Special Topics
Slide Show

Marwa Helmy, American University in Cairo student, examines some of the
organic cargo from the Sadana Island shipwreck. A rare, bi-lobed
coconut, black-lipped pearl oyster shells, two types of aromatic resin,
and coconuts illustrate the richness and diversity of the ship's cargo.
(Photo Meredith Kato)

Sadana Island Shipwreck: Final Season, 1998
By Cheryl Ward, Ph.D.

From The INA Quarterly 25.3 (1998) 3-5

Egypt's first shipwreck excavation in the Red Sea continued to provide unique and wide-ranging information about international trading relationships in the time just before the Industrial Revolution (see INA Quarterly 23.3 and earlier). The immense ship-more than 900 tons burden-remains the most enigmatic and fascinating artifact on site, and its study, along with that of the large collection of Chinese export porcelain for the Middle Eastern market (the first ever scientifically excavated), organic cargo from coffee and incense to coconuts and spices, and the handful of crewmen's possessions, will continue to contribute a great deal to understanding seafaring in the western Indian Ocean of the late 17th and 18th centuries.

The 1998 excavation of the Sadana Island Shipwreck off Egypt's Red Sea coast provided new and important information about the ship's construction, its cargo, and the site's history. An international team diving between 25 June and 14 August documented ship structure to
provide a more comprehensive understanding of its construction, addressed questions related to both objects and their stowage on the ship and the ship's origin, and removed portable, attractive artifacts in an attempt to discourage looting.

The 1,270 dives made between depths of 20 and 40 m allowed us to establish three transverse trenches 8-10 m long and 2 m wide as well as a 13-m-long fore-and-aft trench along the deepest, best preserved part of the site. The ship's minimum beam is 18 m at midships, and its overall length is 49.8 m. A number of dives were made in the forward part of the ship. Resulting data point to similarities with the rest of the hull in terms of basic features, but most of the timbers are not accessible due to a thick coating of yellow aromatic resin, in some places up to 50 cm deep. In the stern and at midships, we found a fairly regular pattern of construction dependent upon heavy planking, massive composite futtocks beneath numerous, nearly square-sectioned stringers running fore and aft. Stringers are further reinforced by rider frames notched over their upper surface, especially in the lower third of the site. In the stern, a large, lattice-like iron concretion tops a series of transverse timbers that form the transom.


As in previous years, excavators worked carefully to recover organic remains and artifacts. We continued to find porcelain objects, both complete and broken, including unique types such as a small cup from trench 5.4 and a broken plate from near the anchors. Another exciting find from the anchors was a copper basin inscribed, "Sahibihi Rais Musa Mahmoud". Although the word rais has several meanings in Arabic, one of the most common is ship's captain, so we may have the captain's personal stew pot.The largest number of objects came from trench 1, and most are Type 4 porcelain cups. Ten clay pipe bowls, and one pair, add to our collection of personal objects from the galley area just aft of midships.

More prestigious items discovered in the midships bilge area include an ivory handle or pommel with some of its original three-color inlay remaining and a small fleck of gold foil. In the stern quarter, a gimbaled copper ring and a unique porcelain cup, a handful of porcelain sherds, a new type of resin (purple, and shipped in cakes), and more than 1500 qulal (earthenware jugs) were excavated. The qulal remain on the bottom, but a representative sample of lids from the same area and two of the larger pitchers (Arabic abri') add to our ceramic collection.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, qulal were packed in ways that reflect their basic dimensions which previous seasons how to be roughly the same in terms of height and diameter with few clear instances of types being grouped together. The exception to this is perhaps found in those qulal packed between stringers in the bottom of the hull. Throughout much of the ship's length, including in the bow, stevedores nestled qulal along the centerline. In the stern, the 'goblet' type was laid down in a single layer on top of floor timbers, and then the standard size was inserted in a 'head-to-toe' layout above the goblets, but below the inner face of the stringers.

In addition to continued finds of rectangular, glass 'case' bottles, a new shorter, round glass bottle we immediately called a brandy bottle was recovered from the bow. In the same area were lead shot clumps, possibly for a musket. They provide the first evidence for any weapon remaining on the site. Folded lead fishing net weights, again from the midships area, were also new this season.

Recovery of organic remains continued to be an important part of our excavation. In addition to our familiar coffee beans and whole coffee cherries, we found multi-kilo lumps of a purplish resin with many inclusions of small twigs and branches. The new resin, previously seen only in amounts smaller than 1-cc from organic samples occurs in both large, irregular lumps and in carefully shaped cakes or loaves of resin. All samples came from the bottom of the hull between stringers in the aft quarter of the ship. A yellow, aromatic resin previously recorded occurs in several areas of the hull, and archaeologists found a number of 'spills', where resin flowed across timbers during wreck formation.

