World’s Oldest Deep-Sea Shipwreck Discovered a Mile Beneath the Mediterranean Sea

Archaeologists recovered two amphorae from the 3,300-year-old wreck site, which sheds new light on ancient maritime navigation

Jacob Sharvit and Karnit Bahartan​​​​​​​
Jacob Sharvit and Karnit Bahartan examine the two amphorae recovered from the wreck. Emil Aladjem / Israel Antiquities Authority

More than three millennia ago, a sinking merchant vessel settled about 5,900 feet beneath the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. Its hundreds of storage jars, called Canaanite amphorae, spilled into heaps on the seafloor.

Archaeologists recently recovered two of those jars, which are thought to date to between 1400 and 1300 B.C.E., during the late Bronze Age. According to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), which announced the discovery this week, the wreck is the oldest ever found in the deep sea (the depth at which light starts to dwindle, around 656 feet).

“The discovery of this boat now changes our entire understanding of ancient mariner navigational skills,” Jacob Sharvit, director of maritime archaeology for the IAA, tells the New York Times’ Franz Lidz. “It is the very first to be found at such a great distance [from the shore] with no line of sight to any landmass. From this geographical point, only the horizon is visible all around.”

The site is located some 55 miles off Israel’s coast. Sharvit says that without access to navigational technologies like compasses and astrolabes, ancient sailors would have needed a comprehensive understanding of celestial navigation to travel so far from land.

Amphorae on the seafloor
Energean's cameras captured piles of amphorae resting on the seafloor. Energean

Discoveries of this kind are astonishingly rare. Only two other Bronze Age shipwrecks that once carried cargo have been found in the Mediterranean. Both vessels, however, sank near Turkey’s coast, reports CBS News. They are also hundreds of years younger than the newly identified wreck.

Energean, a London-based energy company, discovered the 3,300-year-old cargo during a survey of the seafloor last summer. Pilots captured images of the amphorae using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) controlled via joysticks from the surface.

Israeli law mandates that companies report such discoveries, so Energean staffers sent their images of the wreck site to the IAA.

“I almost fell off my chair,” Sharvit tells Haaretz’s Ruth Schuster. “The moment I realized they were Bronze Age jars, I understood this was a very ancient, important find. How important, I didn’t know yet.”

Two amphorae
Researchers think the storage jars date to between 1400 and 1300 B.C.E. Emil Aladjem / Israel Antiquities Authority

There was just one problem: The IAA doesn’t have submersible technology capable of reaching such depths. Officials contacted Energean and asked if the company would be willing to conduct a recovery mission.

“It took us no time to agree,” Eliana Fischler, a spokesperson for Energean, tells Haaretz. “We knew that if we didn’t do it, nobody would.”

After months of planning, the company lowered the ROV—equipped with specially designed attachments—into the sea. After a three-hour descent, it reached the bottom of the Mediterranean. Per Scientific American’s Ilan Ben Zion, operators on the surface took high-resolution videos of the site. They then selected two amphorae to retrieve, which the ROV shuttled safely to the surface.

Removing the jars
Removing one of the jars from the seafloor at a depth of roughly 5,900 feet Energean

Nobody knows what caused the doomed vessel to sink. Was it a storm? A leak? A pirate attack? “Whatever happened, it seems to have happened fast,” Sharvit tells Haaretz. “If it sank in a storm and was starting to sink, they would have tried to make it lighter by casting off weight to save it. We saw no sign of that.”

Due to the relative calm at more than 5,000 feet, the wreck may be better preserved than other vessels resting at shallower depths, according to Shelley Wachsmann, a nautical archaeologist at Texas A&M University who was not involved in the research.

“Anything that got buried in the sediment is going to survive there, and it’s probably going to be in a better condition,” Wachsmann tells Scientific American.

While no remains of the ship are visible, researchers estimate it measured between 39 and 46 feet long. Because deep-sea missions are notoriously challenging and expensive, Sharvit has no plans to revisit the site. Still, he wonders if wooden beams could be hiding beneath the amphorae, waiting to be discovered.

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