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Shipwreck of lost 'Sea People' found

Large ceramic jars, known as amphora, were used by the Phonecians as shipping containers   

October 16, 1998
Web posted at: 4:30 PM EDT

By Environmental News Network staff

An ancient shipwreck, believed to be a Phoenician vessel lost about 2,500 years ago, has been discovered nearly 3,000 feet beneath the Mediterranean Sea. The shipwreck has been christened "Melkarth," after the Phoenician god of sailors and is believed to be the oldest ever discovered in deep water.

The site was discovered by Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., a company that specializes in recovering deep-water shipwreck archaeological projects on a worldwide basis. They are hoping to partner with an archaeological team in the recovery of the ship and its contents.

Archaeologists are extremely excited about the find.

Videotape taken by the Odyssey team's remotely operated vehicle show many large ceramic jars, called amphora. These jars were used as shipping containers carrying honey, olive oil, wine, fish sauce, dyes (especially purple) and other trade products. Styles of amphorae change over time and have been used to date and determine the cultural origin of archaeological sites. The amphorae found at the shipwreck are quite distinctive and appear similar to those of Punic or western Phoenician origin dating to the 5th century BC.

Despite the fact that the Phoenicians absolutely dominated trade during this era and are credited with the invention of glass and the evolution of our modern alphabet, very little is known about their culture.

For one thing, rather than being firmly planted as one nation, the Phoenicians, starting in territory near today's Lebanon, established colonies all along the coast of the Mediterranean. Known as the Sea People, each port city was ruled as an independent entity. At the peak of their prosperity, there were colonies along the eastern Mediterranean, in ports along the north coast of Africa, in today's Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, past the Straits of Gibraltar and into the Atlantic, along the south coast of Spain, and on the Mediterranean islands of Ibiza, Majorca, Minorca, Sardinia, Sicily and Cyprus.

The Sea People were known as intrepid explorers as well as tradesmen. Some historians believe these amazing sailors made the first circumnavigation of Africa around 600 BC, almost 2,000 years before it was repeated by Vasco da Gama. Phoenicians traded as far as present-day England, and some evidence suggests they may have made trips to the Azores and Brazil. Carthage, which was established around 800 BC, was a major Mediterraenean port for centuries. One expedition leaving Carthage around 500 BC. included 60 ships of 50 oars, and 30,000 men and women, and provisions needed to establish colonies along the coast of Africa, past the Straits of Gibraltar.

Eventually their expansion started to annoy the Romans, however, and three wars were fought. The third Punic War (149-146 BC) between the city of Carthage and Rome resulted in the destruction of Carthage.

"The Romans captured the city, killed the men, pressed the women and children into slavery, razed the city to the ground, burned it in an inferno that lasted 10 days, plowed over the site, then as a final insult, covered the area with salt so that nothing would grow again," said Gregg Stemm, archaeological shipwreck recovery expert and Odyssey partner.

Stemm and his team stumbled on the wreck last month while searching for a British warship that sank in the Mediterranean more than 300 years ago when it was transporting a large cargo of coins. The frigidity and low oxygen levels of the deep sea are known to keep many old items remarkably well preserved and the crushing pressure at 3,000 feet below the surface has left the site quite protected. Odyssey plans an archaeological excavation of the Melkarth site as soon as an archaeological plan and research design is approved and financing is secured.

Copyright 1998, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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