or Cypriot by ownership. The geographic extent of trade networks implied by the variety of artifacts and the fact that it is likely a Canaanite or Cypriot ship suggests the level of influence the Near-Eastern trading centers, such the Phoenician city states, had on the ancient international economy.

The Cape Gelidonya Shipwreck and the Bronze Age

The Cape Gelidonya ship appears to have belonged to a traveling metalsmith. Both the Uluburun shipwreck and the Cape Gelidonia shipwreck contained shipments of copper and tin ingots, required for making bronze. This cargo suggests that Canaanite and Cypriot traders had control over the trade of material necessary for bronze working. These sites thus reflect not only the extent of the trade networks being influenced by Cypriot and Canaanite traders, but also the influence they had on two of the most important commodities of the Bronze Age; copper and tin.

Copper was relatively easy to obtain in the eastern Mediterranean. A major source of copper during the Bronze Age and throughout history is the island of Cyprus. In fact, the name of the island in Greek, Kupros, is the ultimate origin of the modern English word copper. Copper deposits in Palestine, Turkey, and Iran were also important sources of copper in the ancient world.

Tin, the other component of bronze, is rarer in the immediate vicinity of the Mediterranean region. Tin is typically found in hydrothermal deposits in conjunction with granite or granitoid rocks. Tin from tin veins in granite is called hard rock tin. Hard rock tin would have been too difficult to access for ancient tin-miners. As a result, the main source of tin would have been the mineral cassiterite.

Cassiterite is a tin-bearing oxide which forms from the weathering of tin deposits. Cassiterite is eroded and carried by rivers and streams resulting in cassiterite nuggets, analogous to gold nuggets found in rivers during the California gold rush of the mid-19th century. The cassiterite tin nuggets would also have been collected in the same way, through panning at rivers. After recovering the tin bearing cassiterite nuggets, the tin could be smelted from the cassiterite with charcoal and combined with smelted copper to make bronze.

Bronze is stronger than pure copper tools or stone tools. This would have made bronze an attractive material for making tools, weapons and container vessels. The disadvantage of bronze though is that tin is relatively rare in the Mediterranean region, which lacks major tin deposits, although there are minor deposits, such as in the eastern Egyptian desert. Most regions known for having major tin deposits, Thailand, Bolivia, Indonesia, etc., are quite far from western Asia.

For this reason, a civilization which invested heavily in bronze in the eastern Mediterranean would have to rely heavily on long-distance trade. Ancient texts from the Mesopotamia and Anatolia suggest reliance on imported tin. This reliance on imported tin for making bronze could explain the reason for maintaining the long-distance trade networks that existed in the ancient Near-Eastern, Mediterranean, and Mesopotamian worlds.

As the name implies, during the Bronze Age the essential tools of industry were made of bronze. Furthermore, the most advanced weapons were made of bronze. If the ability to make bronze was essential to maintaining the economic and military strength of ancient empires like Assyria, Egypt and the Hittites, it makes sense that these empires would have taken an interest in maintaining far-flung trade networks to access tin.

The likely tin sources for the eastern Mediterranean and ancient Near-Eastern region include Iran, central Asia, the eastern Egyptian desert and Britain, most of which could be accessed by land. The exception of course would be Britain.

Maritime trade played an especially important role at this time since it was the only alternative to land-based trade. Land-based trade was slow and dangerous. Maritime trade via ship was relatively fast and, with expenditure on a large navy, was relatively safe. Access to tin by a maritime trade source would have advantages to an overland source as a result.

A reconstruction of the interior of the Bronze Age Uluburun shipwreck, 1330-1300 BC. (Panegyrics of Granovetter / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

A reconstruction of the interior of the Bronze Age Uluburun shipwreck, 1330-1300 BC. (Panegyrics of Granovetter / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Unraveling Mysteries: The Bronze Smith of the Cape Gelidonya Shipwreck

The Cape Gelidonya ship was not a trading vessel, but it does nonetheless reflect the demand for bronze and bronze working expertise. The bronze smith who owned the ship may represent a class of traveling artisans who travelled across the Mediterranean region bringing their skills to whoever would pay them.

In this way, he may have been akin to a modern freelancer, constantly on the road accepting work as he went. The same way a modern professional might bring her laptop and work while staying temporarily in a city while traveling, the metalsmith may have brought his scrap bronze tools, anvil and polishing stones.

There are several examples of traveling artisans in Greco-Roman antiquity who worked as they travelled bringing their livelihood with them. A famous example is the Apostle Paul who worked part-time as a tentmaker as he travelled the eastern Mediterranean region proclaiming his Christian message. Is it possible that this traveling Bronze Age artisan also had a larger reason for his travel? Could he have been in the employ of a king or city-state traveling to a specific destination to which he never arrived?

Regardless of the actual purpose of the ship, the Cape Gelidonya shipwreck provides a window into the economic and commercial world of the ancient Mediterranean. Analysis of its remains offer a glimpse into an ancient international economy dominated by the trade of copper and tin and the expertise of bronze working the same way that the modern international economy is dominated by the trade of platinum-group metals for electronics and the expertise of computer science.

It also suggests the major players of the ancient political economy. The same way that the modern economy is dominated by nations such as the United States or China, the economy of the Late Bronze Age in the ancient Mediterranean was dominated by the Canaan, Cyprus, and ancient Egypt.

The Relevance of the Cape Gelidonya Shipwreck

The Cape Gelidonya shipwreck was the first underwater excavation to be completed. It also provided a better understanding of the maritime trade network that existed at the end of the late Bronze Age. The items on the ship were primarily of ancient Near-Eastern and Cypriot origin, showing which regions were dominating the “global” economy of the ancient Mediterranean at the time.

Large bodies of water have been major centers of trade, commerce and migration since the first boats were made by Aboriginal Australians to voyage to Australia 60,000 years ago. The Cape Gelidonya shipwreck shows that the Mediterranean Sea is no exception to this fact.

Top image: Representational image of the Cape Gelidonya shipwreck generated by AI. Source: Krtola / Adobe Stock

By Caleb Strom


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Caleb Strom's picture


Caleb Strom is currently a graduate student studying planetary science. He considers himself a writer, scientist, and all-around story teller. His interests include planetary geology, astrobiology, paleontology, archaeology, history, space archaeology, and SETI.

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