Seminar CCXIV: how a seventh-century ship was built, and then abandoned

You may remember, a long time ago, before this blog even, when the powers-that-be in the modern city of Istanbul decided it was time to expand the metro system of the city, started digging and almost immediately found themselves trying to put a tunnel through what was evidently an ancient harbour at Yenikapı? That much, at least, had been sort of expected—the Theodosian harbour of Constantinople was known to be in that location and in any case you can’t really dig into the ground in an old Roman capital city and not strike heritage—so they had archæological intervention ready, but what was not anticipated was the scale of the find. They got thirty-seven vessels out of it in the end, and that took teams of diggers working six days a week right through from 2004 till 2013, with at peak 660 people on site a day, while the bus station and live train tracks that also pass through there continued in operation. It’s one of the more incredible feats of archæology in our times, and one of those 660 people was quite often Dr Rebecca Ingram, who on 14th November 2014 was in Birmingham to tell the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies about it, under the title of “Making it Last: the construction and repair of a 7th-century ship from Constantinople’s Theodosian harbour”.

Survey and measurement of a ship in the Yenikapı harbour excavations, Istanbul

The speaker and her eventual co-author showing nautical archæology at its most glamorous; note the waders…

The harbour itself was the work of Emperor Theodosius I and opened in the 390s AD, but had begun silting up at the western edge as early as the seventh century, and by the twelfth was unusable to any but shallow craft. New docks were still being built in the fifteenth century, that despite, but by 1544 (now of course under Ottoman rule) it was finally abandoned and given over to gardens and housing. The area now sits a block back from the sea, but nonetheless even the fraction that was dug turned out to contain all those ships still, wrecked, sunk or abandoned at various times in that 1200-year history. Of the thirty-seven wrecks, which included six military galleys as well as a range of merchantmen from the fifth to eleventh centuries, eight were selected for detailed study and conservation, and Rebecca was able to speak to us as that work drew near its conclusion and the first ships were being written up.

Shipwreck Yenikapı YK14 under conservation in Istanbul in 2007

Yenikapı shipwreck no. 14 under a soothing regimen of salt spray during conservation in 2007. Note the dock pilings next to which she sank. Other ships had new docks sunk through them, so much a feature of the bottom had they become.

Rebecca had been especially concentrated on the vessel now known as YK11, an eleven-metre commercial vessel built in Turkish pine probably at the beginning of the seventh century, and apparently abandoned on the silt in the western end of the harbour some time soon after the middle of that century. In that relatively short lifespan the ship had seen a lot of use; she had been repaired so much that some of her repairs had repairs, and at one point the whole inside had been rebuilt though the hull was apparently never properly overhauled. The ship was partly built from second-hand timber and thus shows every sign of having been built and run on the cheap and finally—though I don’t think the archæology showed why—having become irreparable. Maybe she just went aground and was too much trouble to refloat…

Yenikapı shipwreck YK11 under slow reconstruction at Istanbul in 2008

Yenikapı YK11 under slow reconstruction with aid of a total station in June 2008

Although Rebecca’s work was mainly focused on the details of the construction, which is beautifully preserved and seems to represent a turning point from shell-building, where the strength is in the hull, to skeleton building, where the strength is in the framework and the hull is just skinning, our questions tended to be that kind of speculation: where would a fairly lightweight ship with an eight-ton cargo capacity have been and gone and what would she have carried? (There was no sign of cargo in the remains.) Would she, for example, have helped supply the city during the Arab sieges through which she must have survived? And when she was abandoned, why was she? Little to none of this could be answered from the archaeology, of course, but Matthew Harpster, also a sometime veteran of the dig, noted the particular concentration of wrecks in the harbour from around the early eleventh century and wondered what disastrous event might have struck. Rebecca said that all attested events of that sort were too late, but this is what you get from taking your stuff out to the public; someone was able to supply a reference to a tidal wave at Constantinople at some point before 1058 from a letter of Jaroslav the Wise. I had heard of this for the first time then and there, but now I am able to offer it as a source for those who like skimming narrative sources for extreme weather events!1 But I am also much more knowledgeable about ship-building and shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean than I was before. And if you would like to be so also, then you may like to follow up the first publications of Rebecca’s team, which have now made it to print.2 I’m here to help!

1. Or at least, I would be if I could find any mention of that letter to cite. It’s not apparently mentioned in Nora K. Chadwick, The Beginnings of Russian History: an enquiry into sources (Cambridge 1949), so I wonder if what the commentator meant was something in the Russian Primary Chronicle? But I can see nothing there beyond a reference in the notes to an earthquake at Constantinople in the late tenth century reported by Leo the Deacon, so no, I’m at a loss, sorry.

2. Witness Cemal Pulak, Rebecca Ingram & Michael Jones, “The Shipwrecks at Yenikapı: recent research in Byzantine shipbuilding” in Deborah N. Carlson, Justin Leidwanger & Sarah M. Kampbell (edd.), Maritime Studies in the Wake of the Byzantine Shipwreck at Yassiada, Turkey (College Station TX 2015), pp. 102-115; Pulak, Ingram & Jones, “Eight Byzantine Shipwrecks from the Theodosian Harbour Excavations at Yenikapı in Istanbul, Turkey: an introduction” in International Journal of Nautical Archaeology Vol. 44 (Portsmouth 2015), pp. 39-73.

One response to “Seminar CCXIV: how a seventh-century ship was built, and then abandoned

  1. Pingback: The power of coincidence | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s