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Ashkelon Deep Water Survey 1999
Professor Larry Stager, Harvard University
November 10, 1999

Professor Stager directs the excavations on land at Ashkelon, sponsored by Leon Levy. Professor Stager heard of Dr. Anna McCann's projects with Dr. Ballard and the ensuing criticism from some in the archaeological community. Dr. Ballard contacted him to see if he would be interested in collaborating on the Ashkelon Deep Water Project, but Professor Stager was not sure that he wanted to get involved. Dr. Ballard convinced him that archaeology in deep water conforms to the ethical standards of the profession, and Professor Stager began to attend DeepArch meetings at MIT. This helped him change his mind and agree to participate in the Ashkelon 1999 offshore project.

The site of the wrecks is north of Alexandria and west of Ashkelon. The wrecks were discovered in 1997 by the US Navy submarine NR-1 during its search for a sunken Israeli submarine, Dakar.

Dr. Ballard invited the Harvard team to review video tapes of the wrecks. The team's initial impression was 8th century B.C.E., but that date was not certain. There is a type of Byzantine amphora that resembles the torpedo shape of 8th century B.C.E. Phoenician jars. Professor Stager felt that if the wrecks were Byzantine, it was not worthwhile to launch the expedition. After further review he and his team concluded that the wrecks probably were 8th century.

At sea during the summer of 1999, the first sonar contact investigated turned out to be a 19th century wreck. The team quickly moved on to other targets, bringing them to one of the 8th century wrecks. They named the vessel Tanit, after a Phoenician protective deity for seafarers.

The wreck site was about 16 m long and 4 wide, carrying an amphora type known from 750-700 B.C.E. The jars had a capacity of 18-19 l, and were uniform in size and shape. The total estimated volume of the amphorae was 11 tons. At one end of the site was a stone anchor. Professor Stager noted that this is the first occasion of an anchor found in context on an iron age wreck.

Professor Stager mentioned that a 475 B.C.E. bill of lading of a Sedonian ship listed 310 wine amphorae lying atop ingots of copper and tin (the metals in a 10:1 ratio). Might there be ingots underlying the amphorae on this wreck? Speaking of the MIT DeepArch high-frequency subbottom profiling sonar, he stated his opinion that it would be "the ideal thing. We won't have to do excavation or probing to any great extent."

A note on the amphorae on this wreck. They have small "earlike" handles unsuitable for lift points. The handles were probably tie-down points, allowing them to be roped together. This type of amphora is known from Tyre. Petrographic analysis may tell more precisely where they originated.

After completing the survey of this wreck, the team turned its attention to 80+ sonar targets with similar signatures. These turned out to be methane seeps, not shipwrecks…

Eventually the ROV encountered a second Iron Age wreck, dubbed "Elissa" by the archaeology team. It is larger than Tanit, carrying at least the 350 amphorae evident on the surface. It is likely that more amphorae lie under the pile. The amphorae were identical to those on Tanit, and this wreck has two stone anchors located midships port and starboard. The site is 18 m long and 6 m wide. Ballast stones are evident on one end.

Question: What are the knowledge priorities for sites like these, and how should we approach them methodologically?

  • No Phoenician ships definitely identifiable, so these site are immediately important data points.
  • Technically, what happened to ship construction between 1200 - 500 B.C.E.?
  • Is there a definite transition between sewn construction techniques and mortise-and-tenon joinery?
  • Is there something else in these holds besides wine? Ingots? Organics?

Professor Stager suggests that an excavation section through the hull into the hold would provide a great deal of information. Samples of extant hull material could be collected to provide data on construction techniques.

In a broader sense, we need to take a wider look at wrecks in the deep Mediterranean.




Deep Water Archaeology Research Group
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Ave. Rm e51-194
Cambridge, MA 02139



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