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1996 Mediterranean Shipwreck Survey

By Cheryl Haldane Ward, Ph.D.

From El Bahri 2, 1996


In late March 1996, INA-Egypt staff in cooperation with the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) will begin exploring the northwestern coast of Egypt in the search for ancient shipwrecks. The survey, led by Douglas Haldane, is the first comprehensive underwater survey of the coastline west of Alexandria. The team will work almost as far west as the Libyan border in cooperation with Egypt's Army, Coast Guard, Navy and internal security.

Access to the coast is strictly controlled in the survey area because its brilliant white beaches with their long, shallow approaches today, as for thousands of years, are attractive to smugglers (although the pirate dangers have diminished). In addition to smugglers and pirates, famous past voyagers in this area include Bronze Age travelers who stopped at an anchorage called Mersa Matruh, today a popular resort, but in about 1350 BC, a stopover where luxury goods such as ivory and ostrich eggshell, as well as pottery from Cyprus, were transshipped. The Sea Peoples, a loose confederation of warriors and immigrants from the Eastern Mediterranean whose advent coincides with the destruction of great civilizations of the Bronze Age, unsuccessfully attacked Egypt twice, and some scholars suggest that the northwestern coast is a good place to look for their ships.

During the Iron Age, colonists from Phoenicia on the Mediterranean's east coast sailed to a new city called Carthage, and their ships began to traverse Egypt's coastline as they voyaged between trading centers in the southern Mediterranean. Greek colonists began new cities in the Egyptian delta from about 600 BC, and their ships, like those of the Hellenistic and Roman cultures to follow, used currents which sweep east and north along this coast to bring people and goods to new and existing markets. In Fatimid times, the sultans moved thousands of shipwrights and their families to Tunis, where the new navy was based, and coastal traffic swelled along the route between north Africa and Alexandria, one of the largest medieval Mediterranean ports. Medieval ships of all nations plied these waters, and there relics of our own age as well.

The Survey

INA-Egypt staff member Ashraf Hanna knows these waters well because of his work as a commercial diver and fisherman, and he is the key member of the survey team. At our first meeting, Ashraf told me about 17 sites on the seabed where he had recorded amphoras, the two-handled shipping jars that often mark the graves of ancient ships. Three other locales with archaeological remains have been reported to us, so the survey team will be documenting and evaluating 20 sites along the coast. INA-Egypt's deputy director Emad Khalil, its general manager Adel Farouk, and co-director Douglas Haldane, SCA archaeologist Mohammed el Sayed, an inspector to be assigned by the SCA, and an Egyptian Navy liaison officer will spend two weeks in the field.

Diagnostic pottery will be raised from any significant sites, and it will be transferred for study and conservation to the new SCA/INA-Egypt Alexandria Conservation Laboratory for Submerged Antiquities.

Some of the sites are as far as a kilometer from shore, so the recent gift of a reconditioned Zodiac Mark III by Sameh Sawiris of Orascom is a vital contribution to the team's ability to survey safely and well. We are grateful for this gift and for the support of INA-Egypt members and, importantly, assistance from the SCA which have made this survey possible.