Excavation of a Byzantine Shipwreck and the Discovery of Fatimid Artefacts

The 1025 CE Shipwreck at Serçe Limanı, Turkey

The hull of the submerged ship which contained Fatimid artefacts. Photo credit: INA. Copyright.

“Drop a light bulb. Try to put it back together again. Drop three light bulbs. Stir the pieces. Then try to put them back together again. Drop six light bulbs, four glass vases, and a dozen wine bottles, stir the pieces, and try to put them all back together, as if they were new. That is like the problem I faced, starting in 1977 – except I was dealing with between 10,000 and 20,000 smashed glass vessels. But now, after more than two decades of year-round mending, my colleagues and I have assembled by far the largest collection of medieval Islamic glass in the world.”

George F. Bass writing in “Solving a Million-Piece Jigsaw Puzzle: Serçe Limanı, Turkey” in “Beneath the Seven Seas,” ed. by George F. Bass, pp. 106-117. New York and London, 2005.f

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SUMMARY: The Serçe Limanı Shipwreck

The location of Serçe Limanı shown by the green peg

Shipwreck date: c 1025
How the date was established: The date of the voyage is based on the latest of the Fatimid glass weights found on the ship (see photos below), a weight issued under the Fatimid Imam-Caliph al-Zahir in either 1024/25 or possibly 1021/22, a date in agreement with the less closely dated Fatimid gold coins minted during the reign of Imam al-Hakim (see photo below) and Byzantine copper coins on board.
Depth: 33 m (110 ft)
Found by: Mehmet Aıkın
Excavation: 1977 – 79
Excavation responsibility: Joint collaboration between The Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) and Texas A&M University
Cargo: glass cullet, glazed bowls, jewellery, coins, wine
Glass vessels: c 10,000 – 20,000
Ship Hull: 15.6 m (51.2 ft) long
Crew: Bulgarian

Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology, Bodrum, Turkey. Photo credit: Bodrum-museum.com

Conservation: All of the archaeological material from the Serçe Liman shipwreck shown on this page is conserved, stored, and displayed in the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology, Bodrum, Turkey.

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During the latter part of the 3rd decade of the 11th century, a Byzantine merchant ship made her way westward along the southern coast of Anatolia with cargoes she had taken on board somewhere along the coast of present-day southern Lebanon or northern Israel, then part of the Fatimid Moslem caliphate. Seeking shelter, she sailed before easterly winds into Serçe Limanı, a natural harbor on the southern coast of Turkey, opposite the Greek island of Rhodes.

The diving barge moored just over the shipwreck. The Institute’s excavation camp can be seen on the nearby shore. Photo credit: INA. Copyright.

When the ship reached a protected anchorage within the harbor close to the weather shore, the Bulgarian crew cast an anchor, but before a second anchor could be set, a powerful gust of contrary wind caused the vessel to swing around on her anchor cable toward the shore. The anchor held, but its shank broke under the strain. The ship was driven onto the rocks and sank, coming to rest at a depth of about 33 meters on an almost flat expanse of sand at the base of a steeply sloping rock face that descends beneath the water from the shore at the anchorage.

Each 2-m-square area was subdivided into 16 smaller 50-cm-square areas for the purpose of recording where artifacts were found. Photo credit: INA. Copyright.

An expedition of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology and Texas A&M University excavated the Serçe Limanı wreck during the summers of 1977-79. Popularly called the Glass Wreck, it had been chosen partly because of large quantities of broken glassware visible on the site, and also because almost nothing was known about how ships were built during the period to which the wreck belonged. Since the site was relatively flat, natural light levels sufficient to insure high-quality photographs, and most surviving hull remains were not significantly dislocated, a relatively simple mapping system in which a rigid metal grid of 2 m squares laid over the remains was combined with a daily routine of extensive photographic coverage proved adequate. Each 2-m-square area was subdivided into 16 smaller 50-cm-square areas for the purpose of recording where artifacts were found.

Hypothetical drawing of the modest sized Serçe Liman1 ship during construction. A similar, fully rigged ship can be seen in the background. Photo credit: INA. Copyright.

The ship had been a small two-masted vessel with lateen sails. The ship had an overall length of perhaps only 50 Byzantine feet (15 m) and a breadth of 17 Byzantine feet ( 5.3 m).

