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12 shipwrecks uncovered in the east Med dating from 300 BC

Archaeologists have found shipwrecks in the Mediterranean filled with hundreds of artefacts including Chinese porcelain, jugs, coffee pots, peppercorns and illicit tobacco pipes. 

A British-led expedition found a cluster of 12 ships on the sea bed, 1.2 miles below the surface of the Levantine Sea, using sophisticated robots.

The ships were recovered in ancient ‘shipping lanes’ that served spice and silk trades of the Greek, Roman and Ottoman empires, from 300 BC onwards. 

The ancient ships – including the biggest ever found in the Med – were unearthed in a muddy part of the eastern seabed between Cyprus and Lebanon, where remnants are often hard to find.  

Chinese Ming porcelain from the colossus Ottoman merchant ship, which researchers believe sank in the eastern Mediterranean in the year 1630

The cluster of shipwrecks were found in the Levantine Basin in the east of the Mediterranean Sea. Some of the artefacts from the wrecks are being held in nearby Cyprus. The shipwrecks reveal a previously unknown maritime silk and spice ‘road’ that links China to Persia, the Red Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. The colossal 17th Century vessel, which linked Jingdezhen in China to Europe, sank off the coast of Lebanon in 1630, where it has been discovered with the other shipwrecks 

‘It doesn’t get better than this,’ Sean Kingsley, archaeologist at the Enigma Shipwreck Project (ESP) told BBC Radio 4. 

‘For an archaeologist it’s the equivalent of finding a new planet.

‘There’s sort of an embarrassment of wonders here – we’ve got the earliest Chinese Ming dynasty porcelain found under the Mediterranean Sea.

‘They’re quite hard to find but when you do find them they’re incredibly well preserved. 

‘Compared to the western Mediterranean where you’ve got these wonderful piles of amphoras, you don’t get that in the east Mediterranean because a lot of the wrecks are hidden under the mud.’ 

A Chinese porcelain dish from the Ottoman colossus ship that sunk around 1630 while sailing from Egypt towards Istanbul

An iron sword and copper shield submerged in the mud to the top left of the image, taken from an Ottoman wreck of 1650 to 1700

The wrecks reveal a previously unknown maritime silk and spice ‘road’ that links China to Persia, the Red Sea and the eastern Mediterranean.   

The goods discovered are ‘remarkably cosmopolitan for pre-modern shipping of any era,’ Kingsley told the Guardian.

One of the wrecks is a colossal 17th-century 140-foot-long Ottoman merchant ship, which was big enough to fit two normal-sized ships on its deck. 

Its size is matched by the breadth of its cargoes, he said, which consists of hundreds of artefacts from 14 cultures and civilisations.

This includes the earliest Chinese porcelain retrieved from a Mediterranean wreck, painted jugs from Italy, 12 coffee pots and peppercorns. 

The ‘colossus’ ship was stocked with 12 ‘ibrik’ copper coffee pots that were most likely made in Egypt or Turkey, Kingsley told MailOnline.  

‘The coffee pots are Ottoman in tradition – it’s most likely they were personal property of crew members because each is a different shape and style,’ he said.  

‘They could have been bought in almost any souk market from Cairo to Istanbul.’

A coffee pot from the 1630 shipwreck. The Ottomans have been credited for bringing coffee to Europe. The colossus was stocked with 12 ‘ibrik’ copper coffee pots 

A huge 13-foot iron anchor in the bows of the Ottoman colossus lost around 1630, surrounded by little green-tinted storage jars

The ship, which is thought to have sunk in around 1630 while sailing between Egypt and Istanbul, is a snapshot of the beginning of the globalised world. 

Its cargoes also include glass and ceramics from Belgium, Spain, Italy, Yemen and the Persian Gulf alongside Arabian incense.  

‘At 43 metres long and with a 1,000-ton burden, it is one of the most spectacular examples of maritime technology and trade in any ocean,’ said Kingsley. 

‘I expect the Western glass and ceramics from Italy, Belgium, Spain and Portugal were also picked up in the mighty megapolis of Cairo, a cosmopolitan New York or London of its day.’

