Histories of past cultures can be intriguing, but written accounts can only tell us so much. While written histories are important, they can be subjective to perspectives of the time period and the recorders, so important details often go missing.

Through archaeology, we can study human history through the analysis of material remains of a culture. These artifacts reveal long lost and fascinating details about past cultures. Underwater, or maritime archaeology, is especially interesting because the artifacts have remained untouched by humans, sometimes for thousands of years.

Some underwater archaeological sites are settlements and ports that have been long submerged by the sea, and shipwrecks are particularly rich sources of information. Whether these ships were intended for military use, trade, or simply transportation, their contents and even their construction provide a tremendous amount of information pertaining to daily life, scientific and artistic achievements, and relationships between cultures.

The Historical Importance of the Mediterranean Sea

The history of Ancient Mediterranean cultures can be especially interesting to study, and plenty of artifacts were left behind on land and in the sea. As civilizations developed in regions around the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, trade and transportation routes were formed, and shipbuilding industries boomed. As these civilizations grew and advanced, trade routes were extended across the seas, connecting cultures and leaving fascinating trails of evidence.

Thousands of ancient shipwrecks have been found on the seafloor, and advances in maritime archaeology are helping researchers locate even more. A relatively small percentage of the ocean floor has been mapped, so it’s safe to assume that there are many more shipwrecks waiting to be discovered. The University of Oxford alone has over 1,800 shipwrecks in their database!

Map showcasing locations of known ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean up to AD 1500, building upon A.J. Parker and Julia Strauss's research. Includes roughly 600 newly discovered sites post-1992, found in various terrains and depths.
Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean and the Roman Provinces, Strauss, J. (2013). Shipwrecks Database, Version 1.0, OxREP databases

We can’t cover the thousands of shipwrecks that have been discovered in the Mediterranean Sea, but here are some that have been significant in shaping our understanding of past cultures in the region.

Antikythera, an Ancient Technological Wonder

This fascinating shipwreck was discovered in 1900, by sponge divers working off the northeast coast of the Greek Island of Antikythera. Dating back to 60-50 BCE, the Antikythera shipwreck not only informed the development of maritime archaeology, it provided a wealth of information about the Ancient Mediterranean. Recovered artifacts reveal details about ancient shipbuilding, commodities of the time, and progress of scientific knowledge during the late Hellenistic period.

Artifacts from this wreck also provided evidence of long distance trade. Archaeologists recovered jewelry made with gold, pearls, garnets, and emeralds – materials from different geographical locations. Other items in the cargo have been traced to production centers in Syria, Turkey, Egypt, and Greece. There were even bronze statues dating back more than 300 years prior to the wreck, indicating that antiquities were desirable at the time.

2005 data visuals on the Antikythera Mechanism: (A) Enhanced Polynomial Texture Mapping (PTM) and (B) High-resolution Microfocus X-ray Computed Tomography.
2005 data visuals on the Antikythera Mechanism: (A) Enhanced Polynomial Texture Mapping (PTM) and (B) High-resolution Microfocus X-ray Computed Tomography

While the sources of Antikythera’s cargo are important for the historical record, the artifacts that made this shipwreck famous were technological marvels. One of these artifacts is known as the Antikythera Mechanism, and is considered to be the first computer. This 2,000 year old piece of technology was a Greek orrery, a mechanism that predicted and displayed astronomical information. The user would input a particular date in the calendar year, and the hand-cranked mechanism would show the position of the sun, moon, and planets on that date.

The Antikythera Mechanism indicated surprisingly advanced knowledge of engineering, mathematics, and astronomical science in Greece from over 2,000 years ago. It is also the oldest geared mechanism that has been recovered to date.

Computerized breakdown of the Antikythera Mechanism: Front plate on the left displays zodiac and calendar dials along with a proposed Greek Cosmos. Center reveals gear structures with a central input gear. Upper right showcases the 19-year Metonic calendar, and the lower right presents the 223-month Saros eclipse prediction dial.
Exploded computer reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism, Courtesy University College London

Shipwrecks of The Battle of the Aegates 

During the First Punic War (264-241 BCE), the Roman Republic and Carthage fought over control of Sicily. Control was won by the Romans with a decisive victory at The Battle of the Aegates in 241 BCE. This naval battle was fought around the Aegates Islands off the western coast of Sicily.

Historians had relied on written accounts of this battle, which left out many important details about the location and circumstances of the fight. This changed in the early 2000’s, when an archaeologist happened to come upon an ancient rostrum, the iconic bronze beak on Roman warships that was used as a battering ram. The rostrum was found by a fisherman working around the Aegates Islands, and was given to a local dentist as payment for services.

Black and white illustration of a naval battle scene with multiple ships, cannons, smoke, fire, boats, and people in the ocean representing Roman victory over the Carthaginian fleet at the Battle of the Aegates Islands.
Roman victory over the Carthaginian fleet at the Battle of the Aegates Islands, Aegadian Islands, Italy, 1886, historical illustration

Now that the location of the battle was known, maritime archaeologists knew where to start looking. An additional 25 rostrums were recovered, along with around 100 anchors in near-perfect alignment along the seafloor. Military historians believe that ropes tethering the warships to the anchors were cut, allowing for a quick advance during the battle.