Despite these modest dimensions, her cargo capacity was some 30 metric tons, this due to her very full, box-like hold, with a virtually flat bottom amidships and an almost angular transition from the bottom to steep, flat sides. With her flat bottom and a keel that scarcely projected below the planking, the ship would have been a poor sailor when not well laden but had the advantage of being able to navigate in relatively shallow waters. She was probably similar to the qarib, a common ship type in Egypt at that time that sailed down the Nile from Cairo and then as far west as Tunisia and Sicily.

All of the ship's hull timbers were labeled on the sea floor. The surviving planking can be seen in the foreground marked with white tags. Photo credit: INA. Copyright.

The surviving hull timbers were preserved with polyethylene glycol and reassembled at the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology in a building designed and built by the Turkish government for the display of the ship and its contents. Although only about 20 percent of the hull has survived, it is an important archaeological document that reveals to us at least one of the solutions that Mediterranean shipwrights had reached by the end of the first millennium to the problem of how to build a hull whose overall shape was determined primarily by frames erected before planking, rather than by planking erected before frames, the latter method being followed in the ancient Mediterranean world.

An archaeologist raising an intact glass bottle. Photo credit: INA. Copyright.

The ship was carrying nine iron anchors when she sailed into Serçe Limanı. Living areas were located within the bow and stern compartments, and apparently also in the midships area. A small cargo that could have fit into a single package and some personal possessions were found in the bow compartment and may have belonged to just one person. The cargo included over a dozen items of glassware and several glazed bowls; personal items included a toilet kit containing a comb, razor, scissors and some coins; a couple of weights for weighing coins; two cooking pots, one still containing goat, or possibly sheep, bones; a well-used glazed bowl; and perhaps one or more of three wine amphoras also found here.

Fatimid glass weights for weighing gold and silver coins. Some of the glass weights bear legible dates, the latest being either 1024/25 or 1021/22 from the reign of Imam al-Zahir, serving as a terminus post quem for the shipwreck. Photo credit: INA. Copyright.

Most food stores were kept either in the midships area or in the stern compartment. The shipboard diet included meat , fish, almonds, assorted fruits, and olives.  There were three large nets with floats, a casting net, and a multi-tined spear for catching fish. The recovery of charcoal only from the stern area suggests that most, if not all, shipboard cooking was done here.

Four of the Fatimid glass weights. Photo credit: INA. Copyright.

Weighing equipment, kept almost entirely in the stern and well suited for a Byzantine-Fatimid trading venture, consisted of a Byzantine steelyard, 3 balances, two large sets of balance-pan weights, one Byzantine and the other Fatimid, and glass weights for weighing Fatimid gold and silver coins. Some of the glass weights bear legible dates, the latest being either 1024/25 or possibly 1021/22. The voyage must have occurred not long after the latest weights were issued, during a time of improving Fatimid-Byzantine relations, affirmed by a peace treaty in 1027.

Three gold quarter dinars of the Fatimid Imam-Caliph al-Hakim (996-1020) were found on the shipwreck and about 15 gold clippings. Photo credit: INA. Copyright.

One of the more challenging tasks in studying the Serçe Limani shipwreck was that of determining where these diverse cargoes had been put on board the ship. That the ship was involved in commerce with the Fatimid realm is clear. Recovered from the wreck were 16 glass coin weights, all Fatimid issues, two sets of balance-pan weights that appear to be Fatimid, three gold coins, all quarter dinars of the Fatimid Imam-Caliph al-Hakim (996-1020), and 15 clippings from other Fatimid gold coins.  The clippings were used in place of silver coins, which were then in short supply and therefore reserved for local commerce.

Another view of the gold coins and clippings. The clipping would have served as 'small change' for the owner.

A small amount of jewelry, usually found in close association with coins and including a half-dozen silver rings and a beautiful gold earring which is very probably a product of Fatimid Syria. The jewellery may have served as bullion, which merchants generally preferred to carry in the form of jewelry.

A beautiful filigree gold earring from the wreck is very probably a product of Fatimid Syria. Photo credit: INA. Copyright.

The paucity of coins and bullion coupled with the presence of three Byzantine lead seals for documents suggests that merchants on board may have used letters of credit as a way of minimizing potential losses to pirates. The white gargoulettes suggest that the voyage might have begun as far away as Egypt, but if only one port of embarkation was involved, present evidence points to the Fatimid coast of Syria.

