One of the places we visited while staying in the hometown of Herodotus was Bodrum’s Museum of Underwater Archaeology. I’ve been thinking about this place and what I saw there for weeks now, and trying to figure out how best to share my thoughts about it. Actually, I’ve been trying to sort out exactly what my thoughts are! It’s hard to distil experience and impressions and feelings into words sometimes, and explain how something changes your outlook and understanding and alters your sense of everything, but I’m going to do my best to say at least a little about it. I think this is a place I’ll continue to think about for some time, just letting its impact of what I saw and read trickle through my braincells slowly and see what comes of it.
To begin with, this museum is located in the medieval Castle of St Peter, built by the Knights Hospitaller in the 1400s. The castle itself is pretty cool, but it’s the stuff in the museum that really blew my mind! So, first of all, the actual museum is not underwater. That may seem obvious, but there is a sign when you enter the museum informing visitors of this fact, just in case. I wonder how many people have been relieved, disappointed or surprised by the fact that the museum isn’t submerged. I did actually start imagining the museum as a collection of pools in caves and you had to snorkel to see the artefacts. Actually, that would be kind of fun. Anyway, it isn’t underwater, but everything in the museum was found underwater, in the seas around the Turkish coast.
The artefacts were displayed in different sections of the castle complex’s many buildings. In one building there were only glass artefacts; colourful glass vases, cups and jars in many shapes and sizes. I was quite amazed that so much glass was actually found and could be put back together into all the many delicate forms they were originally in. There was also a huge collection of amphorae, which are big pottery jugs of a sort, used in the Mediterranean for thousands of years, up until the 7th century. They were used for shipping various things like wine and olive oil, resin, olives, grain, fish and fruits. Some of them were huge, and you could see different styles that were made in different areas of the Mediterranean.
By far the best thing was the exhibition of the Uluburun Shipwreck, which features the remains of a ship found in the Turkish seas near Antalya in the south of the Turkey. This ship is from 14th century BC, in the Late Bronze Age. Oh, my heart nearly skips a beat when I think about the amazing-ness of it all! It’s three and a half thousand years old! My brain cells and blood cells are dancing for joy as I contemplate how fantastic it is!
So, this ship was discovered by a Turkish sponge diver in 1982, and over numerous summers between 1984 and 1994, the contents of this amazing find were excavated using underwater archaeology techniques. There was a little display about the actual archaeology process. Looks so difficult. You have to be just as meticulous as you would in an excavation on land, but with the obvious added difficulties of being in scuba gear and being completely submerged in water.
What you get to see in the Uluburun exhibition is physical evidence of a former age of globalization. Some experts think the ship was heading to what is now the Turkish coast from the island of Cyprus, while another theory holds that the ship was leaving Turkey for the Nile, then a wealthy centre of trade, and was perhaps carrying rich gifts for the Egyptian Pharaoh. But it’s impossible to tell the actual nationality of the ship because the various items it carried were so mixed; they were Cypriot, Mycenaean (Greek), Canaanite, Kassite (a near eastern tribe, originating in Iran), Egyptian and Assyrian (from Mesopotamia, aka, modern day Iraq).
I didn’t take many photos really, because I wasn’t sure if you could. I never know exactly what the policy on that is in museums. Now I really wish I’d tried, but I think at the time I was just too absorbed in everything to think about it too much. I made a few notes about what we saw so I wouldn’t forget, but I’m sure I’ve left some things out. Anyway, here’s what I do remember seeing:
There were tons (literally- 10 tons) of large copper ingots from Cyprus. These are cow-hide shaped ‘raw’ copper chunks, made into handy, standard size pieces that were easier to carry on horseback or mule. There was also tin, mined in Spain, Persia (modern day Iran) or Afghanistan, which, when combined with copper, would have made bronze, which was the main metal of choice at the time (hence the ‘Bronze Age’). The amount of these metals on the Uluburun ship would have made enough bronze to provide weapons for a whole army.
