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A 13-foot anchor found by the Ottoman shipwreck.   Source: ©Enigma Recoveries

A Dozen Mediterranean Shipwrecks Reveal Global Trade


Marine archaeologists have found a large number of shipwrecks in a deep body of water known as the Levantine Basin in the Eastern Mediterranean. Experts have been looking for these wrecks for many years. These finds are allowing us an insight into the evolution of trade in the Mediterranean and also the birth of globalization and the modern world.

The Eastern Mediterranean was criss-crossed by trade networks for centuries, if not millennia. Marine archaeologists have been trying to locate the many wrecks that must have sunk to the bottom of the sea during this time. Experts from the British company Enigma Recoveries found a large number of wrecks, including those from Hellenistic times, the Roman Empire, Early Islamic Caliphates and the Ottoman Empire in 2015. They were located in the ‘Levantine Basin, a deep-water area that had attracted less attention for archaeologists than the western Mediterranean’ reports N World. This area is located between Lebanon and Cyprus.

Map of the Mediterranean Sea and subdivisions with Levantine Basin right (East). (Grandiose / CC BY SA 3.0)

Map of the Mediterranean Sea and subdivisions with Levantine Basin right (East). (Grandiose / CC BY SA 3.0)

Graveyard of ships

Sean Kingsley, an archaeologist who works with Enigma is quoted by The Guardian as saying:

“This is truly ground-breaking, one the most incredible discoveries under the Mediterranean”.

The wrecks were first identified by robots some 2km (1.2 miles) beneath the surface. The experts then used the latest technology to map and record the shipwrecks. “All the remains were carefully recorded using a suite of digital photography, HD video, photomosaics and multibeams” The Guardian reports the company’s co-director Steven Vallery. Divers subsequently removed many of the more valuable items from the site and there was a treasure trove of objects retrieved.

The oldest wreck that was found was 2,200 years old and dates to near the end of the Hellenistic period.  It appears that it sank in a storm. The company believes that it went under ‘while its crew were at prayer owing to the discovery of religious objects on its deck’ reports N World. The wreck is very well-preserved given its date and the dramatic way it sunk.

An iron shield and copper shield submerged in mud with other items from the Ottoman wreck. (©Enigma Recoveries)

An iron shield and copper shield submerged in mud with other items from the Ottoman wreck. (©Enigma Recoveries)

‘Like finding a new planet’

In total, a cluster of a dozen wrecks was found in the muddy bed. Kingsley told The Daily Mail that “For an archaeologist, it’s the equivalent of finding a new planet”. The majority of these ships were merchantmen and involved in trade. The Daily Mail reports that “The ships were recovered in ancient 'shipping lanes' that served spice and silk trades of the Greek, Roman and Ottoman empires, from 300 BC onwards”.

Perhaps the most significant find in the cluster of wrecks was a 17 th century Ottoman vessel, that was described by the company as ‘an absolute colossus’ according to The Guardian. It was massive and its desk could have held two regular-sized ships of the period. Kingsley told The Daily Mail that ‘At 43 metres long and with a 1,000-ton burden, it is one of the most spectacular examples of maritime technology and trade in any ocean’. It is believed that the ship dates from the reign of Sultan Murad IV and it sunk on a journey between Egypt and Istanbul around 1630.

Chinese porcelain from the Ottoman ship dated to around 1630. (©Enigma Recoveries)

Chinese porcelain from the Ottoman ship dated to around 1630. (©Enigma Recoveries)

Treasures from all over the globe

A treasure trove of goods was recovered by divers. The cargo contained goods identified as being from 14 different cultures and they came from an area that stretched from Italy to China. The Daily Mail reports that, “This includes the earliest Chinese porcelain retrieved from a Mediterranean wreck”. This ware was made in an Imperial kiln during the reign of the last Ming Emperor. These finds reveal that the archaeologists found not only wrecks but also a previously unknown trade route that ran from East Asia via the Red Sea into the Mediterranean.

The hold of the Ottoman vessel revealed much about the times and globalization. The Chinese porcelain would have been used to drink coffee by the Turks. Some very early clay pipes were also retrieved, and this suggests that subjects of the Ottoman Sultan smoked tobacco despite it being prohibited and a capital offence. We see in the items recovered the emergence of modern forms of consumption and how trade networks were transforming cultures and creating a global society.

Ottoman coffee pot. (©Enigma Recoveries)

Ottoman coffee pot. (©Enigma Recoveries)

Birth of globalization

Kingsley told The Guardian that the goods recovered ‘are remarkably cosmopolitan for pre-modern shipping of any era’. They indicate that there was a truly international market from an early period. The finds demonstrate how globalisation evolved and that the process was rapidly advancing in the 17 th century based on the finds from the Ottoman vessels.

Most of the finds were made in 2015, but such was the post-excavation process that it the company’s findings have only been published now. The items recovered from the 17 th-century ship were impounded by the Cypriot authorities. They claimed the shipwreck was in their territorial waters. It was later proved that the merchantman had been found in international waters. The company now hopes that the priceless objects will eventually go on public display in a museum.

Top image: A 13-foot anchor found by the Ottoman shipwreck.   Source: ©Enigma Recoveries

By Ed Whelan



This is fantastic news and I look forward to seeing more content on the finds from these wrecks. I would like to point out to the author that the very great depth of these finds makes it impossible for divers to have recovered anything. As seen in at least the one photo, ROV’s would be used.

These remotely operated vehicles are quite capable, but due to the complexities of using them and the expense of operating at such great depth the mapping and excavation of a site is generally kept a minimum and concentrated on basic measurements, photo documentation and object retrieval. Shallower sites which are accessible to divers can receive much more attention.


Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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