Shipwreck Found With Both Christian and Muslim Artifacts

Off the Israeli coast, marine archaeologists have been excavating a mysterious shipwreck that is changing how experts think about the 7th century AD in the Middle East. The vessel sank in a period when the region was coming under the control of the Muslim Caliphate. Evidence from the shipwreck is challenging notions about this important era, which have shaped the Middle East to this day.

The shipwreck was first spotted by members of the Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, off the coast of Israel , some 29 miles (47 km) south of Haifa. The wreck was found in 2015, but it was left undisturbed and was allowed once again to be covered in sand. Since 2016, the shipwreck has been investigated by a team from the University of Haifa’s Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies, and they have been assisted by doctoral and master’s students.

The Shipwreck in Israel is a Large Trading Vessel

The ship was originally 75 feet long (23 meters) and it was located under 10 feet of water (3 meters) and buried by more than a ton of sand. It appears that it sank as a result of a navigational accident. The archaeologists wrote in ASOR that “The exposed hull remains, comprising the keel, end posts, aprons, framing timbers, hull planks, stringers, bulkheads, and maststep assembly.” This wreck has been remarkably preserved, probably because it was buried in the sand.

Part of the Israeli shipwreck that dates to the 7th century AD. ( A. Yurman )

Deborah Cvikel, who was part of the team, told ASUH that “We have not been able to determine with certainty what caused the ship to wreck, but we think it was probably a navigational mistake.” It is likely that because it sank so near the coast there may not have been any fatalities. Shipwrecks were very common in the ancient Mediterranean .

Byzantine-Muslim Wars

It is believed that the vessel sank about 1300 years ago in the tumultuous 7th century AD. This was the era when after the Arab victory over the Byzantines at Yarmouk, the Muslims conquered most of what is now the modern Middle East. The Arabs tried and failed to conquer the rest of the Byzantine Empire, the successor state of Rome. The 7th century began the transition of the region from one that was dominated by Christians to having a Muslim majority.

The marine archaeologists found some inscriptions written in both Arabic and Greek on wood and ceramics in the Israeli shipwreck. They also discovered some Christian symbols such as crosses and some Muslim religious signs. One inscription spells out the word Allah. These inscriptions show ‘the fascinating complexity of the period,’ reports the Jerusalem Post .

Greek fire was first used by the Byzantine Navy during the Byzantine-Arab Wars. ( Public Domain )

Daily Life in the 7th Century AD

These inscriptions are enigmatic because the 7th century was a time of religious conflict between believers of both religions. “We do not know whether the crew was Christian or Muslim, but we found traces of both religions,” Cvikel told the Jerusalem Post . It is possible that the crew consisted of members of both religions and may indicate that in daily life the divide between Christians and Muslims was not as intense as commonly believed.

Among the items found in the 7th-century shipwreck were pieces of food, such as dates. Animal bones were found on the ship and this may suggest that the crew kept animals as pets or for food. The cargo consisted of over one hundred amphorae and they may have transported olive oil, wine, or grains. These ceramic containers are often found in shipwrecks from the ancient world.

Amphorae are often found in shipwrecks from the ancient world. ( Public Domain )

A Time of Trade and War

Six types of amphorae have been identified by the team of archaeologists and two have not been recorded anywhere else. Cvikel told the Jerusalem Post that “Based on the findings, the researchers believe the ship must have made stops in Cyprus, Egypt and possibly a port along the coast of Israel before sinking.”

This contradicts the widely accepted view that trade was disrupted by the many Byzantine and Muslim wars that scarred the region in the 7th century AD. Instead, it shows that trade still flowed around the Eastern Mediterranean between communities as it had before the Muslim invasions .

More Insights to Come at the Israeli Shipwreck
The vessel can help researchers understand the evolution of shipbuilding technology in the period . In the 6th century AD ships were built by adding stakes to premade frames. Yet by the 7th-century shipwrights were using mortise-and-tenon joints to fit planks together to make ships.

There are still some puzzles about this development in maritime technology. Cvikel told the Jerusalem Post that the Israeli shipwreck provides “a vast amount of information that can shed further light onto the process” of change in shipbuilding.

The shipwreck is still being excavated, but work was disrupted because of the Coronavirus pandemic. Archaeologists hope to investigate the back of the ship where the captain’s cabin was likely situated. There will also be further analysis of the cargo and other artifacts found.

Top image: Marine archaeology students examine the pottery near the bulkhead at the Israeli shipwreck. Source: A. Yurman/Leon Recanati, Institute for Maritime Studies of the University of Haifa

By Ed Whelan


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