The Ottoman ‘colossus’, lost around 1630, transported goods from 14 cultures and civilisations spanning a huge 5,500-mile (9,000km) arc from Pisa to China. These commodities came via Jingdezhen in China, India south to the Persian Gulf, then up the Red Sea by way of the great port of Mocha and up to Suez. There the Eastern wares were transhipped to the emporium of Cairo, from where they were ferried up the Nile to Alexandria. Loaded onto the 1,000 ton colossus, they were three days out when they sank heading to Istanbul (marked in red). Other locations in white show the trading ports on its route

Shipworms captured eating through the bright orange wooden hull frames on an Ottoman ship carrying coconuts around 1910

A half-submerged collection of English mocha ware bowls, Italian dishes and Ottoman storage jars on a trader sunk around 1830 

The Chinese porcelain aboard the ill-fated 17th century ship comprises 360 decorated cups, dishes and a bottle made during the reign of Chongzhen from 1627 to 1644, used for drinking tea.  

Tea-drinking vessels were adapted by the Ottomans for coffee, which was sweeping the east during the 17th century, following bans around 100 years prior.  

‘Through tobacco smoking and coffee drinking in Ottoman cafes, the idea of recreation and polite society – hallmarks of modern culture – came to life,’ Kingsley said.  

‘Europe may think it invented notions of civility, but the wrecked coffee cups and pots prove the ‘barbarian Orient’ was a trailblazer rather than a backwater. 

‘The first London coffeehouse only opened its doors in 1652, a century after the Levant.’  

The wrecks also contained the earliest Ottoman clay tobacco pipes found, which were probably illicit due to rules against tobacco smoking at the time. 

Two types of Roman wine amphoras – the classic containers jug with two handles and a narrow neck – on a ship lost some time between the years 15 BC and AD 50  

Other cargoes revealed include fine English pottery, Italian glass plant shades, Egyptian coconuts and grain.  

The remains were recorded using digital photography, HD video, photomosaics and multibeams – which use sound to map the sea floor.

The team used a robotic vehicle to carefully plough the depths of the seabed and find the treasures among the mud.

‘These are very sophisticated, what we call a remotely operated vehicle – the hands and the eyes of the archaeologist in the deep because obviously we can’t go down there,’ Kingsley told the BBC. 

The Ottoman Empire was founded in Anatolia, the location of modern-day Turkey. Ottomans (pictured) adapted tea drinking porcelain for the coffee craze spreading across the east

‘And they’re very sensitive, they have underwater suction, vacuum, hoovers which can if you want hoover huge amounts of area or you can dial down the pressure to replicate what we would do in shallow waters by hand.

‘It’s painstaking, slow work, takes a long time to recover – it’s two hours just to commute the robot down to the sea bed.

‘We’re at the depth of 39 Nelson columns stacked on top of each other – scuba divers can’t get there, fishing trawlers can’t rake up the deep.’ 

The material – some of which is currently being kept in nearby Cyprus – was found at the end of 2015. 

ESP now hopes the findings, which are only now being disclosed, are made publicly viewable in a major museum.

‘We want to make sure this gift to humanity ends up in a public museum so everyone can enjoy it,’ Kingsley said.


The Ottoman Empire originated in what is now modern-day Turkey in the late 13th century. 

At its peak it dominated much of south-east Europe and covered 2 million square miles (5.2 million square km).

During the 16th and 17th centuries, at the height of its power under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire was a multinational, multilingual empire.

As well as engulfing south-east Europe, in also controlled vast swathes of land in Southeast Europe, parts of Central Europe, Western Asia, parts of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus North Africa and the Horn of Africa. 

With Constantinople as its capital and control of lands around the Mediterranean basin, the Ottoman Empire was at the centre of interactions between the west and the east for six centuries.

The empire allied with Germany in the early 20th century, hoping to escape from the diplomatic isolation which had contributed to its recent territorial losses, and thus joined World War One on the side of the Central powers.

After the allied forces defeated the Central powers in The Great War, the Turkish war of Independence in 1919-1922 saw the abolition of the Ottoman Empire.   



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