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Sadana Island Shipwreck Excavation 1996
By Cheryl Haldane Ward, Ph.D.

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Nearly 40 archaeologists, students and naval officers joined INA-Egypt staff and representatives of the Supreme Council for Antiquities of Egypt (SCA) for the second season of excavation on the Sadana Island Shipwreck (see IQ 21.4 and 22.4). The site, located on the Red Sea coast about 40 kilometers south of Hurgada, lies 30-42 meters beneath the sea at the base of a coral reef.

Almost 2,000 dives between 12 June and 24 August more than doubled the amount of time spent excavating the ship. In addition to continuing our efforts to document and remove objects broken and scattered by earlier visitors, we studied the ship's construction and excavated an area that contains about 2,000 qulal, small earthenware water vessels. In addition to underwater finds, we were surprised and dismayed to find two large deposits of dry, shattered, Chinese porcelain buried in the sand of our campground. More than 100 objects from the wreck had been carefully buried, presumably by looters.

All objects have been transferred to the INA/SCA Laboratory for the Conservation of Submerged Antiquities in the Alexandria Maritime Museum (see IQ 23.1). There Howard Wellman, Director of Conservation for INA-Egypt, and Mamduah Mohammed for the SCA supervise additional staff and volunteers working to clean and conserve finds.

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Four water dredges for sand removal allowed us to study the largest artifact at the site-the ship itself-in order to document its design, engineering, and the technology used to build it, we laid out a line of 2-meter squares along the top edge of the site in what would have been the upper part of the hull. Archaeologists also opened three additional trenches specifically to examine the hull. The ship continues to fascinate ship scholars because of its unusually heavy construction.

As in 1995, Chinese porcelain and earthenware water vessels (qulal) dominate the artifact assemblage. Approximately 80 porcelain finds excavated from the ship include several new styles of cups and bowls. As noted above, we also located a large number of broken porcelain objects on land that had been buried by looters in the past. This year, we found the first example of a cup decorated with animal figures (cranes) rather than floral or geometric motifs as in 1995.
It is thought that merchants who worked in Middle Eastern markets preferred the latter style of decoration because of proscriptions in Islam about representation of figures. Work by artists Netia and Lara Piercy enhanced our understanding of the porcelain by recording the nearly invisible traces of enamel overglaze, once brilliant red and gold, but now removed by the action of sea water. For instance, pieces that seem to be undecorated were originally covered with floral sprays and elaborate designs. A number of new types of porcelain were excavated but usually only as isolated fragments.

More difficult to compare to firmly dated examples are the water vessels from the wreck. More than 725 qulal of many different designs came from a small area in the ship's stern. Despite efforts to find comparative material, few archaeologists have firmly dated examples of these thin, fragile jars, all of which are made of a similar gray-brown fabric. Many are decorated with incised linear designs and applied plastic clay decorations. Several large (55 cm tall) examples with lids also were excavated. Other earthenware objects include fragments of glazed bowls, amphoras of the "Ballas" type, flat bottomed basins, and decorated tobacco pipes.

Copper finds include a large tray, several basins, the hasp for a chest, tripod bases, and a bowl. Cooking pot 6-48 is particularly exciting as it bears an inscription in Arabic associated with the numerals 1169, an Islamic year date (AH) equivalent to 1755/56 CE. This date is significant because in the past, porcelain specialists have suggested that porcelain on the wreck dates to the period 1670 to 1740. Thus, the Sadana Island collection demonstrates the longevity of a type thought to have been discontinued some 20 years before the earliest possible sinking date.

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Glass objects from the Sadana Island Shipwreck include both round and square bottles, and a lovely cut-glass perfume flask found in the bilges above the keel at midships. As in 1995, most glass artifacts are case bottles, green glass liquor bottles with square bases. Also as in 1995, all case bottles excavated were broken previously, probably by looters.

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Other finds of particular interest include a small bone object, possibly a chess pawn, and a stone mortar.

