A Phoenician shipwreck, believed to be the oldest in the central Mediterranean, made international headlines last week.

The find, a mile off Gozo, could shed light on better commercial relations between the Phoenicians, ancient Greeks and other cultures in the central Mediterranean, according to marine archaeologist Timmy Gambin, co-director of the project surveying the site.

“We’re used to reading about the tension between the Greeks and the Phoenicians and I think further studies on this shipwreck may shed light on better trade relations than what we currently hypothesise about,” he said.

Over the past couple of months, the site was surveyed, samples were extracted and a technical team is putting together 8,000 photographs to create a high-resolution 3D model of the area.

The project is the first step in exploring the best way forward about the management and preservation of the site.

Dr Gambin expressed confidence that excavations could reveal remains of the wooden vessel, buried two metres beneath the seabed surface.

“Many think a shipwreck is a time capsule but the preservation of the vessel’s wood depends on how the site was formed.

“There are biological factors like sea worms that eat at the wood and oceanographic processes where sea plants carried by currents accumulate around the site,” he said.

“Comparing the information from the site with that of similar shipwreck discoveries where wood remains were in good condition, we are 99 per cent sure there are wooden remains under the seabed.”

The Gozo shipwreck is unique because it dates back to 700BC and archaeologists know hardly anything about ships built in the archaic period.

Many think a shipwreck is a time capsule but the preservation depends on how the site was formed

Although much is known about Greek and Roman shipbuilding, there is very little iconographic (picture), written and archaeological evidence on Phoenician vessels.

The discovery is also rare as although there are some five well-preserved shipwrecks in eastern Mediterranean, the two that date between 800 and 750BC were found very close to where the Phoenicians were based in modern-day Lebanon and Israel.

Apart from the wood of the vessel itself, archaeological remains two metres below the seabed give rise to a possibility of a secondary cargo of smaller objects, like small ceramic pieces such as jugs.

The seven different types of visible amphorae on site, which probably originate from Western Italy, Sicily and, possibly, Sardinia, might answer questions about the route of the ship. The amphorae might have been carrying wine and some could have been traded for funeral rites.

Some 20 blocks of stones made of volcanic rock and probably used to grind wheat and weighing over 1.5 tons show the extent the traders would go to make a profit.

The survey of the shipwreck is being carried out within the Groplan Project funded by the French National Research Agency and is also aimed at developing underwater photogrammetry, a 3D recording system for scientists.

The results are internationally significant for archaeologists interested in archaic trade and technology but also for those developing underwater robotics.

“Apart from understanding archaic shipbuilding technology, this project will also answer questions about how modern-day technology can help human beings in their various underwater projects.

“While the vast majority of shipwrecks discovered so far are in waters 60 metres deep or shallower, this is in waters 120 metres deep, so the project will answer questions on how much technology can replace human intervention and, at the same time, test the limits of human efficiency,” Dr Gambin said.

The technology used in the project could, for example, be developed for pipeline surveys and underwater structures like breakwaters that are out of reach of human beings.

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