There was also beautiful amber mined in the Balkans, colourful glass beads, amphorae still full of pomegranate and fig seeds, and others that would have held wine, grapes, olive oil, etc. There were many small Egyptian scarabs, including one gold scarab of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti. Even at the time this ship would have sailed, the Nefertiti scarab would have been hundreds of years old. The crew, who were probably Palestinian or Syrian (a number of bronze swords and weapons from this region were found in the wreck), would have worn the small scarab pendants as good luck charms to protect them on their travels.
There were also many lovely gold items, such as a chalice and a large falcon shaped pendant and other jewelry, and even ‘scrap’ gold that would have been used to purchase necessary items along the journey. There were ostrich eggs, and rhinoceros ivory (at this time, there were still rhinos in Palestine!) and elephant ivory and ebony from Africa. There was one ton of special resin used for perfumes found in Canaanite jars, and small oil lamps. There were also some large blue and green glass ingots. At the time, the secret of making glass was not very widely known, so places like Egypt or Syria exported the raw glass to other locations. There were numerous Mycenaean objects, so perhaps there were some Greek passengers aboard the ship in addition to the Syrian-Palestinian crew. Among the Mycenaean items was a two-handled cup used for libations to the gods, some Greek-style bronze swords and daggers, and a beautifully carved cup in the shape of a ram’s head. There was also an Italian sword and a ceremonial axe-head that probably came from the area of modern-day Bulgaria.
Another interesting collection of items consisted of maybe ten little Assyrian (Iraqi) seals. These were small cylinders with tiny pictures carved into them. The seals could be rolled on a clay tablet, or maybe wax, and leave an imprint that might have served as a signature. One of the seals was really interesting, and sort of funny. Originally, it had some cuneiform writing on it, as well as a number of people carved into it. It looks like a happy domestic scene; maybe a mother, father and small child playing, and even in such a simple design, you get a sort of carefree, cheerful feel. Later, however, someone carved out the cuneiform symbols and replaced them with a really angry-looking gryphon. It looks like the happy family are just minding their own business and then this gryphon showed up and is about to eat them. A rather odd mix of symbols!
Really, there were so many interesting things, it’s so hard to remember them all. It was truly amazing that all of this stuff was preserved for so long!
I think one of the reasons I appreciated this exhibition so much is that I had just read the Iliad about a week before our trip. That amazing Greek epic takes place during the Bronze Age, and seeing all these artefacts from the same time period helped me to really visualize more of the world depicted in the story. Looking at ancient Mycenaean bronze swords and spear heads, I could picture the mighty Achilles and Hector, and all the Greek and Trojan men fighting it out on the Anatolian coast.
Seeing all these amazing objects also reminded me how great and vast and beautifully rich the world and its peoples are, and I just found it so mind-blowing thinking about how, even thousands of years ago, the world and its civilizations were so interconnected. There is certainly, and always has been, immense and mind-boggling diversity in the world, but at the same time, the human race has always been interconnected through trade, immigration, political and intellectual pursuits, exchange of goods and ideas… In my humble opinion, it’s this interplay of difference and exchange that makes humanity great and and life so exciting.
Thinking about the interconnectedness of civilisations and cultures really makes me question ideas about identity, nations, ethnicity, etc. I think we’re often taught about our identity and place in the world in very simplistic ways, where things are black and white, and the world is divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’. We think there are clear divisions between ethnic groups and nations and cultures. However, the more I read and see and learn, the more I come to realize that this is all oversimplified to the point of being just plain false. There are certainly differences between people and groups, but there are no sharp divisions. Instead, there is a huge amount of gradation, overlap and grey area where lots of different and sometimes even contradictory things are all mixed together. We think that we are distinctive and unique, and that our culture is such and such a thing, independent of all other things. But everything we have and are comes from so many different sources, and is influenced by so many different events and ideas and cultures and civilizations, how can we really think that we are alone or separate from everything and everyone else?