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date: 20 March 2023

shipwrecks, ancientfree

shipwrecks, ancientfree

  • A. J. Parker


  • Greek Material Culture: Bronze Age
  • Roman Material Culture

Over 1,000 ancient shipwreck sites are known from the Mediterranean, and many more no doubt remain to be found. The earliest vessel found is, however, an Egyptian river-boat, the ship of Cheops (mid-3rd millennium); this craft would probably not have been able to undertake seagoing voyages. Some elements of its relatively weak construction appear still to be incorporated in the earliest ship to be found in the open sea, the wreck of Ulu Burun (Lycia, 14th cent. bce); this was a floating treasury of metals, minerals, and exotic products. Archaic wrecks, such as that at Pointe Lequin (late 6th cent. bce), likewise tend to produce rare items, but more mundane, ‘commercial’ cargoes come to dominate the Aegean and then the rest of the Mediterranean from the 4th cent. bce onwards. The greatest frequency of wrecks is in the 1st cent. bce and 1st cent. ce, and reported sites are most dense in the western Mediterranean, especially along the French coast, where they reflect above all the export of Italian wine to Gaul during the late republic (e.g. the wreck of La Madrague de Giens, c.70–50 bce). Such cargoes may have weighed as much as 500 tons, though many ancient ships carried much less, and were rather small; the Kyrenia wreck (Cyprus, c.300 bce), which has been particularly well studied, was less than 14 m. long overall, and had perhaps as little as 20 tons of cargo on board when she sank. Many details of ship construction, of cargoes and of life on board have come from excavated wrecks: published examples are Valle Ponti and Le Grand Ribaud D (both late 1st cent. bce) and the Byzantine wreck of Yassı Ada (Bodrum, Turkey, 7th cent. ce). During the Roman Empire period variations in ship construction reflect special cargoes such as marble or roof-tiles, and greater economy of labour and materials was practised from the late 3rd cent. onwards, resulting eventually in skeleton-based structures such as that of the Serçe Limanı wreck (11th cent. ce). Wreck discoveries have not included much evidence for certain periods, or for certain types of ship, such as oared warships, though much has been learnt from the bronze ram found near ῾Atlit.

See archaeology, underwater; ships; trade; wine.


  • A. J. Parker, Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean and the Roman Provinces (1992).
  • L. Casson, Ships and Seafaring in Ancient Times (1994)
  • P. Throckmorton (ed.), History from the Sea: Shipwrecks and Archaeology (1987).
  • P. Horden and N. Purcell, The Corrupting Sea (2000), 368–72.