An emerald green glass chunk. This piece was one of over 2 tons of glass recovered from the ship. The glass came from a factory on the Fatimid Syrian coast. Photo credit: INA. Copyright.

One of the more substantial loads was 3 metric tons of very fine quality glass cullet that was to be remelted and made into new glassware. Made at some glass factory on the Fatimid Syrian coast, then an important glass making center, the cullet was probably being transported to Constantinople, the most important glass making center in the Byzantine world. Such was the quality of the Fatimid glass that was produced, that it was even desirable even as cullet. The load consisted of two tons of raw glass broken up into manageable pieces and one ton of broken glassware and glass-making waste.

The glass fragments from the ship shown above were most likely carried in wicker baskets similar to this modern basket. The unusually fine quality of Fatimid glass made it even desirable as cullet, which would make its way to Constantinople. Photo credit: INA. Copyright.

Almost certainly transported in wickerwork baskets, it was being carried in place of stone ballast in the after quarter of the hold. Shipping glass cullet cheaply as ballast often made economic and/or technical good sense, since melting glass requires a much lower temperature than making glass does and a desired kind of glass can not always be made from locally available raw materials.

The Serçe Liman1 ship was carrying almost four dozen Fatimid glazed bowls. This bowl is an example of both splash ware and sgraffito ware, in which decorative designs are carved into the clay. INA Photo. Copyright.

A close-up of the Fatimid bowl. Photo credit: INA. Copyright.

Almost four dozen Fatimid Islamic glazed bowls, which find their closest archaeological parallels at Caesarea on the northern coast of Israel, had been stowed, again in small groups, in both compartments and in the hold just aft of midships; only a few were in use. Most of the bowls were examples of either splash ware, so called because various colors of glaze were poured or splashed on the bowl’s interior in such a way as to form a decorative pattern, or sgraffito ware, so called because decorative designs were carved into the clay. In this instance. the designs are rather deeply and broadly carved in what is known as the champlevé fashion. Although conventional chronology had assigned a 9th-century date to splash ware and a 12th-century date to the beginning of the champlevé style, the two techniques appear together on some of the Glass Wreck bowls, a fact that has lead to a reassessment of the chronology of Islamic glazed wares.

An example of Fatimid sgraffito ware from the shipwreck. Photo credit: INA. Copyright.

Another example of Fatimid sgraffito ware from the shipwreck containing Kufic inscription. Photo credit: INA. Copyright.

The ship was also carrying at least 104 Byzantine amphoras, 3 in the bow compartment, and the rest about equally divided between the hold just aft of midships and the stern compartment. The presence of so many Byzantine amphoras initially left the expedition team perplexed, since the ship was carrying cargoes from Fatimid Syria. The team then realized that the owners of the amphoras had used the jars over and over again as transport containers, selling their contents but always keeping the amphoras for further use. There are potter’s marks and marks of over a half-dozen different owners carved on most of the Byzantine amphoras. The potter’s marks as a group have their best parallels among contemporaneous Bulgarian potter’s marks, and the team was inclined to think that the ship and many, if not all, of the merchants and crew on board were from a community in that region that included Hellenized Bulgarians in its population. The ship’s most likely destination would appear to have been Constantinople, an important production center for Byzantine glass.

Collection of some of the Fatimid glazed bowls. Photo credit: INA. Copyright.

On-going efforts to sort and mend between half a million and a million shards of broken glassware recovered from the wreck belonging to between 10,000 and 20,000 vessels has produced more than 200 distinctly different shapes and some unique new shapes never before seen by modern eyes. These  include various types of beakers, cups, bowls, bottles, jars, ewers, jugs, plates and lamps. Not only is the glass varied and abundant almost beyond belief, it is also firmly dated to about C.E. 1025 by Islamic weights stamped with the years of the reigns of caliphs of the Fatimid dynasty, and by Byzantine coins of Emperor Basil II. These vessels illustrate for the first time the general nature of medieval Islamic glassware made in Syria and reveal a regional style characterized by an extensive use of simple, patterned molds to decorate vessels in a highly cost-effective manner. For example, vessels begun in the same patterned mold were sometimes then further blown into a variety of quite different shapes. 

INA personnel in the Bodrum museum seen reconstructing glass vessels from glass fragments. Photo credit: INA. Copyright.

