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The Phoenician wreck of Mazarron II

By Nick Nutter | 6 Sep 2018

In 650 BCE the Mediterranean coasts of Mercia and Andalucia  were buzzing with marine activity. The tramp steamers of the day, Hippos, brought goods from east and west, trading the length of the sea from the Lebanon to Cadiz calling off at ports on their way. The Phoenicians did not tend to build piers and quays to allow boats to moor alongside, that development came later with the Carthaginians and Romans, the larger sea going vessels anchored off a beach whilst smaller 'lighters' sailed too and from the beach with cargo and stores.

Just off Playa de la Isla, at Mazarron in Mercia, one such lighter, complete with its cargo, sank. There it remained until it was rediscovered in 1994. Excavations on the site did not begin until 1999. What the marine archaeologists found transformed our understanding of Phoenician ship building and trading practices of that time. 

After excavation the actual hull of the boat, known as Mazarron II (Mazarron I was a far less well preserved vessel of similar size and age found nearby some years earlier), was left in situ, protected by a metal box. Most of the cargo was brought ashore for preservation and is on view at the Underwater Archaeology Museum in Cartagena. An exact copy of the hull and its positioning on the seabed was constructed and forms a centrepiece at the museum allowing visitors to examine the construction and other details.

Mazarron II is 8.10 metres in length and its maximum beam is 2.25metres. It was constructed by first laying the keel with a keelson on top. Both were made of wood from the cyprus tree. The keelson has mortises for securing the mast. Next the strakes, or planks, were added to form the hull. These were made from pine wood.

A method of construction called carvel build was used. The planks are fitted edge to edge and secured using mortise and tenon joints with olive tree wood pegs driven through the joint to secure it. This method of construction was used in a minor way on the 14th century BCE Uluburun wreck and obviously developed in the intervening 700 years. Previous methods involved sewing the strakes together.

At the eighth row of strakes supports for seven beams were attached. Beams give the boat more rigidity. There also appear to be fittings for five thwarts. Finally the fig tree wood frames were inserted inside the hull and attached with esparto cord sewn through the strakes. The Phoenician boat builder of this period could not quite escape from the traditional sewn joint methods. The whole of the inside of the hull was given a good coat of resin to make it water resistant. Mazarron II is the best preserved example of such a boat from this period.

The anchor was found intact near the starboard bow of the vessel. Only part of it was recovered, the remainder lies with the vessel in its original position. It is made of wood and lead. It has two palms, and a wooden shank with a wooden stock filled with lead. A ring attached the anchor to esparto rope. This is the earliest true anchor to be found. All other previous anchors found were stones with holes in them.

From the very accomplished construction and the presence of a mast it could be inferred that this 'lighter' would also have been used for short journeys up and down the coast. Some of the personal equipment belonging to the crew supports this supposition.

The cargo consisted of 1,797 lead 'buns' or ingots weighing a total of 2,820 kilograms. The lead originated from ore from the mines in the Mazarron area. Any silver had been separated out by a process called cupellation. The molten lead monoxide remaining from this process, then known as litharge, had been poured into rough moulds made in the sand on the beach to form the 'buns' we see today. The ingots had been laid on a thick bed of branches to protect the hull from damage.

Sometime just prior to their craft sinking the crew had enjoyed a meal of lamb. Bones from that animal were found near the mast step and indicate the meat was salted to preserve it. Towards the bow of the boat was a grinding stone complete with hand grinder. Clearly the crew ground their own grain for porridge or bread. Whole grain was less likely to be spoilt at sea than pre-milled grain. An amphora of the Trayamar pattern, typical of Phoenician amphora from the seventh and sixth centuries BCE was the only such container found on board. It probably held water for the crew. Alongside was a wicker basket with a wooden handle. It possibly held the grain. The only items missing seem to be the plates or bowls the crew would have possessed in order to cook and consume their food.

To date the Mazarron II wreck is the oldest wreck from the western Mediterranean and the best preserved of any wreck of comparable age. It still has much more to tell us.

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