The Cargo: Diverse and Partly Unknown

by Frederick van Doorninck, Jr.

first written for The INA Newsletter in 1988

During the time of the Serçe Limanı ship, governmental control of international trade was relatively moderate, permitting a fluctuation in commodity prices that was often sudden and substantial. Wholesale merchants protected themselves from unexpected changes in prices by dealing in a sometimes remarkable variety of goods, a practice well illustrated by the diversity of cargoes on the Serçe Limanı ship.

One of the larger cargoes was approximately three metric tons of glass cullet. Two tons of it took the form of chunks of raw glass, while the rest consisted of broken glassware vessels along with some waste glass produced during various stages in the manufacture of glassware. This cullet, which will be described in greater detail in a later part of this article, was stowed within the after quarter of the hold immediately forward of the stern part of the hull. An examination of photographs of the cullet taken when it first was exposed on the wreck site reveals that it tended to occur in compact masses of a somewhat cylindrical shape. We have concluded from this that the cullet had been contained in baskets, most probably of wickerwork, although no actual remains of baskets have been detected.

Forward of the cullet and aft of midships the hold was ballasted with limestone, chalk and beachrock boulders. Included in this ballast were two pairs of small, rotary millstones. The millstones appear to have been unused and were therefore very probably cargo (see C. Runnels, this issue).

One hundred and ten amphoras were recovered from the wreck. While some of them undoubtedly contained drink and provisions for those on board the ship, the great majority must have been cargo and probably carried wine. Some 50 of the amphoras were stowed within the stern part of the hull and all but a few of the remaining ones were stowed within a small area amidships just forward of the stone-boulder ballast.

Some 80 or more intact glass vessels were on the ship. Many were bottles and tumblers, and most of these were found in the stern. It was the normal practice in the Mediterranean during that period to ship such fragile cargoes in wickerwork baskets or crates, and fragmentary remains of a wickerwork container were found in close association with some of this intact glassware. Although the wickerwork remnant did not survive excavation, its presence was documented by a photograph.

The ship was carrying some small cargoes of fragile ceramic wares that were also probably packed in wickerwork baskets or crates. One of these cargoes consisted of a half dozen thin-walled gargoulettes (one-handled jugs with a built-in filter) of white fabric that were found in the stern. They have filters with delicate network and pseudo-Kufic designs characteristic of gargoulettes made at that time in Egypt. Another ceramic cargo, stowed with the amphoras amidships, consisted of some three dozen thin-walled cooking pots, several baking dishes, a half dozen two-handled jugs, and a half dozen gargoulettes. All of this pottery is made of similar purplish-red fabrics, and the cooking pots and baking dishes have a dark, lead glaze on their interior surface. Although close parallels for these wares have not as yet been found, they would appear to be examples of a general type of ware that was widely used in Syria and Palestine during the period of the Crusades and already produced in Palestine, and quite possibly in Syria, during the time of the Serçe Limanı ship.

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The ship was also carrying almost four dozen glazed bowls. A1though at least two of them had seen use, most of them must have been cargo. Some had been stowed in the stern, most of the others with the amphoras and ceramic cargoes amidships. These bowls are products of the Moslem world, but parallels sufficiently close to suggest specific places of origin have not yet been found. Some of the bowls are examples of splash ware, so called because various colors of glaze were poured or splashed on the interior of the bowl in such a way as to create a decorative design. Conventional chronology would assign a 9th-century date to splash-ware bowls decorated much like those from the Serçe Limanı ship. Other bowls are very early examples of sgraffito ware, so called because the decorative designs were carved into the clay. The sgraffito designs on the Serçe Limanı bowls are rather deeply carved in what is known as the champlevé fashion, a technique conventional chronology maintains did not appear until the l2th century. Clearly the glazed bowls from the Serçe Limanı ship will make an important contribution to a much needed reassessment of the chronological development of Islamic glazed wares.