The Roman rostrums were inscribed with the names of Roman officials that lived during the time, and it is thought that these officials had approved or commissioned the building of the warships. These details help historians better understand the government and bureaucracy of the Roman Republic.

Photo of a Roman rostrum in bronze with an inscription in a dark room.
Roman rostrums frequently bear inscriptions of official names, offering historians valuable insights

A Ship Graveyard in the Fourni Archipelago

Located about 150 miles off the coast of eastern Greece, the Fourni archipelago was an important maritime crossroads that linked Cyprus, Egypt, and the Levant. This archipelago has sheer cliffs and rock formations close to the water’s surface, the makings of a hazardous environment for any seafarer. Adding to the dangerous conditions was the unpredictable weather of the region. These waters are known for their sudden storms and strong winds.

In 2015, a Greek free diver and spear fisherman from Fourni contacted maritime archaeologists about dozens of artifact scatterings that he found while fishing. Over the course of a year, the fisherman had mapped the locations of nearly 40 possible shipwrecks – an astonishing amount for a relatively small area.

Underwater photo of ancient amphora pots covered in coral and sea life, with a striped fish swimming near them from one of 22 ancient shipwrecks discovered in the Fourni archipelago.
Cargo of one of 22 ancient shipwrecks discovered in the Fourni archipelago of Greece, Vasilis Mentogianis

Archaeologists began surveying the area, and within just 11 days had confirmed 22 shipwrecks. A second expedition located an additional 23 wrecks. The shipwrecks spanned some 2,000 years of Greek maritime history, with the earliest dating to around 525 BCE.

The researchers found an abundance of amphorae, which are clay storage jars used by merchant ships to transport wine, olive oil, grain, and other goods. What’s remarkable about these amphorae is that they originated in production centers all around the Aegean, Mediterranean, and beyond, suggesting that trade routes extended further than previously believed. Analysis has traced the amphorae back to Cyprus, Egypt, Samos, Patmos, Asia Minor, mainland Greece, Rome, Spain, and North Africa.

The Caesarea Shipwrecks  

In 2021, Israeli archaeologists discovered two shipwrecks off the Mediterranean coast. The wrecks were located near Caesarea, an ancient city with an important port. During its height, Caesarea had become the capital of the Roman province of Judaea, and was an important hub for the Roman Empire.

One ship dated back to the 3rd century CE, while the other is from the 14th century CE. The shipwrecks’ cargos held hundreds of Roman and medieval silver coins, gemstones, ceramics, bells, and figurines. Included in the finds were two exceptional pieces of jewelry.

Image of a gold ring with an engraved green gemstone from the Caesarea Shipwrecks, featuring a shepherd boy holding a sheep, symbolizing Jesus as the “Good Shepherd”.
Ring from the Caesarea Shipwrecks shows a shepherd boy with a sheep, symbolizing Jesus as the “Good Shepherd”, Dafna Gazit / Israel Antiquities Authority

One piece of jewelry is a Roman gold ring with an engraved green gemstone. The engraving is an image of a young shepherd with a ram or sheep on his shoulders. This image was popular during early Christianity, and conveyed the idea of Jesus as a shepherd tending to his flock. The other exceptional find is a red gemstone with the engraved image of a lyre. In the Jewish tradition, the lyre is known as David’s harp.

These finds are especially interesting because they support the historical record that Caesarea was home to a diverse group of peoples of varied origins and religions. Caesarea itself is a site of great significance to Christian tradition, as it is believed to have been the home of one of the first Christian communities.

The Luxurious Cargo of the Uluburun

In 1982, cargo from a Late Bronze Age shipwreck was found by a Turkish diver. This ancient ship sank off the Mediterranean coast of southern Turkey, near Kas. Known as the Uluburun Shipwreck, this vessel turned out to be one of the oldest wrecks found in the Mediterranean.

When archaeologists investigated the Uluburun shipwreck, it was determined that the vessel dated back to around 1320 BCE. There has been some debate as to the ship’s origins, with researchers pointing to Canaan or Cyprus. While the ship’s birthplace may not be certain, archaeologists agree that the cargo was destined for elite members of society.

The shipment contained copper and tin ingots to produce bronze, pottery, and many gold items such as jewelry, figurines, and chalices. Also included were items crafted from exotic materials like ivory, tortoise shell, ebony, and ostrich eggshell. Perishable cargo included spices, herbs, olives, figs, and more. Fragments of the ship’s hull reveal that it was constructed from Lebanese cedar, which was highly prized at the time.

Top: Late Bronze Age gold pendant from the Uluburun shipwreck, showcasing a falcon grasping cobras. Bottom: Uluburun shipwreck reconstruction on the seabed with distinct 'oxhide ingots' of copper or tin, displayed at the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology.
Top: Gold pendant depicting a falcon holding cobras, from the Late Bronze Age Uluburun shipwreck.
Bottom: Seabed Uluburun shipwreck reconstruction featuring uniquely shaped ‘oxhide ingots’ of copper or tin, Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology.

What makes this luxury cargo so remarkable is the varied origins of the material. For example, the copper was from Cyprus, the tin was from Turkey and Afghanistan, a sword was from Italy, and cylinder seals came from Mesopotamia. 

Among researchers, it is agreed that the cargo of the Uluburun ship was destined for the elite of whichever region it was headed for when it sank. Interestingly, the goods are similar to recorded gift inventories that were exchanged by rulers of Egypt and western Asia.