An international team of researchers has discovered the remains of a Phoenician ship that sunk in the waters off the island of Malta around 700 BC, Maltese authorities announced this week.
One of the oldest shipwrecks found in the Mediterranean, the vessel is about 50 feet long. It was found at a depth of 400 feet on the sandy seabed of Gozo island, the second-largest island in the Maltese archipelago.
"There are very good chances that the wooden hull is still present, buried beneath the sand," Timmy Gambin, a senior lecturer in maritime archaeology at the University of Malta and the co-director of the project, told Discovery News.
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Gambin and colleagues from Texas A&M University and the French National Research Agency, found the ship's cargo spread over a 700-square-foot area. According to Gambin, it was "in a fantastic state of preservation."
The sandy seabed likely cushioned the impact when the ship sunk, leaving jars and ceramic containers unbroken.
According to the researchers, the ship carried a mixed cargo of jars and grinding stones.
About 20 grinding stones made from volcanic rock, each weighing as much as 75 pounds, were identified at the site.
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"The stones, probably coming from Sicily, were being transported to be sold elsewhere in the Mediterranean," Gambin said.
The researchers also spotted some 50 amphorae - containers with two handles and narrow necks used to hold wine and oil - made in seven different types and sizes. This would indicate the vessel had traveled to numerous harbors before sinking.
Like other Phoenician trading vessels, the ship might have made stops in Sardinia and Malta to sell its cargo.
According to Gambin, its route might have included ports of call in southern Italy, Sicily, Malta and possibly North Africa in present day Tunisia.
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Originating from what is now Lebanon, the Phoenicians were master shipbuilders and traders who criss-crossed the Mediterranean from 1550 B.C. to 300 B.C.
Credited for developing the first alphabet, they were also the creators of a precious purple dye extracted from murex snails that was used as pigment for royal clothing.
On their trading routes, they used Maltese safe harbors as staging and anchorage posts. Indeed, Phoenician traders are believed to have been the first known inhabitants of Malta.
"The shipwreck may offer new and significant information about Phoenician seafaring and trade in the central Mediterranean during the archaic period," Gambin said. "To date, little is known about the earliest contact of Phoenician mariners with the Maltese islands."
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A very high-resolution 3-D model of the site, based on more than 8,000 photographs taken of the wreck, is being funded by the French National Research Agency.
The exact location of the 2,700-year-old wreck will be kept secret until the team has finished their research.
"We have recovered some objects this year and are currently planning future seasons of work on this site," Gambin said.