The Mystery of the Kyrenian Shipwreck

THE RUGGED coastline of Northern Cyprus is not only breathtaking but also abundant with treasures of old, not least the site of where an amazing Kyrenian shipwreck was found, in fact, the oldest trading shipwreck ever to be discovered.

Dating back to the 4th century BC, a Greek merchant ship sank in open waters less than a mile from the anchorage at Kyrenia and here she and her cargo mysteriously lay for several centuries. Miraculously when the ship was inadvertently spotted in 1965 by local sponge diver, Andreas Cariolou, an impressive 75% of the ship was preserved, mostly thanks to the sand-mud in which the ship had silently lay for so long.

The wooden hull, built predominantly of Aleppo pine, was preserved at a length of almost 40 feet from its original size of just 47 feet. What makes this preservation story even more remarkable is the fact that the ship itself was probably several decades old when she sank, with clear evidence of her having undergone multiple repairs and major reconstruction.

Whilst the initial sighting of the wreck was in 1965, the stormy conditions in which the diver had made the discovery whilst securing his boat’s anchor left some uncertainty as to the precise location. It was not until 1967 that Mr Cariolou was able to lead nautical archeological experts back to the site.

Given the importance of this historical find a further two year period was taken to carry out the salvage expedition with painstaking and meticulous mapping and labeling of the entire ship, her location and cargo. In 1970 a further four years were dedicated to the conservation and preservation of the wreck, temporarily interrupted in 1974 by the island’s political upheaval. The wreck was finally reassembled after the Turkish peace operation in 1976.

The ship and all of her findings were ultimately given a new home in the magnificent Kyrenia castle where they remain on exhibit today in the aptly named Ancient Shipwreck Museum. This is undoubtedly the starting point to solving the mystery of why the ship went down and not surprisingly a number of theories are still floating about.

The ship had sailed during the lifetime of Alexander the Great and his successors, a time rife with piracy. Indeed there were certain items absent from the wreck that one would expect to be present on a merchant ship, not least over a ton of cargo. Archaeologists have also also identified spear points in the ships hull, possible evidence of a gruesome fate for the ship’s crew, either killed or sold as slaves.  Perhaps, however, the most telling sign that the ship was attacked is the discovery of what is known as a ‘curse tablet’, a lead tablet thought to be empowered by black magic and often attached to sinking ships by pirates to conceal their crimes.

Of course, the idea of the ship being plundered is the most exciting theory although in all likelihood the ships’ final demise was a combination of old age and rough seas. That said, black magic or not, the fact that such a well-worn ship went on to survive for centuries beneath the sea is an archaeological wonder.

As for her cargo, we can only surmise that any gold coins or other treasures were pocketed by pirates or lost at sea, although the museum is home to most of the original objects that the vessel carried during her last voyage over 2300 years ago. The main cargo comprises of wine amphorae (containers), more than 400 of them, several millstones, more than 300 lead net weights for fishing together with cooking and culinary apparatus – enough for a crew of four. However, the most remarkable find has to be over 9000 perfectly preserved almonds.

Carbon dating of the almonds points to a date of around 288BC (plus or minus 62 years), with carbon dating of the ship’s planks of 389BC (plus or minus 44 years). This puts the ship at more than 80 years old the day that she sank. As the saying goes, she had a good long life, although the same probably can’t be said for the crewmen – their unfortunate demise will undoubtedly remain a mystery forever.