A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks (6 page)

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A number of items from Uluburun have parallels from excavations in the port city of Ugarit, including the gold pendants and fragments of Canaanite jars similar to those from the wreck. Situated directly opposite Cyprus on the North Syrian shore, Ugarit thrived as a hub of international trade in the fourteenth century
BC
– and as we shall see provides a vivid picture of the final period of trade at the time of the Cape Gelidonya wreck. Goods from Egypt, Cyprus and the southern Canaanite shore may have been taken there to be laden together in ships destined for the Aegean, under the control of merchants who lived in the city. Those sources themselves acted as transhipment centres for rare commodities brought from much further afield, including the ivory and ebony from Africa and also the most precious commodity of all, the tin that was essential for making bronze.

Ground-breaking research published in 2019 provides the strongest evidence so far that tin from Bronze Age ingots in the east Mediterranean may have come from Cornwall. In a project funded by the European Research Council, researchers in Germany analysed trace elements and lead and tin isotopes from twenty-seven ingots, including one found on the isle of Mochlos off Crete, three from the Uluburun wreck and fourteen from a scattered Bronze Age wreck off Israel investigated by the University of Haifa. Lead isotope analysis shows that the age of the ore from which the tin was smelted, about 291 million years old, is too early or too late for locations in Anatolia and Central Asia thought to have been possible sources of tin at this period but is consistent with deposits in Western Europe. Fascinatingly, tin ingots from the Salcombe Bronze Age wreck off Devon, discussed in the previous chapter, have similar trace element compositions to the ingots from the Mediterranean, providing the first clear link in wrecks between Cornish tin export and seaborne transport in the east Mediterranean – in terms of distance, the most extensive network of maritime trade evidenced thus far in prehistory.

The Cassiterides, the ‘Tin Isles', were known to the fifth-century
BC
Greek historian Herodotus, as the place ‘from which our tin is brought'. In Cornwall almost all prehistoric workings have been
obliterated by the extensive tin mining of more recent centuries, but tin ore was probably collected from streams, and the evidence of the Great Orme copper mine in north Wales is that Bronze Age miners had the ability to follow seams far underground. Few artefacts have been discovered in Cornwall of Mediterranean origin that might reflect this trade – a sword of Mycenaean type from a chieftain's grave may have reached Britain by other means, as weapons are unlikely to have been exported – but the trade may primarily have been in the hands of middlemen who bartered their own goods for tin brought across the English Channel in vessels such as the Dover Boat in the previous chapter. More evidence for northern trade links in the Uluburun wreck is beads of amber, which was also found at this period in a necklace in the Tomb of Tutankhamun and in a royal tomb of about 1340
BC
at Qatna in Syria. Analysis of amber from the Qatna tomb published in 2008 confirms that it was from the Baltic, the main source of amber in antiquity and a place from which it may have been taken to the English Channel to be combined with batches of tin for transport overland, by river or along the coast to the Mediterranean.

The scarcity of tin and the lengths to which traders went to acquire it is testament to its value in the Bronze Age Aegean and east Mediterranean. Without tin to make bronze, the warrior elite of Mycenae would not have been able to maintain power; having the best weapons available allowed them to keep enemies at bay and suppress piracy, ideal conditions for wealth generation and trade. Tin was not only a valuable commodity but also galvanised trade generally, with the ships carrying metal providing a means for the transport of other goods either for royal gift-exchange or for commerce. Perhaps the best gauge of the value of the Uluburun metal is the number of weapons that could be made from it. Professor Anthony Snodgrass, an expert on ancient Greek arms and armour, has calculated that 11 tons of bronze could have made 5,000 swords, 50,000 spearheads, or 600 full suits of armour, meaning that the cargo was enough to equip an entire Mycenaean city-state army – suggesting how its loss could have tipped the balance of power had the Bronze Age world been less secure and prosperous than it was in the late fourteenth century
BC
.

