A Bronze Age cargo ship laden with the richest trove of ancient goods ever found beneath the sea -- from gold and ivory to glass and copper -- has been discovered at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Turkey.
The ship, which apparently sank about 3,400 years ago, is the oldest to be excavated by archeologists. It sailed before the ancient Greeks fought the Trojan War and at about the time Tutankhamen, or his predecessor, Akhenaten, was on the throne of Egypt.
The ship's nationality has not been determined but it was carrying pottery from at least three places: Mycenaean Greece, Cyprus and the Syria-Palestine region of the early Phoenicians, or Canaanites.
The wreck came to light when an American archeologist happened to ask some Turkish sponge divers whether they had seen anything unusual while working underwater in the area. One told of seeing an object resembling a "biscuit with ears." Asked to draw the shape, the diver sketched something that looked like the copper ingots known to have been produced in ancient Cyprus.
A quick survey of the site located by the sponge diver confirmed in 1983 that a wreck was there. A full-scale excavation was started this past summer.
"I think I can say without any hesitation this is the most exciting and important shipwreck that's ever been found in the Mediterranean," said George F. Bass, a pioneer in underwater archeology who is in charge of the excavation. Bass, who has been excavating ancient shipwrecks for nearly 25 years, described the find yesterday at a news conference sponsored by the National Geographic Society.
Bass, a professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University, said that when excavation is complete, perhaps in five years, the find will shed new light on many subjects, from ancient shipbuilding methods to trade patterns in the ancient world.
Bass said the ship, which appeared to be about 65 feet long, apparently was heading west, hugging the rocky Turkish coast, when it went down, perhaps in a storm that blew it onto the rocks. The ship did not capsize but settled, with its cargo intact, on a sloping bottom that ranges from 145 feet to 170 feet deep. The site is less than 75 yards off Cape Ulu Burun, near the town of Kas.
The depth probably prevented salvage efforts at the time, Bass speculated. Although it preserved the ship's cargo, it hampers excavation. Because of the pressure, divers can work for only two 20- to 25-minute shifts each day.
The ship's main cargo appears to have been copper. About 150 ingots, totaling about six tons, were found, along with a smaller number of tin ingots. Bass said he believes that the ship had picked up the tin in Syria, a known source of that metal, and sailed west to get the copper from Cyprus, a major copper exporter of that time. It probably was heading for Turkey or Greece, where the raw materials would have been made into various objects.
Copper and tin are alloyed to make bronze, the dominant metal used in the ancient world before the Iron Age began around 1000 B.C.
The ship's presumed age is based on the finding of a Mycenaean pottery cup of a style known to have been made in the 14th century B.C.
Historians give the name Mycenaean to Greeks of the Bronze Age. In the Iron Age, they are called simply Greeks. In the same way, Canaanites were the Bronze Age ancestors of the Iron Age Phoenicians.
Along with the metals were almost two dozen ingots of cobalt blue glass, now the oldest known examples of manufactured glass. The ingots are disk-shaped, about seven inches in diameter and two inches thick. Bass said he believes they were destined to be melted down and recast into jewelry or drinking vessels.
Also aboard was a gold goblet, the most intrinsically valuable object found so far, and some gold jewelry. One jewelry piece is in the shape of a bird of prey and may have been part of a necklace, along with the amber and faience beads found nearby.
Divers also recovered an elephant tusk and a hippopotamus tooth, both forms of ivory that were used in ancient times.
The wreck yielded 36 Canaanite amphoras, pottery jars with pointed bottoms, filled with various objects, including glass beads, possible amber beads, an arsenic compound, pitch and several kinds of seeds that were too waterlogged to be identified immediately.
The ship also carried a 5 1/2-foot-tall storage jar in which archeologists found stacks of Cypriot bowls and jugs. Divers also recovered a few finished items, including bronze weapons such as daggers, spearheads and a sword.
The heaviest items were eight stone anchors, each weighing between 600 and 800 pounds. Bass said stone anchors had never been found in an ancient shipwreck.
Although there were no human remains, Bass said there was evidence that the ship carried a Greek of some consequence. Divers found a small personal seal of the sort used to stamp correspondence. It bore Greek markings and, Bass conjectured, may well have belonged to a merchant accompanying his goods. CAPTION: Map, Wreckage of Bronze Age Ship. By Dave Cook -- The Washington Post; Picture, Pottery vessels are among objects recovered after 3,400 years under water. By William Curtsinger Copyright (c) National Geographic Society