Underwater Archeology: Ulu Burun Shipwreck


It is a general idea that underwater archeology started to be widely used only in the second half of the 20th century. It provided a chance to discover historic monuments, which have been buried under the water for centuries and even millenniums. Many archeologists have been criticizing this method for a long time; nevertheless, one cannot deny that it has many benefits. What is more, it gives a chance to receive information of immense historical value, which cannot be provided by the traditional excavation on land. As far as underwater archeology is concerned, one cannot but mention the shipwrecking as its immensely important field. One of the successful examples of the shipwrecking is the Ulu Burun shipwreck discovered in the 80s. The importance of the vessel found was extreme. Not only did it provide information about the valuable commodities of the Bronze Age, but also gave an idea of how the trade and distribution of commodities were launched. Therefore, the following paper seeks to discuss the main benefits of underwater archeology and the Ulu Burun shipwreck, in particular. Moreover, it aims to prove that underwater archeology provides information, which cannot be accessed by the traditional excavation on land. In addition, the paper seeks to establish how trade and distribution of commodities were launched, by analyzing the Ulu Burun shipwreck.

What Sort of Information Does Underwater Archaeology Provide that Traditional Excavation on Land Cannot?

Knowledge of the collective cultural heritage would be far from complete without monuments buried underwater. Subsidence of the Earth’s crust, numerous earthquakes, rise of the sea level, and changes in the river channels were the main reasons of individual buildings and settlements, as well as whole civilizations, sunk under water. The development of marine navigation was accompanied with the constant marine disasters with vessels; their crews and cargoes were buried at the bottom of the seas and oceans worldwide. Many interesting discoveries, sometimes refuting, established irrefutable facts. Conversely, lifting the veil on the mysteries has been done with the help of underwater archaeology (Durranni, 2005).

The recognition of underwater archeology has developed late due to difficulties in accessing the underwater sites. Beyond all doubt, underwater archeology makes a significant contribution to people’s knowledge of the past. On the one hand, water tends to preserve underwater sites and protect some perishable items, such as wood. On the other hand, the underwater location of sites protects them from inexperienced digging as such sites can be reached only by professional divers.

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One of the most significant fields in underwater archeology is shipwrecking. Shipwrecks are important because they create the so-called “time capsule,” which preserves human artifacts starting from the moment when the ship sinks. While people are wrecking the ship, they also have an access to its remains, especially when the vessel has certain historical significance (Payton, 1991). Moreover, underwater archaeology can provide answers to questions that traditional excavations on land cannot give, such as trade network, ship construction methods, economic ties that existed between the kingdoms, as well as explain numerous historical events.

What Does the Ulu Burun Shipwreck Tell Us about Trade and the Distribution of Commodities in the Late Bronze Age?

Beyond all doubt, one of the most notable findings of marine archaeology is the discovery of the Late Bronze Age Ulu Burun shipwreck. The excavations of the vessel, the age of which is 3300 years (according to the authorities in the world of archaeology), provide valuable information on trade routes and distribution of commodities in the Late Bronze Age Mediterranean. This diving project was the deepest project conducted with a usual scuba at the time. A lot of archeologists consider that the wreck at Ulu Burun, which was built of Lebanese cedar, was a royal ship. It was erected around 1300 BC, the time when Greeks of the Bronze Age were constructing the palace in Mycenae, and the time when pharaoh Akhenaten, along with his wife Nefertiti, ruled Egypt (Bass, 1987).

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Archeologists found a valuable cargo, which was full of ancient raw materials and goods. The main cargo contained ten tons of copper ingots made by Cypriots, who originally stowed them in rows across the hold of the ship. Moreover, archeologists found the large collection of Canaanite jewelry, Egyptian gold, steatite, and silver, and weapons of Aegean and Near Eastern origin. These products were truly multicultural, as they belonged to more than seven different cultures, from Mesopotamia to Sicily, from tropical Africa to northern Europe. As a matter of fact, it is known that it was carrying Mycenaean, Cypriot, Canaanite, Kassite, Egyptian, and Assyrian goods. Therefore, archeologists claim that this was a royal ship, and its products belonged to an official, who represented interests of the king, but was also involved in private trade (Bass, Pulak, Collon, & Weinstein, 1989). 

Some scholars speculate that the ship was of Cypriot origin and design because of the amount of ingots found. The ship carried one ton of tin and ten tons of copper. Therefore, the cargo represents the market of bulk metal in the region of Mediterranean. The tin on the ship was the only pre-Roman tin found with a reasonable provenance. In fact, the question of the tin’s and copper’s provenance has been researched and studied precisely. Consequently, the scholars tried to trace the origin of bun-shaped ingots and copper in the Mediterranean. They have discovered that Cyprus was the main supplier of copper for Ugarit, as the ore was processed locally. The ingot mold came from metallurgical workshops of the kingdom of Ugarit, at the queen’s palace, which was situated in Ras Ibn Hani (Payton, 1991). Archive letters support information that the kingdom of Ugarit exported some manufactured objects, as well as some raw metals, which were re-exported later. Consequently, it becomes evident that the Ulu Burun shipwreck provides valuable information on trading communities and relationships in the region.

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Moreover, during the shipwreck discovery, some other exotic trade goods were found, such as ingots of turquoise, cobalt-blue glass, pottery from different regions, terebinthine resin in amphorae (used as a perfume or cosmetic component), elephant tusks, ebony logs from Egypt, hippopotamus teeth, tortoise and oyster shells, and a host of spices and fruit. One can conclude that such ships as found at Ulu Burun supplied the Mediterranean region with different imported products during the Bronze Age. Therefore, the Ulu Burun wreck provides colorful and detailed scheme of trade routes in the region 3300 years ago (Bass, 1987).

Analyzing the above information, one can note that, during the 14th century BC, the main purpose for sailing was trading, not conquering new territories, as one might think. In addition, the Ulu Burun shipwreck virtually refers to every aspect of research on society and trade in the late Bronze Age Levant and Aegean. One can illuminate the intensity of trade during the Late Bronze Age making research on this shipwreck and others like this.


In conclusion, it has been proven that   the main benefits of underwater archeology are that the sites are more preserved under the water and that their location protects them from inexperienced digging. Moreover, it can provide answers to questions that traditional excavations on land cannot give, such as ship construction methods, trade networks, economic ties that existed between the kingdoms, as well as explain numerous other historical events. One of the most important findings of underwater archaeology is the discovery of the Late Bronze Age Ulu Burun shipwreck, which provides colorful and detailed scheme of trade routes in the Mediterranean 3300 years ago. 

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