Offshore E&P Survey Unveils World's Oldest Deep-Sea Shipwreck

Canaanite amphorae recovered from the wreck site (IAA)
Canaanite amphorae recovered from the wreck site (IAA)

Published Jun 20, 2024 4:30 PM by The Maritime Executive

British oil and gas company Energean has discovered what may be the oldest shipwreck ever found in the deep sea. Last year, as the company surveyed the seabed about 50 nautical miles off Israel, it detected an ancient wreck at a depth of about 2,000 meters - and it turned out to be a remarkable find. 

According to the Israel Antiquities Authority, the wreck is a Canaanite merchant vessel dating back some 3,300 years, an era when the pharoahs ruled the Eastern Mediterranean. It was carrying a cargo of hundreds of ceramic jars (amphorae) on a long voyage when it sank from unknown causes. The boat landed upright and nearly intact on the seafloor, and the cold water preserved the wreck for three millenia, hidden from view - until Energean sent an ROV down to investigate. 

IAA lacks deep ocean research equipment of its own, so it asked Energean to send its deep-diving work class ROV down to survey the site and retrieve artifacts for study. The company quickly said yes.

"They asked if we would be willing to do it for them, and it took us no time to agree," an Energean spokesperson told Haaretz. "We knew that if we didn't do it, nobody would."

Courtesy Energean

The ROV survey determined that the ship was about the size of a modern sailing yacht, roughly 45 feet long, and that the surviving structure of the vessel was buried in sand. Using a net and careful maneuvering, they retrieved two jars from the vessel for further study. 

"[The] ship is preserved at such a great depth that time has frozen since the moment of disaster. Its body and contents have not been disturbed by the human hand, nor affected by waves and currents, which do impact shipwrecks in shallower waters," said IAA's Jacob Sharvit, speaking to the Times of Israel. 

Sharvit emphasized that the wreck location was unusual and unexpected. The vessel went down far from shore, well out of sight of any landmarks. Maritime historians have long assumed that the ancient trade routes in the Mediterranean hugged the coastline, where the vessel's position could be estimated by sight alone. The presence of this vessel in deep offshore waters could signify that the mariners of the era were more capable of celestial navigation than previously believed - or that the vessel was simply off course or adrift. 

"From this geographical point, only the horizon is visible all around. To navigate they probably used the celestial bodies, by taking sightings and angles of the sun and star positions," Sharvit told BBC. 

It is only the third wreck ever found from the Late Bronze Age, and the other two were located close to shore, accessible to divers. Only Energean's participation made the discovery and the survey possible, according to the IAA.