Holy Land shipwreck reveals tenacity of ancient traders as empires shifted

By Ari Rabinovitch and Rinat Harash
MAAGAN MICHAEL, Israel (Reuters) - An ancient shipwreck found off the coast of Israel and loaded with cargo from across the Mediterranean shows traders from the west continued to come to the port even after the Islamic conquest of the Holy Land, say researchers.
A surprise storm? An inexperienced captain? Whatever the reason, the merchant ship made of fir and walnut trees, carrying containers of delicacies from distant lands, sank more than 1,200 years ago in the shallow waters off what is now the Israeli coastal community of Maagan Michael.
It was around the time that the largely Christian Byzantine Empire was losing its grip on this area of ​​the eastern Mediterranean and Islamic rule was expanding its reach.
Dating to the 7th or 8th century AD, the shipwreck is evidence that trade with the rest of the Mediterranean continued despite the religious divide, said Deborah Cvikel, a nautical archaeologist at the University of Haifa and director of the dig.
“The history books usually tell us that … trade almost came to a standstill. There was no international trade in the Mediterranean. We mostly had smaller ships that went along the coast and did cabotage,” she said.
However, this no longer seems to be the case.
"Here we have a large shipwreck that we believe the original ship was about 25 meters (82 feet) long and ... laden with cargo from around the Mediterranean."
Artifacts on deck show that the ship docked in Cyprus, Egypt, perhaps Turkey, and perhaps even the North African coast.
The dig is supported by the Israel Science Foundation, the Honor Frost Foundation and the Institute of Nautical Archeology at Texas A&M University.
The coast of Israel abounds with ships that have sunk over the millennia. The wrecks are more accessible than elsewhere in the Mediterranean as the sea here is shallow and the sandy bottom preserves artifacts.
A storm could shift the sand and uncover a relic of what happened in the new discovery at Maagan Michael. Two amateur divers spotted a piece of wood sticking out of the ground and reported it to authorities.
Eight seasons of excavation later, Cvikel's team has mapped much of the 20 meter long and five meter wide wooden skeleton that remains.
They used underwater vacuums to clear 1.5 meters of sand and found over 200 amphorae still containing ingredients from the Mediterranean diet, such as fish sauce and a variety of olives, dates and figs.
There were sailing tools such as rope and personal items such as wooden combs, as well as animals including the remains of beetles and six rats.
"You have to be very careful because some of the remains, like fish bones, rat bones or olive pits, are so tiny that they could be lost in a split second," Cvikel said.
Some of the Byzantine Christian Church cargo ship symbols and others had Arabic script.
Researchers hope to find a hall to display the ship in its entirety to the public, otherwise they will cover it with sand and leave it on the seabed with the myriad other wrecks.
(edited by Mark Heinrich)

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