“Birth of globalisation” revealed in shipwrecks

Shipwreck: Seann McAuliffe (Via Wikimedia Commons)

By Will Howell

A team of archaeologists have discovered a cache of shipwrecks that may help uncover some mysteries of premodern trade. The fleet of wrecks was found in the Levantine Basin, the Easternmost part of the Mediterranean, and contain Hellenistic, Roman, early Islamic and Ottoman ships thought to have sunk between the 3rd Century BCE and the 19th Century.

The Enigma Shipwrecks Project was the team behind the find, and used cutting-edge remote and robotic technology to discover, map and document the finds. Co-Director of the project, Steven Vallery, said “In the Levantine Basin, the Enigma wrecks lie beyond any country’s territory. All the remains were carefully recorded using a suite of digital photography, HD video, photomosaics and multibeams. For science and underwater exploration, these finds are a giant leap forward.” 

One of the wrecks, “an absolute colossus”, is an Ottoman merchant ship from the 17th Century, so large it is said two regular ships would fit on its deck. Sean Kingsley, archaeologist for the Enigma Shipwrecks Project and director of the Centre for East-West Maritime Exploration, explained “At 43 metres long and with a 1,000-ton burden, it is one of the most spectacular examples of maritime technology and trade in any ocean. Its size is matched by the breadth of its cargoes.”

Its cargo was a vast treasure trove of artefacts from 14 different cultures, from Italian pottery to pepper from India and Chinese porcelain. The ship is thought to reveal an undiscovered trade route from China to the Mediterranean through the Red Sea and Persia. Kingsley explains, “The goods and belongings of the 14 cultures and civilisations discovered, spanning on one side of the globe China, India, the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, and to the west North Africa, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Belgium, are remarkably cosmopolitan for pre-modern shipping of any era.”

These discoveries cast some light on trade through history, and undermines some persistent myths about the roots of our society. For example, the Chinese porcelain – 360 painted cups, dishes, and a bottle, made during the reign of the last emperor of the Ming dynasty, Chongzhen – were used for drinking tea, but adapted by the Ottomans for the latest fad coming from the East – drinking coffee. Also found on the ship, hidden carefully away, were tobacco pipes – the earliest Ottoman clay tobacco pipes found. It is thought they were hidden because Sultan Ahmed I banned tobacco in the Ottoman Empire in 1609.

Kingsley explains how these findings lead to questioning how our culture developed: “Through tobacco smoking and coffee drinking in Ottoman cafes, the idea of recreation and polite society – hallmarks of modern culture – came to life. Europe may think it invented notions of civility, but the wrecked coffee cups and pots prove the ‘barbarian Orient’ was a trailblazer rather than a backwater. The first London coffeehouse only opened its doors in 1652, a century after the Levant.”

These remarkable finds are expected to change the way that archaeologists think about the history of world trade. 

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