Shipwreck 43, Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay

In 2011, a team from the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology and the National Museum of the Philippines, supported by the IEASM during their annual mission to Aboukir Bay, began to excavate shipwreck 43, a vessel found in the northern section of the Central Harbour of Heracleion-Thonis. The wreck is one of at least 64 ancient shipwrecks discovered during Franck Goddio’s on-going survey and excavations at the port-city.

Upon discovery in 2007, the upper layers of sand around the surviving edges of the wreck had been removed by a team from the IEASM from the surviving edges of shipwreck 43 and the outline mapped. Wood samples were also taken for wood species analysis and radiocarbon dating. Subsequent analyses demonstrates that the structural elements of the wreck were found to be made from locally-available Acacia totilis/radiana, suggesting that the vessel was Egyptian in origin The ship is tentatively dated between 785-–481 cal. B.C.

During the 2011 excavation season, the OCMA team aimed to investigate the wreck through limited stratigraphic excavation in order to understand the sequence of deposition, to assess the state of preservation of the shipwreck, and to document any remaining structural elements. From our preliminary excavations at the stern of the vessel, it would appear that it has a distinctive form of naval architecture that has not been fully documented elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean. This involved the use of long tenons that were initially fitted to mortice holes that passed through the keel plank, over which multiple lines of planking were added. These were pegged into place with wooden treenails.

From the albeit limited excavations, there do not appear to be any frames and consequently the long tenons may have provided the structural stability of the vessel through a kind of ‘internal framework’. This probably reflects a shipbuilding tradition that developed in accordance with the availability of local supplies of timber and the realities of nautical life at the margins of the Nile Delta.

The excavations also revealed something of the life of the ship following its withdrawal from service and it appears that the vessel was reused in antiquity for a purpose that is, at present, enigmatic. Hypotheses under consideration include the use of the vessel as part of a type of ‘pontoon bridge’ and the deliberate fastening in position for defence or land-reclamation purposes. A stone anchor, found complete with its wooden flukes, was recovered adjacent to the stem plank.

The preliminary results of our initial season have inevitably left us with many more questions than answers and the wreck will be returned to in subsequent missions to Aboukir Bay. The work on wreck 43, led by the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology, complements two other shipwreck excavations by IEASM on what were probably another Egyptian ship and a small watercraft.

This work is supported by grants from the Honor Frost Foundation.

Publications

2011. Robinson, D. ‘Aboukir Bay, Egypt. Shipwreck 43 from the port city of Heracleion’, Nautical Archaeology.

2011. Fabre, D. ‘The Shipwrecks of Heracleion-Thonis: A Preliminary Study’, in D. Robinson and A. Wilson (eds) Maritime Archaeology and Ancient Trade in the Mediterranean. Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology Monograph 6: 13–32. Oxford: OCMA