At least 50 black-lipped, pearl oyster shells were counted from above the galley. This species provided mother-of-pearl for inlaid furniture and other decorative items as early as the Roman period in Egypt. A more curious cargo of branches covered about 20% of the wreck and may have been intended to serve as firewood. Because there is so much wood, however, and its position in the hull suggests it may have been part of the cargo, we are eagerly awaiting results of wood identification studies to try to determine where it might have been laden. Results will allow us to decide whether the wood was a special import, potentially for furniture or small item construction, or whether it was a species indigenous to watered regions of the Red Sea shores and thus likely to be firewood, either as a cargo for Suez or for use during the voyage.

Another 60 coconuts discovered during the summer bring our total to over a hundred, found mostly between futtocks below stringer level in the aft quarter of the ship. In addition, we excavated a fabulous 33-cm-long, bi-lobed coconut from the disturbed area just aft of the anchors. The bi-lobed coconut grows only in the Seychelles Archipelago, and is a rarity even today. These are the world's largest seeds and weigh more than 20 kilos when ripe, a process which requires ten years. Its presence on the ship is probably due to its potential value as a curiosity. Europeans in the late 18th century found ordinary coconuts worthy of display in cabinets of curiosities; the bi-lobed coconut was four times the size and of an extraordinary shape.

Five wooden jar lids were recovered from area G5, below the largest concentration of zila' (large storage jars) on the site. This area also held cooking pots with evidence of charring, a used incense burner, and charcoal, suggesting that the galley was here. Most of the Turkish-style pipe bowls came from this square or just below it. Iron concretions above and below the 'galley' indicate the presence of iron objects originally weighing 50-100 kg. Some of them are probably spare parts for the ship (pintles and gudgeons for the rudder); others cannot be identified from their present form and remain on the seabed.

I first learned about the wreck from someone who led a team of unsanctioned divers in a 500-dive salvage operation on the Sadana Island ship. This summer, I spoke at length with one of those divers who provided photographs of finds made earlier on the wreck. These include at least ten boxes of porcelain cups, packed in tea. Each box held 900 to 1,000 cups. Many of these were broken during salvage attempts, and these remained for archaeologists to find while many of the complete objects were removed from the site. I am trying to persuade owners of the several thousand looted objects from the wreck to donate those artifacts to the National Maritime Museum in Alexandria where all material from the Sadana Island Shipwreck is curated.

As in previous seasons, all objects were taken to the INA-Egypt/Supreme Council of Antiquities Alexandria Conservation Laboratory for Submerged Antiquities in Alexandria, Egypt, for further treatment and storage. In this final season, we were delighted to work closely with old and new friends from Egypt and other lands, and look forward to the opportunity to do so again.


The unflagging support of the Supreme Council of Antiquities for Egypt is greatly appreciated. SCA director Dr. Gaballah Ali Gaballah, the director of the underwater section Ibrahim Atiya Darwish, and the General Director for the Upper Egypt Inspectorate Hussein el-Afiouni proved to be wonderful hosts to the INA-Egypt team once again. We are grateful to SCA Inspectors Ayman Hindi, Wa'il Karam, Abdallah Muhammad, Sameh Ramses, Muhammad Mustafa, Muhammad Sayyid, Mustafa Desouki, Taimour Ismail, Magdi Ghazzala, Usama El-Nahas, Ehab Mahmoud, Ibrahim Mitwalli, Muhammad Abd al-Hamid, Abd al-hamid Abd el-Meguid, Ala'Mahrous and Ahmed Shukri for their patient and sincere efforts to help us record the shipwreck and its contents. We also thank the Egyptian Navy for allowing its officers Tarek Abu el-Ela, Hossam Hamza, and Mustafa Hassouna to join us.

The multi-year contributions of The Amoco Foundation, the John and Donnie Brock Foundation, Danielle Feeney, The Institute of Nautical Archaeology, Mark Easton and The American Research Center in Egypt, Orascom, Harry Kahn, Richard and Mary Rosenberg, George Lodge, Chip and Fran Vincent, The Arab Contractors, Scubapro, and Uwatec/Dynatron have made this excavation possible. We also deeply appreciate a grant from the Committee for Research and Exploration of The National Geographic Society, support from Stephen Lowder and a grant from Mr. and Mrs. John Stern and the California Community Foundation, Chris Kostman and Archaeoscience International for building and hosting our website, as well as the individual contributions of Bill and Cary Cavness, Patricia Cericola, Lyman Labry, Pamela de Maigret, Peter Revay, and John and Mary Villaume.

And here I offer all due honor, respect, and heartfelt thanks to the volunteers and staff of INA-Egypt for their unique contributions to the 1998 season: Basim Ahmed Ahmed (U. of Alexandria), David Clarke, Bradford Eldridge, Adel Farouk, Dr. William Forest Farr, Doug Haldane, Jane Haldane, Jeff Hall, David Harrison, Heather Hart, Frederic Heller, Gwyn Johns, Marwa Kamal el-Din Helmy (American U. of Cairo), Meredith Kato, Emad Khalil Helmi, Chris Kostman, Stephen Lowder, Marcus Manley, Steve Miller, Sherif Muhammad Abdou (U. of Alexandria), Natasha Muldar, John Nichols, Robert Ossian, Miriam Seco Alvarez, Susannah Snowden, Howard Wellman, Mary Wiland, Aaron Wilson, and Jamie Winter.