Under the sea near Jeddah.
In early 2012, Philipps-Universitat Marburg was granted a five-year permit to explore a section of the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia for the benefit of the kingdom. During the period of 1 through 12 March 2012, our archaeological team from Philipps-Universität Marburg along with staff from the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities conducted explorations on land and under sea for archaeological remains of harbors and watercraft. We conducted basic terrestrial research at the extreme ends of our research zone, at Rabigh and Al Shoaibah. Underwater investigations were conducted over six days at select points off the coast. The team’s efforts were rewarded with the discovery of one terrestrial site– a coral built jetty with accompanying shell middens– and one shipwreck.
Our preliminary survey was not just to find archaeological sites. Our goals included:
- The exploration of the Jeddah region for shipwrecks and harborages to determine their importance for future archaeological investigation and heritage preservation;
- Examine the coastal dynamics of the region to further our understanding of the Jeddah area to create a long-term archaeological plan;
- Begin the compilation of a preliminary map and database of the sites within the research region for the benefit of the Saudi Commission of Tourism and Antiquities;
- Create a photographic and video-based record of the sites;
- Build a relationship with our Saudi colleagues, as well as with the local pertinent personnel to further the research and promote heritage preservation.
We spent spent several days engaged in underwater exploration, diving through crystal-clear waters, surrounded by multi-colored coral and sealife. Beginning on 6 March, we began examining various areas for shipwrecks. Starting with check-out dives in a secure lagoon, we began archaeological surveying as well as undertaking the first steps of diver training for the Saudi contingent from the SCTA.
Our efforts were quickly rewarded with the discovery of our first shipwreck, and only on our second day! Our dive master, Gerd Knepel was the first to spot it, returning to our vessel with photographs of an encrusted piece of pottery with a handle and neck but broken off at the shoulder. But what was it? Was it Ottoman? Byzantine? Or something earlier. The following day, examining the find underwater, the realization dawned: we had a site containing ceramics of the Roman era, probably fourth or fifth century. Afterwards, back home in Marburg, we were able to refine the date to the late third or fourth centuries AD with the aid of Turkish colleague. Thrilling is an understatement!
At the end of our March survey, we had met most of our goals. We found one shipwreck from antiquity, examined areas of the sea previously unknown archaeologically, gathered information about the coast, and trained our Saudi colleagues in diving techniques and archaeological methods and practices.
We hope our some of our Saudi colleagues will form the core of a future group of nautical archaeologists in the kingdom. The shipwreck we discovered promises to add significantly to our knowledge of ancient Red Sea trade and seafaring along the Arabian coast, and indicates that other wrecks of various times remain to be located along the coast of Saudi Arabia.