The connection with Homer in the artefacts from Cape Gelidonya and Uluburun reflects a society on the cusp of literature, where stories first written down several centuries later were already being recited
at gatherings of the Mycenaean warrior elite – stories not yet of the Trojan War, which may reflect events at the end of the Bronze Age about the twelfth century
BC
, but of other heroes and gods that found their way into the
Iliad
and the
Odyssey
and the early epic poetry of Greece. In Mesopotamia the tradition of written literature is much older, with the earliest clay tablets containing parts of the
Epic of Gilgamesh
dating from the Third Dynasty of Ur about 2100
BC
, and the version in Standard Babylonian – named
sha naqba Ä«maru
, ‘He who saw the deep' – first written down about the time of the wrecks. Parallels in the
Epic of Gilgamesh
with the flood story and the story of the Garden of Eden in the Hebrew Old Testament mean that aspects of the Book of Genesis may be traced back to the inception of civilisation in the Near East over 10,000 years ago, making those possibly the oldest continuously told stories known anywhere in the world.

The recitation of heroic stories may have been part of the feasting that took place during ceremonies of gift-exchange, a ritual to be experienced by merchants when they arrived at the courts of the Mycenaean kings with their cargoes of metal and luxuries. Most of the writing to survive from the Bronze Age relates to more prosaic matters of administration and correspondence – ledgers and accounts, lists of belongings and trade goods, letters between kings and their agents. The Mycenaeans had their own script, ‘Linear B', with symbols representing syllables or signifying objects or commodities, brilliantly deciphered by Michael Ventris as an early form of Greek. From clay tablets found at Knossos and Pylos we have words for items found on the wrecks, including
ka-ka-re-ew
for stirrup jars (for oil) and
ku-pi-ri-jo
for Cyprus, ‘copper'. But for understanding trade across the region the greatest resource is clay tablets in cuneiform, the wedge-shaped symbols which were the first script in Mesopotamia from the third millennium
BC
. A fascinating picture of royal exchange and the role of merchants comes from clay tablets found at Hattusas, the capital of the Hittites in Anatolia, at Ugarit and the other ports of the east Mediterranean, and, as we have seen, at Amarna in Egypt, from hundreds of tablets found in the 1880s in the ruins of Akhenaten's new city – dating very close to the Uluburun wreck, and showing the pharaoh's personal involvement in the type of shipments represented in the cargo.

One of the most exciting finds at Uluburun was a folding wooden writing tablet hailed as the ‘world's oldest book'. About the size of a
paperback novel, the tablet comprised two rectangular wooden leaves linked by a cylindrical ivory hinge; the recessed inner faces of the leaves were crosshatched to retain a wax writing surface. The tablet is another artefact from the wreck with Homeric associations – in the story of the mythical hero Bellerophon in the
Iliad
, King Proetus sends him away after ‘graving in a folded tablet many signs and deadly'. Previously the oldest known tablets were of eighth century
BC
date found in the palace of Nimrud in present-day Iraq, one of them still retaining traces of beeswax with cuneiform writing, and the Uluburun discovery is important for showing that Homer was not just describing objects of his own time but ones that existed in the Bronze Age.

This find raises a host of fascinating questions: what was the purpose of the tablet, and what language and script would have been used? As a writing board that could be erased and reused, as well as closed and protected from the elements, it would have been ideally suited for shipboard use – for recording cargo and making amendments as goods were offloaded and acquired on the way. The main language used may have been Akkadian, the Mesopotamian language that had become the lingua franca of diplomacy and trade in the second millennium
BC
, as seen for example in the Amarna letters. The writing system would almost certainly have been cuneiform, the wedge-shaped symbols impressed into the wax with a metal stylus, as on the clay tablets. However, if the merchant was from Ugarit then the cuneiform may not have been used to represent the syllables and words of the Akkadian script but rather the Ugaritic alphabet, an early version of the alphabet that we use today but with cuneiform representing the letters. If so, it would provide another link to Homer, who wrote in the Greek language first seen in the Linear B script of the Mycenaeans but using the alphabet that had been perfected by the Phoenicians – descendants of the Bronze Age merchants of Syria-Palestine, including Ugarit – and adopted across the Near East as the successor to cuneiform in the first millennium
BC
.

