Divers Discover 1,200-Year-Old Byzantine Shipwreck Loaded With Cargo From All Over the Mediterranean

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A Byzantine-era shipwreck found off the shore of Israel, loaded with cargo from all over the Mediterranean, reveals that traders from the West came to port even after the Islamic conquest of the Holy Land, researchers say.

A surprise storm? An inexperienced captain? Whatever the reason, the merchant ship, made from fir and walnut trees and carrying containers with delights from far-off lands, sank more than 1,200 years ago in the shallow waters off what is today the Israeli coastal community of Ma’agan Michael.

It was around that time the largely Christian Byzantine Empire was losing its grip on this area of the eastern Mediterranean region and Islamic rule was extending its reach.

The shipwreck, dated to the 7th or 8th century, is evidence that trade persisted with the rest of the Mediterranean despite the religious divide, said Deborah Cvikel, a nautical archaeologist at the University of Haifa and director of the dig.

Epoch Times Photo
An aerial view shows the excavation of an approximately 65-foot cargo ship from the 7th or 8th century, which carried goods from all over the Mediterranean, according to Deborah Cvikel, a nautical archaeologist at Haifa University, in Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, Israel, on Oct. 16, 2018. (Reuters/Rony Levinson)
Epoch Times Photo
An underwater view of the excavation shows divers surveying the wreck on Oct. 24, 2021. (Reuters/Alexandros Sotiriou)

“The history books, they usually tell us that … commerce almost stopped. There was no international commerce in the Mediterranean. We had mainly smaller vessels sailing along the coast doing cabotage,” she said.

But this understanding no longer seems to hold true.

“Here we have a large shipwreck, which we think the original ship was around 25 meters [82 feet] long, and … laden with cargo from all over the Mediterranean.”

Artifacts on deck show the ship had docked in Cyprus, Egypt, perhaps Turkey, and maybe as far away as the North African coast.

The excavation is backed by the Israel Science Foundation, Honor Frost Foundation, and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University.

Epoch Times Photo
Artifacts comprised of various cargos from all over the Mediterranean were found in the shipwreck. (Reuters/Amir Yurman)
Epoch Times Photo
The shipwreck’s hull is seen jutting up from underneath the sand in shallow waters off the coast of Ma’agan Michael, Israel. (Reuters/Amir Yurman)

Ship Graveyard in Shallow Seas

The coast of Israel is abundant with ships that sank over the millennia. The wrecks there are more accessible for study than those elsewhere in the Mediterranean because the sea there is shallow and the sandy bottom preserves artifacts.

A storm might shift the sands and expose a relic, which is what happened with the recent discovery at Ma’agan Michael. Two amateur divers spotted a piece of wood sticking out from the seafloor and reported it to authorities.

Eight excavation seasons later, Cvikel’s team has mapped out much of the approximately 65-by-16-foot wooden skeleton that remains.

Using underwater vacuums to clear out 5 feet of sand, they found over 200 amphoras, which still contain stores such as fish sauce and a variety of olives, dates, and figs.

(Reuters/Rony Levinson/Alexandros Sotiriou)

Epoch Times Photo
A diver excavates the remains of the wreck’s antiquated cargo. (Reuters/Amir Yurman)

There were sailing applications like ropes and personal affects such as wooden combs, as well as animals, including the remains of pests, such as beetles and rodents.

“You have to be very attentive because some of the remains, like fish bones, or rat bones, or olive pits, they are so tiny that it could be lost in a split second,” Cvikel said.

Some of the cargo bore symbols of the Christian Byzantine church, while others had writing in Arabic.

Researchers hope to find a hall to display the ship in its entirety to the public, otherwise they will cover it with sand and leave it on the sea bottom, along the countless other wrecks.

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