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A diver from the underwater unit of the Naples Police examines a piece of obsidian on the seafloor near the island of Capri, Italy.	Source: Naples Superintendency for Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape

“Neolithic Shipwreck” Was Likely Just A Canoe, But the Odd Obsidian Is Real

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Over the past few weeks major news outlets have written about the recovery of a chunk of volcanic glass from a “Neolithic shipwreck,” of the coast of Italy. What you need to know, is that it was not a ship, but a canoe, and there exists not a solitary shred of evidence to suggest the canoe sank in the Neolithic.

In October, a team of divers from the underwater unit of the Naples Police identified a large chunk of chiseled obsidian, or volcanic glass, on what they claimed was “possibly” a New Stone Age (Neolithic) craft, dating to more than 5,000 years ago.

The so-called “ship” was wrecked of the coast of Capri, in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the Sorrentine Peninsula, on the southern side of the Gulf of Naples in Italy. In a press release, the Superintendency of Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape (SABAP) for the Naples Metropolitan Area, said “shipwreck” location is close to the sea cave, “Grotta Azzurra,” or Blue Grotto.

It was “suspected” that the objects might represent the cargo of a Neolithic wreck, the lead archaeologist told Live Science, and that if so, the find would represent "a mind-blowing" archaeological discovery. However, many of these speculations have been blurred in further news coverage, presenting a misleading story about what is, at the moment, a fairly mundane discovery.

The obsidian core that is the focus of the speculation, hauled up onto the investigation boat. (Naples Superintendency for Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape)

The obsidian core that is the focus of the speculation, hauled up onto the investigation boat. (Naples Superintendency for Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape)

When “Expected” And “Perhaps” Get Diluted

Lying at a depth of between 30.5 meters [100 feet] to 39.6 meters [130 feet], in October, divers from the underwater unit of the Naples Police recovered “one” obsidian artifact on the seabed. The researchers said, others “are expected” to be found in the same area. However, Newsweek pluralized the discovery and said that the chunk belonged to “a collection of obsidian artifacts.” This is yet unfounded, for at the time of writing, there is only “one” object.

In October, the researchers said the rare obsidian artifact “perhaps” represents a Neolithic cargo, which sank somewhere between 6000 BC and 3500 BC. While the notion that a crew of Neolithic navigators were shipping artifacts around Europe is certainly newsworthy, it should be made clear that at this time, not a shred of supporting evidence has been identified to support the ship’s “possible” Neolithic origins.

Archaeologists say the underwater area will be thoroughly searched for any other artifacts or parts of the ‘prehistoric ship’ that may have survived, but so far nothing has materialized. (Naples Superintendency for Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape)

Archaeologists say the underwater area will be thoroughly searched for any other artifacts or parts of the ‘prehistoric ship’ that may have survived, but so far nothing has materialized. (Naples Superintendency for Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape)

Researchers Urging Caution

Sean Kingsley, editor-in-chief of Wreckwatch magazine, told LiveScience that some experts “have urged caution” regarding this interpretation of the obsidian artifact. But while urging caution, Kingsley also added that the discovery of a Neolithic wreck would be “mind-blowing,” and that it would be “one of the top five underwater strikes of all time.”

However, the diving specialist said that for now, “the jury is out.” He speculates, that perhaps the find is an “isolated case of jettison when a canoe-boat got caught in a storm.” Furthermore, he suggested that it might be the case that the cargo was “a ritual gift to the gods made by the Neolithic men and women from Capri's 'Grotta Delle Felci' settlement?" This site has yielded hundreds of Neolithic artifacts and fossils of Neolithic people. But again, this is all pure speculation, “assuming” the wrecked craft was indeed Neolithic in origin.

There Simply Hasn’t Been Enough Time To Conclude Accurately

The so-called “Neolithic obsidian object” that was identified in October measures approximately 28 cm [11 inches] by 20 cm [8 inches] across, and weighs more than 7.7 kilograms [17 pounds].

However, calling this object “Neolithic,” is taking a big liberty, for no other evidence supports the claim. Sandro Barucci, a specialist on ancient maritime culture said, before the researchers can talk about the “Neolithic,” in-depth technical examinations must be carried out by expert archaeologists, “and I do not believe that this could have been done in such a short time".

Another somewhat exaggerated aspect of this discovery is the term “shipwreck”. For many, a shipwreck conjures images of huge medieval sailing ships battling stormy seas. But Dr. Kingsley said the hypothetical craft off the coast off Capri would have been “more of a wooden canoe.” While he said it was maybe strengthened for long-distance oar power, with a step to secure a simple sail, it’s still barely a “ship”!

Much Ado About Nothing

Sandro Barucci also said that while the remains of Neolithic hulls have been found in several European freshwater lakes and rivers, never before has one been recovered from the Mediterranean Sea. This is not to say there was no Neolithic sea transport, but the Mediterranean Sea supports the wood-eating mollusk, Teredo navalis, which have greatly disposed of wood from the Neolithic period.

To settle the case, in an effort to determine the presence of a canoe, SABAP superintendent Mariano Nuzzo, said diving operations will now aim to recover further items from the seabed, which “might” prove once and for all whether the vessel was indeed built in the Neolithic period, or not.

The term ‘much ado about nothing,” must be haunting the research team.

Top image:  A diver from the underwater unit of the Naples Police examines a piece of obsidian on the seafloor near the island of Capri, Italy.   Source: Naples Superintendency for Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape

By Ashley Cowie

 
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Ashley

Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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