The other great writing system of the Bronze Age was also present in the wreck in one of the most important finds made during the excavation – a unique gold scarab of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, wife of Akhenaten and stepmother of Tutankhamun. The scarab, the dung beetle, was associated in Egyptian religion with the god of the early morning sun, Khepri, who was thought to roll the sun across the sky
just as the beetle does a dung ball, and scarabs could serve as amulets or seals. The hieroglyphic symbols on the base of the scarab have the long form of Nefertiti's name,
nfr-nfrw-ítn nfrt-ííti
, ‘Neferneferuaten Nefertiti'. This identification allows us to see for the first time the face of an individual associated with a shipwreck, in the famous bust of Nefertiti from Amarna – one that lives up to the translation of her name on the scarab, ‘Beautiful are the beauties of Aten, the beautiful one has come.'

The bust of Nefertiti was excavated in 1912 in the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose, Akhenaten's ‘Favourite and Master of Works' and one of the first artists in history whose name is known. Perhaps about the time that the Uluburun ship was being built, or a little before, an immense endeavour comparable to the pyramids in the previous millennium was taking place in the construction of the city of Amarna, a feat all the more remarkable because it was so short-lived – the first buildings were constructed in 1346
BC
and the city was abandoned only fourteen years later. The key to its existence was the Aten, the sun god whose worship led Akhenaten to abandon the old religion and capital at Thebes and attempt to impose a form of monotheism on Egypt, an experiment that came to an end when his son Tutankhamun – formerly Tutankhaten – rejected the Aten and moved back to Thebes, allowing the priests to reinstate the old religion and erase as much as possible of Akhenaten's ‘heresy' by destroying images and symbols associated with worship of the Aten.

Nefertiti played an active role in the propagation of the new religion alongside her husband, at a time when ancient Egypt was at its wealthiest and the resources existed to fund the new city and temples. The names on the scarab may provide compelling evidence that she herself was the mysterious pharaoh Neferneferuaten who ruled for several years between the death of Akenaten and the accession of Tutankhaten. With the wreck almost certainly dating after her death, and after the old religion had been reinstated, a scarab bearing her name and the word
itn
, ‘Aten', would not have formed part of an Egyptian royal gift to a foreign ruler, and the association in the wreck with what appear to be scrap items of gold may suggest that the scarab was destined to be melted down too. On the other hand, it may have had value as an amulet among those who did not know its original significance, similar to the Mesopotamian cylinder seals from the wreck. At Mycenae, a likely destination for the Uluburun
cargo, excavation in a cult room in the citadel uncovered a faience scarab of Queen Tiye, wife of the earlier eighteenth dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III, father of Akhenaten – one of a number of Egyptian artefacts found in Mycenae from that period that may reflect relations built around trade of Greek silver for Egyptian gold.

The other famous face to stare at us from history at the time of the wreck is that of Tutankhamun himself, from the gold mask that covered his mummy in the Valley of the Kings – ‘a brilliant, one might say magnificent, burnished gold mask or similitude of the king' as Howard Carter described it, as thrilled as Schliemann had been on finding the ‘Mask of Agamemnon' at Mycenae almost half a century before. The year of Tutankhamun's burial, 1323
BC
, could have been very close to that of the wreck, with a high probability that it took place within a few years either side of that date. A number of the objects found in the tomb are paralleled by artefacts from the wreck, including items in gold and faience. Carter lamented the absence of glass in the tomb, almost certainly the result of robbing in antiquity, so the discovery of the Egyptian glass ingots in the wreck balances the picture. The wreck complements the tomb by being an assemblage of goods in use rather than selected for burial, while at the same time showing that the extraordinary wealth represented in the tomb was not confined to pharaohs and their provision for the afterlife. It is poignant to imagine the excitement of Howard Carter and his contemporaries had they known that diving technology would one day allow an excavation underwater that would so richly complement their discoveries and those of the other pioneer archaeologists at the great Bronze Age sites of the Near East and Aegean.

BOOK: A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks
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