British archeologists found a dozen ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea dating as far back as the 3rd century BC (Credit: Enigma Recoveries)

Historians have long suspected that the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, a popular ancient shipping route, is home to numerous shipwrecks. However, seven decades of search by marine archeologists had failed to unveil any traces of the boats. That changed on April 21, 2020, when the Enigma Shipwrecks Project (ESP) team revealed the discovery of a dozen ancient trading vessels in the Levantine Basin, the easternmost part of the Mediterranean Sea.

The Ottoman ship was carrying twelve ibrik copper coffee pots from Egypt or Turkey (Credit: Enigma Recoveries)

Even more exciting, the shipwrecks comprise a mix of Hellenistic, Roman, early Islamic, and Ottoman boats dating back between the 3rd century B.C. to the 19th century, providing historians new insights into the evolution of trade along one of the world's most popular ancient shipping routes.

Sean Kingsley, director of the Centre for East-West Maritime Exploration and one of ESP's lead archeologists, said: "This is truly ground-breaking, one the most incredible discoveries under the Mediterranean."

The massive Ottoman vessel was carrying Chinese Ming porcelain (Credit: Enigma Recoveries)

The shipwrecks, which lie in the seabed about 1.2 miles (2 km) below the surface, were discovered in 2015 by ESP's remote-controlled robots. Since then, the marine archeologists have been using state-of-the-art technology to map, record, and carefully extract the pristinely-preserved cargo items the vessels were carrying.

"It's painstaking, slow work, takes a long time to recover – it's two hours just to commute the robot down to the sea bed," Kingsley says. "We're at the depth of 39 Nelson columns [an 18-foot monument in London's Trafalgar Square] stacked on top of each other – scuba divers can't get there, fishing trawlers can't rake up the deep."

Some of the green-glazed jars found around the Ottoman ship contained Indian peppercorns (Credit: Enigma Recoveries)

The researchers say the oldest shipwreck dates back 2,200 years to the end of the Hellenistic era, the period from Alexander the Great's death in 323 B.C. to 31 B.C., when Roman troops conquered the last of his territories. The discovery of religious objects on its deck has led them to hypothesize that the ship sunk while the crew was praying.

One of the six bronze cannons that protected the Ottoman ship from pirates (Credit: Enigma Recoveries)

The most significant find was a 43-meter-long trading vessel — large enough to accommodate two merchant ships on its deck — from the Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa between the 14th and early 20th centuries. Believed to have sunk around 1630, while sailing between Egypt and Istanbul, it was filled with goods from 14 cultures and civilizations.

Among the items recovered are Chinese Ming porcelain bowls — the first-ever unearthed in the Mediterranean Sea. The archeologists also found hand-painted jugs from Italy, glazed jars filled with peppercorns from India, and twelve ibrik copper coffee pots from Egypt or Turkey. ESP asserts the ship's cargo reveals a previously unknown maritime silk and spice route running from China to Persia, the Red Sea, and into the eastern Mediterranean. This indicates that international trade may have begun as early as the 17th century!

A number of pristinely-preserved Green and brown glazed coffee cups from Yemen were also found on the Ottoman ship (Credit: Enigma Recoveries)

Though there was initially some concern that the artifacts may be the property of the Cyprus government, it has now been verified that the shipwrecks were in international waters. Hence, the objects belong to ESP which, fortunately plans to share them with the world. Kingsley says, "We want to make sure this gift to humanity ends up in a public museum so everyone can enjoy it."