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Images of the exploration of the Bronze Age copper ingot shipwreck, at the Bay of Antalya. Source: Mateusz Popek/ Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń

World's Oldest Copper Haulage Shipwreck Redefines ‘Wreck’


Scientists from the Center of Underwater Archaeology at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Poland, have examined what is believed to be the world's oldest known shipwreck used for transporting copper bars. The remnants of this Bronze Age vessel were found off the coast of Turkey, and is challenging the conventional understanding of underwater wrecks.

New Definition of What Constitutes a Wreck

Typically associated with sunken structural remains, the term "wreck" has been redefined by underwater archaeologists at this site, who have not yet found physical fragments of the ship itself, such as wood or anchors. According to Professor Andrzej Pydyn, in the Nicolaus Copernicus University report, despite the absence of structural evidence, the presence of copper bars scattered at the site indicates a maritime disaster, leading experts to confidently classify the find as a shipwreck.

The location near the dangerous navigational waters exiting the Bay of Antalya, coupled with the arrangement of copper ingots on the seabed, supports the theory that the ship met its end after colliding with rocks. The steep underwater terrain where the cargo lies suggests a swift sinking. The copper bars, each weighing approximately 20 kilograms (44lbs), have been identified as the primary artifacts, hinting at a significant historical trading route during the Bronze Age.

Underwater archaeologist releasing a copper into from the site in Bay of Antalya, Turkey(Mateusz Popek/ Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń)

Underwater archaeologist releasing a copper into from the site in Bay of Antalya, Turkey(Mateusz Popek/ Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń)

Underwater archaeologists face challenges such as the degradation of organic materials like wood, which is rapidly consumed by marine organisms unless buried under sediments. Professor Pydyn noted that the Mediterranean's warm, saline waters, conducive to the ship borer pest, contrast with the better-preserved wrecks of the colder Baltic Sea. So the total absence of wood at the site aligns with the destructive tendencies observed in similar Mediterranean environments.

Logging Mediterranean Maritime Trade

This exploration is part of a broader initiative to document and analyze ancient maritime routes and shipwrecks, contributing valuable insights into the Bronze Age's commercial and cultural exchanges. Preliminary analysis of the copper suggests contamination, a detail that contrasts with the purer material found in later shipwrecks like the famous Uluburun, hinting at the antiquity of the find.

The discovery has reignited interest in the chronology of copper trade and maritime activity in the Mediterranean. By examining the shape and makeup of the copper bars, researchers can trace the evolution of trade networks and technological advancements across civilizations. The wreck's cargo, primarily composed of copper but also containing other materials, offers a snapshot of the extensive trade networks that once spanned the Mediterranean.

The finding underscores the importance of underwater archaeology in uncovering humanity's past maritime endeavors. It also highlights the role of local knowledge, such as that provided by sponge divers, in locating these invaluable historical sites. As underwater archaeologists continue to explore and analyze this and other shipwrecks, they unravel the complex tapestry of ancient trade, technology, and cultural interaction that shaped the world as we know it today.

The Nicolaus Copernicus University team plans to continue their underwater research, hoping to uncover more artifacts and further our understanding of Bronze Age maritime history. This discovery not only sheds light on the past but also underscores the ongoing relevance of archaeological research in understanding human history's depth and breadth.

This article was co-written with OpenAI's GPT-4.0 model, using the Nicolaus Copernicus University article, “Prehistory drowned in the sea” by Marcin Behrendt.

Top image: Images of the exploration of the Bronze Age copper ingot shipwreck, at the Bay of Antalya. Source: Mateusz Popek/ Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń

By Ancient Origins


Behrendt, Marcin 2024. “Prehistory drowned in the sea”. Nicolaus Copernicus University. Available at:

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