A small cargo that could easily have fit within a single shipping container and some personal possessions were found together immediately forward of the hold in the bow. Both the cargo and personal possessions may very well have belonged to one person. The cargo consisted of a small amount (less than 1 kg was recovered) of the arsenic ore orpiment, over a dozen items of glassware, and possibly some or all of the five glazed bowls and three small amphoras. The most elaborately-decorated intact glassware recovered from the wreck was a part of this cargo, including a matching bottle and tumbler decorated with engraved lions. In addition to one of the glazed bowls, which shows clear signs of extended use, the personal possessions include a couple of glass coin weights, two used cooking pots, and a wickerwork toilet kit containing a scissors, razor, wooden comb and a small number of Byzantine copper coins (the practice of carrying spare change in one's toilet kit when traveling would appear to be an old one). The finding of pork bones in one of the cooking pots suggests that the owner probably was a Christian. That there were other Christians on board is further indicated by the recovery of additional pork bones from other parts of the wreck.


Almost nothing was found within the hull between the small cargo plus personal possessions in the bow and the cargoes of amphoras and ceramics amidships. Only the ship's spare anchors, which had fallen from the deck above, and a half ton of limestone cobbles that had served to ballast the forward half of the hold. Since the ship would have been hopelessly out of trim had there not been cargo in this part of the hold, we must suppose that either the cargo or cargoes here had been unloaded just prior to the ship's sinking or had been of such a perishable nature that they disappeared in their entirety. In either case, the fact that this part of the hold had been so lightly ballasted suggests that a relatively heavy cargo had been stowed here. We also have slight evidence of the presence of lighter cargoes overlying the boulder and cullet ballast. Although no conscious effort was made to collect organic remains from glassware cullet that had become concreted together into large lumps, when these lumps were broken down to recover the individual fragments of glassware some grape pips and sumac seeds (at first thought to be lentils) were occasionally found within the lumps. Grape pips and sumac seeds were also found together within two amphoras that had time to rest on the seabed just forward of the cullet ballast. This raises the distinct possibility that cargoes of sumac and raisins, and perhaps other perishable products, had been present in the after part of the hold.

One of the more challenging tasks we face in studying the Serçe Limanı shipwreck is that of determining where these diverse cargoes had been put on board the ship. That the ship was involved in commerce with the Fatimid realm is clear. Recovered from the wreck were 16 glass coin weights, all Fatimid issues, two sets of balance-pan weights that appear to be Fatimid, three gold coins, all Fatimid quarter dinars, and 15 clippings from Islamic gold coins. The white gargoulettes suggest that the voyage might have begun as far away as Egypt, but if only one port of embarkation was involved, present evidence points to the Fatimid coast of Syria. Both the intact glassware and the glassware cullet appear to have been produced at just one locale within the Moslem world. Lead isotope studies indicate that lead present in some of the glass, as well as in glaze from the glazed bowls, has isotopic ratios identical to lead from northwestern Iran. This would appear to favor a Levantine origin for the glass, as well as for the glazed bowls. The Palestine-Lebanese coast was in Fatimid times, as it was before and after, one of the most important centers for the manufacture and export of glass in the eastern Mediterranean, glass famous for its fine quality and thus particularly desirable even as cullet. The purplish-red ceramic wares were very probably products of this same area, which was also was a major exporter of millstones and renowned for its dried fruits and fine wines. The amphoras on our ship were of Byzantine origin, but as we will see, they were old jars being reused. We might also note that a beautiful gold earring from the wreck is very probably a product of Fatimid Syria. Perhaps analysis of the ship's stone ballast, yet to be undertaken, will help us to pinpoint further the ship's point of departure.

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The ship had sailed westward into Byzantine waters, undoubtedly toward some port where glassware was being produced locally. The maritime transport of cullet from a major glass-making center to secondary centers of glassware production made good economic sense. The cullet could be shipped in place of ballast, as was in fact done on our ship, and thus at a low freight rate. Glass factories importing cullet could make due with less-sophisticated furnaces and cut fuel costs, since they did not have to make the glass itself.

What then was our ship's intended destination? Some of the ship's cooking pots and storage jars whose place of manufacture has not yet been determined and the javelins and spears carried on the ship for its defense, which appear to have better Balkan than I&127Iear Eastern parallels, may or may not eventually shed some light on this question. In the meantime, it is the amphoras that presently offer the best clue as to where the ship may have been heading.