Stories of Fascinating Shipwrecks

by MAT

Shipwrecks have always fascinated humankind. Even over 3000 years ago, Homer’s Odyssey figured the titular character’s shipwreck as central to its narrative arc and Virgil portrayed Aeneas’ maritime adventures to found Rome as they elicit an undeniable excitement from the audience. The mystery and grandeur of a well-built ship being overpowered by the force of nature has also captivated the likes of Shakespeare in his plays ‘The Tempest’, ‘The Comedy of Errors’, and ‘The Twelfth Night’. From literary inspiration to archaeological study, volunteer Emma Silvestri hopes to introduce you to a few shipwrecks as well as their adventures.


One of the largest surviving cargo ships ever recovered in the Mediterranean Sea, the Uluburun shipwreck, was found off the coast of Kas in Turkey dated to the late Bronze age around 1350/1300 BC. When the wreck was first discovered, the lead diver described his findings as ‘metal biscuits with ears’ which were later identified as ox-hide copper ingots*.

The ingots discovered were so degraded that archaeologists had to improvise a new technique to salvage them. The acrylic polymer Paraloid B-72 in acetone was injected into the ingots to uphold the structural integrity of the artefacts. They took more than a year to harden but when they had done so, it allowed 10 tonnes of ingots to be brought to the surface intact. The Uluburun shipwreck contained a substantial volume of valuable cargo besides the copper ingots, including Baltic amber nuggets, elephant and hippopotamus ivory, ostrich shells, African ebony, twenty-four stone anchors, gold, and other precious and luxury objects as well as several musical instruments. The various objects originate a wide-ranging collection of cultures, which was likely achieved through the newly expansive sea trade, transporting items from over 7 regions including Cyprus, Egypt, Syria, mainland Greece and the Levant.

This discovery revolutionised what archologists knew about the Bronze Age and how goods as well as people must have travelled around the Mediterranean. As such, the presence of personal items on the ships provides a particularly interesting snapshot of Aegean Bronze Age daily life. These finds allow archaeologists to better understand social and economic relationship between different cultures. Another item of great significance was an original Egyptian scarab of pure gold. The inscription upon it revealed that it was dedicated by the Pharaoh Akhenaten to his wife Nefertiti. Her name was engraved onto the scarab as “Nefer-neferu-aten’. The spelling of Nefertiti’s name deifies her due to the addition of ‘Aten’ in her name, since Pharaoh Akhenaten was driving to make Aten the sole deity. This find, along with other items retrieved from the wreck allow archaeologists to date the Uluburun wreck around 1350/1300. Features of this wreck, such as brushwood laying over the basket-weave seems to corroborate Homer’s writings when he speaks of how Odysseus prepares to set sail, suggesting that the detail in his work is grounded in some sort of ancient reality. However, some scholars have questioned whether his poetry is a fully reliable source for the period, considering the mythical nature of his storytelling and the creative licence afforded to poets. The Uluburun shipwreck provided significant strides in our understanding of the ancient world and the active marine transport at the time, as well as pushing the boundaries of our archaeological techniques and inspiring innovation.

Figure 1: A model of the Uluburun shipwreck. Source: Wikicommons.

Sea Venture

Another shipwreck, the wreck of the Sea Venture in Bermuda inspired Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tempest’. Shakespeare received his information on the wreck in a letter from William Strachey, a writer who was on that very ship when it was sunk by a hurricane in 1609.

The Sea Venture was the first single-timbered merchantman cargo carrier built in England, as it had its guns placed on the main deck rather than below deck, as it was commonplace. The Sea Venture sunk on its maiden voyage when it set sail from Plymouth to Jamestown on the, June 2nd, 1609, alongside a fleet of 6 ships which intended to carry cargo and settlers to the ‘New World’. Jamestown was mainly swamp-land plagued with disease and, as the Sea Venture was about to discover, it was unfit to foster a settlement. Its only advantage was the defence position it provided. Under the command of Knight Admiral Sir George Somers  and Captain Christopher Newport, the Sea Venture was caught in high winds and hostile sea conditions and, as a result, it began to take on water and shortly after it was separated from its fleet. It is believed that the ship’s caulk (a water-proof filler) had not yet set between the new timber planks and, with the extreme weather conditions, it had started to erode. This cause the fracture of the timbers and caused the ship to begin to submerge. The water in the hold eventually reached over 9 feet in height. On the 28th of July, the crew onboard a barely functional ship caught site of a land mass which turned out to be Bermuda. The Sea Venture’s arrival to the island was perilous in itself, due to the ring of deadly breakers, but in the end all 150 crew members reached land safely. Before it became known as Bermuda, the island was named Somers Isles after Captain George Somers and his talented rescue of his ship and crew members.

The crew remained on the island for 9 months during which they built two new ships called Deliverance and Patience from the remains of the Sea Venture and using Bermuda’s strong cedar. The majority of the crew used these ships to set sail on May 10th, 1610 to re-join their fleet in Jamestown with an abundant store of food which they had gathered from the island. Some people however decided to remain on the island and were the first to make Bermuda a British territory.. When those who had chosen to leave Bermuda reached Jamestown just 10 days later, they found that the initial settlement had almost entirely died out. Settlers were suffering from starvation and disease, but were successfully rescued by the healthy men and women from Bermuda who delivered rich food supplies, which helped to re-establish the settlement.

Two guns were uncovered in 1612 among Bermuda’s first fortifications and the wreck’s locations was uncovered for further investigation, until it retreated into a sand hole and has yet to be rediscovered.

Alum Bay

More recent archaeological efforts, led primarily by the Maritime Archaeology Trust (MAT), focus on shipwrecks in Alum Bay, on the shores of the Isle of Wight. Behind a submerged reef which extends across the bay, lies HMS Pomone, built in 1805 and lost in 1811. To the Southwest of  HMS Pomone, scattered pieces of timber were discovered which eventually led to the discovery of a second site referred to as Alum Bay 2. MAT conducted a detailed analysis of the site, including the study of dendrochronology samples, which allowed the ship to be dated circa 1795. The Alum Bay 2 wreck is 9 metres long and 2.5 metres wide. After analysing its frame through the study of its degraded planks, it was possible to conclude that the vessel was built using a ‘frame-based’ technique, which means that the planks were added to the ship after its structural frame was assembled.

There have been many efforts to identify the Alum Bay 2 ship. and it is currently agreed that it is not one of the boats from the HMS Pomone, whose close proximity initially suggested a connection, as its structure and size do not match with those of a ship’s boat. MAT’s leading theory is that Alum Bay 2 was a local fishing smack or small costal trading vessel. Not many vessels of this nature from the 18th Century survive, making the Alum Bay 2 a fascinating archaeological find to expand our knowledge of smaller scale maritime vessels in the period. Considering these parameters, the best identification is thought to be the Ann & Susannah, a trading vessel was built in 1799 and recorded as lost on the coast near Alum Bay in 1821.

Figure 2: Ships in a storm around the U.K, painted by Mike Greaves

Shipwrecks are a unique way of preserving our history and attract a lot of interest due to their fascinating stories. There is always a sense of adventure in slowly unravelling the features of the wrecks through archaeology to understand more about the ship, its cargo and any people involved. Maritime research is an engrossing way to engage with archaeology, both because of the stories and the techniques used to reverse the effects of nature or preserve what is left of a find. For more information on projects and on-going research you can head to the Trust’s projects page.

*Oxhide copper ingots are thin but heavy pieces of copper shaped like an oxhide. These ingots are important indicators for copper trade in the Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age, as they are found quite frequently in sites dating to this period.

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