In 1984, sponge divers discovered an ancient ship that sank off the coast of southern Turkey, near a promontory called Uluburun. The ship came to rest on a steep rocky slope at a depth of 145 to 170 feet, with artifacts scattered down to more than 200 feet.

(Topographic rendering courtesy of the Institute for Nautical Archaeology.)

The shipwreck has an east-west orientation and the hull of the ship came to rest on and listing against the northern side of a large rock outcrop which is clearly visible on the site map. The bow (front or forward end) of the ship was oriented towards the west and the stern (back or rear end) of the ship was oriented towards the east.

The shipwreck was designated the Uluburun shipwreck (Uluburun means “Great Cape”) and was excavated by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA), located at Texas A&M University, between 1984 and 1994.

At the time, the Uluburun was the deepest shipwreck to be completely excavated by underwater archaeologists. It presented risks to the divers and excavation time for each diver was limited to 15 to 20 minutes per dive, two times a day.

The excavation was conducted in a purely scientific manner. George Bass, the founder of the INA and the chief excavator on this dig, was trained first as an archaeologist and then as a diver. Bass and his colleagues devised the procedures that are now standard in underwater archaeology.

They first erected a grid, constructed of pipe or metal bars, over the whole site to provide reference points for locating every part of the wreck. This is the same as gridding a site on land. The underwater archaeologists mapped and photographed the site before and during the dig. They pinpointed the location of every artifact and labeled it with a tag. Using these standard methods of archaeology, they were able to determine where everything was located in the cargo, whether forward (in the bow) or amidship (center) or aft (in the stern). They could determine whether an artifact came from the cabin area and might have belonged to a passenger or the captain or whether it was part of the ship's equipment. The context (where an object is found and what is associated with it) is just as important on underwater sites as it is on land sites. It helps the archaeologist reconstruct history and answer research questions.

The Uluburun ship and its cargo are now on display in the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Bodrum, Turkey.

The ship, which was about 50 feet long, was built of cedar in the ancient shell-first tradition, with pegged tenon joints securing planks to each other and to the keel. (For additional information on ancient ship construction see: Casson, Lionel. The Ancient Mariners. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).

This is an artist's drawing of what the ship might have looked like before it sank. It is based on paintings in New Kingdom Egyptian tombs of ships arriving in Egyptian ports with their cargoes. The picture shows, below the waterline, cargo based on the actual items recovered from the shipwreck.

In addition to the cargo, which was preserved on the bottom of the sea, some of the hull planks were preserved by sediment. On top of the ballast stones the cargo was cushioned by thorny burnet, a common Mediterranean shrub, and was mostly in good condition.


Some of the hull planks were preserved under the cargo. They were fastened with pegged mortise-and-tenon joints. All mortise-and-tenon joints on the planking were pegged with a c. 2 cm diameter peg driven into the tenon on each strake. Spacing between adjacent pegs on the same plank averaged 23 cm.

Some of the wood that was preserved from the hull of the Uluburun was sent to a laboratory for dendrochronological dating. Cedar logs, presumably fresh-cut firewood, were also sent to the lab for dating. If the firewood could be dated, it would provide an approximate date for when the ship left port. Firewood, which would have been used for cooking during the voyage, would probably have been cut shortly before the ship sailed. The results of the dendrochronology tests on the cedar logs showed a date of approximately 1318 BCE.