These discoveries mean that museum curators around the world finally have a base with which to compare and date glass vessels in their collections. “The precise dating and broad scope of this find are finally making it possible to discuss glass of the Early Medieval period with confidence,” observes Islamic art expert Dr. Marylin Madina-Jenkins who has contributed towards research on Serçe Limanı.

This reconstructed bottle is probably the largest surviving glass bottle from antiquity. Photo credit: INA. Copyright

Simerg article publication  date: October 26, 2010
Updated: October 27, 2010

Copyright. The Institute of Nautical Archaelogy.

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Credit: Report and photos produced with the kind permission of the offices of the President and Chief Operating Officer of Institute of Nautical Archaelogy in the USA, Dr. James P. Delgado. We express our indebtedness to the institute for giving us this permission.

The text has been compiled and adapted from INA’s report of the shipwreck which is produced on its Web site. The report is based  on van Doorninck’s  “Glasvraget-et byzantinsk skib fra 1000-tallet,” Hvad Middelhavet gemmer [Århus 1997] 121-136.).

We invite our readers to click Institute of Nautical Research and learn more about INA’s remarkable activities in the areas of nautical excavation and research. INA’s mission is “to fill in the gaps of history and provide answers to challenging historical questions through the study and examination of the vessels that have traveled the world’s waterways for millennia, carrying people and cargo, and making possible the widespread exchange of ideas, innovation and invention.” INA is the only international organization of its kind that can work globally, to locate, document, excavate and preserve significant underwater and nautical archaeological sites.

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Publications:

An Eleventh-Century Shipwreck Vol. 1, The Ship and Its Anchorage, Crew, and Passengers by George F. Bass, Sheila Matthews, J. Richard Steffy,  and Frederick H. van Doorninck, Jr. Illustrations by Selma A?ar, G. Venetia Piercy, and Sema Pulak. Photographs by Donald A. Frey

For almost a millennium, a modest wooden ship lay underwater off the coast of Serçe Limanı, Turkey, filled with evidence of trade and objects of daily life. The ship, now excavated by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University, trafficked in both the Byzantine and Islamic worlds of its time.

The ship is known as “the Glass Wreck” because its cargo included three metric tons of glass cullet, including broken Islamic vessels, and eighty pieces of intact glassware. In addition, it held glazed Islamic bowls, red-ware cooking vessels, copper cauldrons and buckets, wine amphoras, weapons, tools, jewelry, fishing gear, remnants of meals, coins, scales and weights, and more.

This first volume of the complete site report introduces the discovery, the methods of its excavation, and the conservation of its artifacts. Chapters cover the details of the ship, its contents, the probable personal possessions of the crew, and the picture of daily shipboard life that can be drawn from the discoveries.

GEORGE F. BASS headed this research team, which is based out of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Volume part of Ed Rachal Foundation Nautical Archaeology Series, in Association with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.

Also available:

Serçe Limanı: The Glass of An Eleventh-Century Shipwreck, Volume 2 (2004).

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Please visit Simerg’s Home page. The What’s New page has links to all the articles published on Simerg since its launching in March 2009.

10 thoughts on “Excavation of a Byzantine Shipwreck and the Discovery of Fatimid Artefacts

  1. That …..! wow……! is revealing….. The facts have a tendency to surface in true colours……there is the affirmation of the Fatimid Glory….! Mashallah.

  2. Remarkable expedition of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology by which our lost wonders are unveiled. No wonder, these objects/wonders could be loaned from its current museum (Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology) and exhibited at the Aga Khan Islamic Museum in Toronto.

  3. A great heritage brought in light, and hidden pages of history unfolded. Great work by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology. World must appreciate cotribution of the Fatimids in the development of Islamic and Muslim arts, crafts and culture.

  4. Wow! What treaures a sunken ship can reveal! I wish I could see these objects of Fatimid History when I do visit Turkey. Is there a museum in Bodrum that displays any of these?

    • Yes, the archaeological material from the Serçe Liman shipwreck shown above is displayed in the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology, Bodrum, Turkey. Please visit their Web site http://www.bodrum-museum.com/opening_hours.htm. The museum is closed on Mondays. Please verify the winter openings by contacting the museum.

      Also, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology in Turkey is headed by Tuba Ekmekçi. He is the Director of the Bodrum Research Center. He can be contacted at tekmekci@inadiscover.com, and I will say he is courteous and quick in responding!

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