Organic remains

Because the Red Sea luxury cargoes so often were organic in nature, organic remains from the Sadana Island Shipwreck receive a great deal of attention. One of the more excruciating duties for team members this summer was emptying the small-mouthed qulal and processing their contents by bucket flotation to recover plant remains.

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More than two dozen coconuts spilled from a storage area in the stern provide unusually challenging problems of excavation and storage as they are whole, but lack the fibrous husk and meat of a fresh fruit. We documented coffee beans, pepper, and large quantities of the same aromatic resin discovered last year, and recovery of botanical remains added cardamom, nutmeg, hazelnut, and olive to the list of economically significant plant species carried on the ship.

As we excavated layers closer to the ship's hull, we found a variety of animal remains including the remains of a leather bag tied with a knot and bones of several animal species, including young sheep/goat. Butchering marks on several bones prove their use as food; faunal analysis will be conducted as part of the conservation process in Alexandria.

The Hull
The ship itself is the largest and most technologically informative artifact on the site. By studying its construction details and features, we are producing a record of an unknown ship type. Despite a long history of contact between Europeans, Egyptians, and others who sailed the western Indian Ocean and Red Sea, separate shipbuilding traditions continued. The Sadana Island ship is an example of a type that is non-European, non-Arab, and non-Mediterranean. The massive timbers used to build it suggest ample supplies near its home shipyard; wood identification may help to pinpoint the geographical origin of hull components.

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The hull is characterized by the use of massive timbers joined by iron fastenings. All that remains of the fastenings are the empty molds where the iron has completely decayed, but we can recover the measurements and locations of such fastenings. In so doing, we find the ship to be fastened rather lightly. Frames and floor timbers also are widely spaced in comparison to other contemporary hulls, and the stringers that transverse the length of the hull from keel to upper deck are unusual for their robustness.

During the 1996 season, three levels of knees were identified on site. These probably supported deck beams and may indicate that the ship had three separate decks. A separate stowage compartment sectioned off by bulkheads was documented just aft of midships. At what seems to be the midships section, a curious arrangement of transverse planking supported a large [POLE] fastened to it by two large iron bands. Large quantitites of rope up to 5 cm thick surrounded this assembly.

The 1996 Sadana Island excavation campaign has allowed us a far better understanding of the ship itself and has provided critical information for understanding the site. An inscribed copper basin with a date equivalent to 1755/6 CE gives us a firm link for exploring the historical aspects of Red Sea trade during this period.
Carlson Niebuhr's travel records in the Red Sea about ca. 1762 will be important in gaining perspective on the Sadana Island ship's role in the region's commerce. Niebuhr describes the ships of the Red Sea, and notes that many were built in Suez shipyards of wood, iron and rope brought in from Cairo and Alexandria. Such ships could carry up to 1,000 tons, and as many as 600 passengers (typically pilgrims to Jedda). Another traveler notes the presence of Arab-run ships that were of Indian construction and far more expensive to build than comparable Nile or Mediterranean ships. Between 30 and 40 ships made the trip between Suez and Jedda each year; of these, 15 to 20 could carry more than 900 tons.

Yet another traveler points out that the French and other European traders sent the red dye cochineal, paper, European fabrics and foods, and bullion to the Red Sea in exchange for coffee, spices, drugs, myrrh and incense, Indian cotton fabrics and Chinese silk and porcelain. It is thus clear that the Sadana Island ship was headed north on its last voyage with a cargo intended for transshipment to Cairo and beyond.

The 1997 excavation season will focus on removing additional overburden from the wreck and documenting the hull construction. In order to do this properly, we may need to tunnel under one section of the hull and possibly remove some of the large timbers from the site temporarily. With the exception of qulal, few small artifacts remain visible on the seabed although some of the deeper parts of the site have pockets of glass and earthenware objects. Large iron concretions and the iron anchors require further documentation and study as well.