Excavating a Phoenician shipwreck off the coast of Gozo, Malta

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The discovery of a shipwreck off the coast of Gozo in 2007 provided a rare opportunity to study a Phoenician vessel. (Image: D Gration/University of Malta)

The Phoenicians occupied the coast of the Levant for over 1,000 years, but knowledge of their trade network and practices remains elusive. In 2007, an ancient wreck containing a large cache of ceramic containers was discovered off Malta. This ship proved to be one of only a handful of known Phoenician vessels. Since 2014, further exploration of the site has yielded some very exciting results. Project Director Timmy Gambin and Lucy Woods reveal some of its mysteries, and the challenges of excavating a shipwreck 110m below sea level.

In 2007, the French National Science Foundation conducted a systematic survey of the seabed on the fringes of Xlendi Bay in Gozo, and detected an anomaly that required further investigation. Much to their excitement, the anomaly proved to be the remnants of an archaic Phoenician shipwreck dating to the 7th century BC, with the upper layer of cargo lying exposed on the seabed. Dozens of amphorae were clearly visible and present in various shapes and sizes, but excavation presented a serious challenge: at a depth of 110m, divers could spend just a few minutes at the site before returning to the surface. Most diveable shipwrecks lie at around 50m below sea level or in even shallower waters.

Members of the expedition prepare to recover a freshly excavated group of jars for study on dry land. (Image: D Gration/University of Malta)

More recently, a team of highly trained technical divers led by maritime archaeologist, Dr Timmy Gambin, from the Department of Classics and Archaeology at the University of Malta, descended to explore the site first hand. Their aim was to recover some intact artefacts (including examples of amphorae) in the hope of revealing new information about early Phoenician trade practices.

Into the deep

The culmination of almost a decade of research was realised in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, through exploration of the shipwreck by diving archaeologists and their recovery of 12 objects, some of which were previously unknown in the archaeological record. Of particular interest are a small number of urns that appear to be of local (Gozitan) production. Seemingly a hybrid of local and imported styles, samples from these objects have been sent for various analyses, including DNA, lipid, and thin section. Results from these tests should shed light not only on the provenance of the urns, but also on what they contained.

In order to recover the samples, it was essential that the dive time be maximised. With a direct route to the shipwreck, expert divers could descend in 8 minutes and spend 12 minutes at the site. It would then take a further 2 hours and 30 minutes to transport the findings back to the surface.

A rare urn, which may have been produced locally. (Image: University of Malta/GROPLAN Project)

To create a direct route, a one-tonne mooring block was sourced and rigged as close to the site as was practical, so as to anchor the dive ship. This was then secured using a mooring line, chain, and shackles. Due to the dangerous nature of the dive, only a few highly disciplined experts had access to the site. Hyperbaric doctors specialising in the sorts of disorders that can afflict divers were on board the dive vessel, and there was always an emergency fast RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) on standby.

Given the limited diving time, it was not possible to record the site manually. Instead, a number of experimental techniques were deployed – all visible objects were digitally labelled during the 2014 photogrammetric survey. The survey had already revealed that the ship was carrying at least seven types of ceramic container, including amphorae from the Tyrrhenian region of Italy and others from western Sicily.

Last year, the team was able to recover six complete ceramic objects, as well as numerous ceramic fragments. These containers included further examples of the Tyrrhenian amphorae, a small urn, and a flat-bottomed amphora that has yet to be identified. The fragments have been studied and, when restored, will form two complete western Phoenician amphorae. After their recovery, photogrammetric models were produced of each object.

Looking down over the wreck, as the dive team excavate a corner of the former of the Phoenician vessel. (Image: J Wood/University of Malta)

Evidence collected so far reveals the Phoenicians were sailing through various parts of the central Mediterranean, picking up goods that they clearly believed stood a good chance of turning a profit once they had been shipped elsewhere. The top layer of cargo consists of ceramic containers that were probably transporting everyday consumables such as wine and olive oil. Moreover, the inclusion of grinding stones – a common domestic appliance in everyday use in the ancient world – confirms the diversity of the cargo.

This is an extract from the full article featured in issue 88 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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