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Ancient cargo recovered from oldest shipwreck ever found in Mediterranean Sea, Israeli archaeologists say

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London — A routine oil and gas survey by an energy firm has uncovered cargo from the remains of what is believed by archaeologists to be the oldest and deepest shipwreck ever discovered in the Mediterranean Sea.

Israeli archaeologists said they had retrieved intact storage jars believed to be 3,300 years old from the wreck. The amphorae, as the large jugs are known, were picked up by cameras on robotic submersibles being used by the company Energean during the survey, the scientists said.

The submersibles had been tasked with looking for possible energy sources off Israel's coast.

The amphorae were spotted on the seafloor about 56 miles from Israel's coastline, at the remarkable depth of more than 5,900 feet.

Israel Archaeology Ancient Ship
This photo released by Israel's Antiques Authority (IAA) on June 20, 2024 shows Jacob Sharvit, left, and Dr. Karnit Bahartan, right, with the ancient jars that were carried on the world's oldest known deep-sea shipwreck, discovered some 55.9 miles off the Israeli coastline. Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority/AP

Experts at the Israel Antiquities Authority said the shipwreck appeared to be the "first and oldest" in the region.

Jacob Sharvit, who heads the IAA's marine unit, told CBS News' partner network BBC News the discovery suggested sailors at the time had used celestial navigation to traverse the deep, remote parts of the sea, relying on the sun and stars to determine their physical location.

From the location where the wreck was discovered, Jacob said "only the horizon is visible all around," so the navigators would not have been able to rely on landmarks to find their way.

"To navigate they probably used the celestial bodies, by taking sightings and angles of the sun and star positions," he said.

"The ship seems to have sunk in crisis, either due to a storm or to an attempted piracy attack -- a well-known occurrence in the Late Bronze Age," Sharvit said in a statement.

Dr. Karnit Bahartan, Energean's top environmental official, told the BBC that cameras on the company's submersibles had found what initially appeared to be a "large pile of jugs heaped on the seafloor."

Israel Archaeology Ancient Ship
This photo released by Israel's Antiquities Authority (IAA) on June 20, 2024 shows the control room of the Energean Star ship that mounted an operation to retrieve cargo that was carried on the world's oldest known deep-sea ship, 55.9 miles off the Israeli coastline. Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority/AP

Only two of the jars were brought up to the surface, a process that required special equipment to avoid damaging them or any other artifacts around them. The jars, believed to have belonged to the ancient Middle Eastern Canaanite people, who lived along the Mediterranean's eastern shores, will be displayed this summer in Jerusalem's National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel.

The IAA said the wrecked vessel, buried under the muddy seafloor with hundreds of the jugs jumbled on top, appeared to have been 39 to 45 feet long. It said both the boat and the cargo appeared to be fully intact.

Describing it as a "truly sensational find," Bahartan said the only other two shipwrecks found with cargo in the Mediterranean were dated to the late Bronze Age — hundreds of years after the one containing the amphorae likely sank, and much further north near Turkey's coast.

Bahartan said that, based on the locations and depths of the previously discovered wrecks, "the academic assumption until now was that trade in that time was executed by safely flitting from port to port, hugging the coastline within eye contact." 

"The discovery of this boat now changes our entire understanding of ancient mariner abilities," she said.

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