Sea bottom off Gozo yields 2,700-year-old merchandise-laden vessel

To the west of Gozo, deep beneath the sea, lie the remains of a Phoenician vessel still laden with cargo.  The vessel belongs to the Archaic period and has been lying largely intact at a depth of more than 100 metres after sinking approximately 2,700 years ago.

For the past few weeks the eerie silence and darkness entombing the shipwreck were broken by a team of archaeologists and technical divers who descended on site to recover artefacts and other objects with the aim of finding answers to various queries and also to establish whether the vessel is the oldest in the central Mediterranean.

A Television Malta crew joined them on location for a few days and can testify to the delicate and perilous nature of the work carried out by the team led by Dr Timmy Gambin, a maritime archaeologist at the Department of Classics and Archaeology of the University of Malta.

Discovered way back in 2007, the first probes had already indicated that the shipwreck could be one of a kind.  Further surveys conducted by the Department of Classics and Archaeology of the University of Malta in conjunction with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and the l’université Aix-Marseille, showed that a proper study of the site could yield new and valuable  information on Phoenician trade and on the history of the Maltese Islands in a wider Mediterranean context.

Speaking to, Dr Gambin said that “in 2014 we had already managed to retrieve samples from the cargo and a 3D photogrammetric survey was carried out.  But further recoveries were needed to confirm the approximate age of the shipwreck.  And we can now confirm that the vessel sank around the year 700 BC.  We hope it can also help us shed more light on Phoenician trade in the Mediterranean of the early seventh century BC.”

The site itself consists of a well-preserved Phoenician cargo with various amphorae types and urns spread over an area 12 metres in length and 5 metres in width. Most of the amphorae and other containers are well known from local burial contexts of the Phoenician period as well as from other areas in the central Mediterranean.

However, among the items recovered in this latest expedition is a large type of amphora which, due to it being filled with sediment, weighed approximately 50 kgs.  “What is peculiar about this particular amphora is not the shape itself”, says Dr Gambin.  “Our attention was attracted by four unusual raised features jutting out of the amphora itself.  From the images we had of it lying on the seabed, we thought these could have been used to tie and secure the amphora well.  But now that we have it on dry land, we can see them more clearly.  It seems that they had only a decorative purpose.  But it is the first time that we have something similar”.

According to archaeologist Professor Jean-Christophe Sourisseau, from l’université Aix-Marseille in France, both this article and a smaller jug retrieved during the same dive, seem to have been produced on the Maltese islands, most probably on Gozo itself.  And yet the cargo on board the vessel is representative of the wider western Mediterranean.  He says that “the shipwreck is unique because the cargo consists of wares hailing from the Lazio and Campania regions in Italy, from the islands of Sardinia and Pantelleria, from western Sicily and even from what is now Tunis.  This confirms that in the first quarter of the seventh century BC the Phoenicians had already built a strong foundation for their network of maritime trading connections in these parts of the Mediterranean”.

Dr Gambin is of the opinion that the vessel was engulfed by the sea soon after leaving the harbour of Xlendi in Gozo.  However, “it is far more difficult to ascertain the destination of the cargo.  The grinding-stones are brand new.  They are made of lava-rock from Pantelleria and have never been used.  This shows that the vessel and its cargo had not reached their final destination before sinking. But then again we now have concrete proof that in the seventh century BC the Maltese islands formed part of the Phoenician’s maritime network. We can also compare objects found in Phoenician tombs across Malta and Gozo to the ones found on this shipwreck”.

Another point which is difficult to confirm is the extent of the shipwreck in the seabed.  Prof. Sourisseau says that probably the wooden structure is still there beneath layers and layers of sand, with a secondary cargo that can only be retrieved with much difficulty.

What is certain is that both Prof. Sourisseau and Dr Gambin are highly excited with the discovery and with the information further studies on the shipwreck might yield in the near future.

After proper conservation and careful documentation and examination, the objects retrieved from the shipwreck will be exhibited at the planned Gozo Museum which will be run by Heritage Malta.