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A Phoenician ship carved on a sarcophagus, 2nd century AD

The oldest shipwrecks in history

A Phoenician ship carved on a sarcophagus, 2nd century AD | CC BY-SA 3.0 CC BY-SA 3.0

They say that time is the greatest healer, it has the uncanny ability to separate us from the realities of the past. Take Horrible Histories, a bestselling series of children’s books that relishes the gore and violence of the past. In contrast, a series of publications aimed at youngsters that lightheartedly deals with modern-day terrorism or contemporary warfare would be completely unacceptable. The same can be said of antique shipwrecks. The passage of time allows us to view them with almost gleeful dispassion and the loss of life is a readily accepted given.

Gozo Phoenician Shipwreck (700 BC)

Lying at a depth of 110 metres off Xlendi Bay in Gozo, Malta this Phoenician wreck is one of six that lie in state under the Mediterranean. What’s fascinating about the Gozo wreck is the range of cargo on board. In addition to the quern (grain-grinding) stones, some unused, believed to have been transported from Scilly, lies an array of earthenware containers used to carry liquids such as oil and wine.

The Wreck at Cape Gelidonya (1200 BC)

Discovered in 1954, the wreck at Cape Gelidonya is a Bronze Age vessel lying a mere 27 metres underneath the surface. It’s one of the first wrecks from the era to have been discovered and, as such, it’s the first ancient shipwreck to have been entirely dug up.

The wreckage has yielded more than a ton of metal including working tools, weapons and scrap bronze, and up until as late as 2010, objects were still being recovered from the site.

Uluburun shipwreck (1300 BC)

In 1982, the remains of a Bronze Age vessel were discovered lying between 44 and 61 metres under the seas close to the coast of Kas, Turkey. Its date makes it one of the oldest shipwrecks of all time and it contained a veritable treasure trove of Bronze Age artefacts.

Indeed, the whole list requires a page, or a book, in its own right, but some of the highlights include 10 tonnes of copper ingots, 120 tin ingots, 150 Canaanite jars of terebinth resin, plus ebony and ivory, an assortment of jewellery and 14 hippopotamus teeth.

Dokos Shipwreck (2700-2200 BC)

Discovered in 1975, the Dokos Shipwreck is the oldest known shipwreck to date though, disappointingly, nothing of the actual vessel survives. This isn't that surprising as it was resting in relatively shallow water (15-30 metres) off the coast of Southern Greece, close to, you guessed it, Dokos.

Between 1989 and 1992 the site was excavated and what remained of the artefacts were recovered. This included urns, cups, a variety of sauceboats, and millstones. The Dokos shipwreck might be lacking the ‘wow’ factor we’ve uncovered in other shipwrecks, but it does say a lot about navigation, maritime trade, and the level of technology available to our forebears some 4,500 years ago.

Unnamed Greek Merchant Ship (400 BC)

This Greek merchant ship discovered in 2018 has been nicknamed 'Odysseus'. It might not be the oldest-known ship, but this 23 metre long wreck is in an almost uncanny state of preservation, to the degree that it looks like it's only just sunk. The reason for this is because the wreck lies over 2 kilometres under the Black Sea where the water is anoxic and can preserve organic material for thousands of years.

What’s even more intriguing is that 'Odysseus' appears to be identical to the ship painted on the side of the Siren Vase in the British Museum, that depicts Odysseus strapped to the mast of the ship (hence the nickname). So, not only has history been brought to life, but the anomalies of Ancient Greek art and, arguably, even her myths have as well.

Despite being over 2,400 years old, we can imagine this ship as a working vessel, with her occupants steadfastly making their way to their destination, just before tragedy struck. One wonders if there were any survivors.