Shipwrecks - Archaeological Study of Ancient Nautical Disasters

Archaeological Study of Ancient Nautical Disasters

There are without a doubt thousands of shipwrecks underwater and on dry land; most of them are discovered by accident, although some have been deliberately sought. Here are some of the ancient shipwrecks that have been subjected to careful archaeological study.

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Belitung Shipwreck

Rocky Shore on Belitung Island
Rocky Shore on Belitung Island. Adhi Rachdian

The Belitung Shipwreck is a 9th century Arab or Indian shipwreck discovered in 1998 by a sea-cucumber diver. The wreck lies in the South China Sea north of Belitung Island, Tanjung Pandan, Indonesia, approximately 17 meters below the current water line.

The ship's cargo contained a large number of Tang Dynasty (AD 618-906) ceramics, including Sancai wares. The earliest piece bears an inscription mentioning the third year of Kaicheng, equivalent to AD 838. Other inscriptions date to AD 826, during the reign of Emperor Jing-zong.

Other cargo included lead ballast ingots, a variety of aromatic resins and spices, and numerous Chinese coins, all dated between AD 618-626. The ship had a 15.3 meter long keel with stitched hull planking. The key features include cross-stitched seams with wadding inside and out; a lack of dowels used for edge fastening; a sharp bow with little rake; and an iron and wood grapnel-type anchor.

The Belitung wreck is believed to be of either Arab or Indian construction, based on ship construction methods, and the presence on board of a variety of woods, including Indian or Indonesia Artocarpus and teak. The cargo is entirely Chinese, however, indicating that this ship is prima facie evidence of the international trade between China and either the middle east or India during the Tang dynasty.

Radiocarbon dates on aromatic resin, star anise and the ship's timber were taken, suggesting a probable date between ca AD 680 and 890. The Belitung Shipwreck was excavated by Seabed Explorations between 1998-1999, under the direction of Michael Flecker.

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The Iulia Felix (also spelled Julia Felix) is the name of a Roman corbita that was wrecked in the Adriatic Sea six miles off the coast of the town of Grado during the last part of the 2nd century or first half of the 3rd century AD.  More »

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LaBelle Shipwreck

The La Belle was one of the exploration ships of the French explorer La Salle, wrecked in Matagordo Bay, Texas in the 17th century. In this Articulations archaeological chat from 2001, excavator Barto Arnold discusses the La Belle, as well as the Denbigh, Port Royal, and Padre Islands shipwrecks.

The Oranjemund Shipwreck was discovered on the Atlantic coast of Namibia by diamond miners. It turned out to be a 17th century Portuguese nau, wrecked in a storm on its India Route. More »

Investigating the Quedagh Merchant
Investigating the Quedagh Merchant. (c) 2008 National Geographic

The Quedagh Merchant was an Armenian-owned ship with multinational backers,captured by the notorious Captain Kidd and scuttled off Catalina Island in the Caribbean. The Quedah Merchant was featured in National Geographic's Expedition Week. More »

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Uluburun Shipwreck Reconstruction at the Bochum Museum Exhibition
Uluburun Shipwreck Reconstruction at the Bochum Museum Exhibition. Martin Bahmann

Uluburun is the name of a Late Bronze Age ship, wrecked in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Turkey near Kas in the 14th century BC, six miles from the coast and 50 meters below the water's surface. Recent archaeological research suggests that this ship originated from the Canaanite town of Ugarit. More »