In November of 2004, the Istanbul Archaeological Museums began a series of salvage excavations associated with the Marmaray Rail Project, a multi-billion-dollar expansion of Istanbul’s rail infrastructure (Kızıltan 2010, 1-2). The largest of these excavations‒over 58,000 square meters in area‒occurred in Istanbul’s Yenikapı neighborhood, at the future site of a major interchange station (Gökçay 2007, 166). The Yenikapı excavations soon began to uncover the remains of the Theodosian Harbor, one of the main commercial harbors of Late Roman and Byzantine Constantinople between the fifth and early eleventh centuries AD. Over the next few years, archaeologists discovered the remains of harbor installations, tens of thousands of artifacts, and 37 shipwrecks, the largest and most varied collection of ships known from a Mediterranean site of this period. In cooperation with the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, a team from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) at Texas A&M University directed by Cemal Pulak mapped and dismantled eight of these shipwrecks between 2005 and 2008. The post-excavation documentation, analysis, reconstruction, and conservation of these shipwrecks is currently in progress, and will require a number of years of additional work to complete.
Funding provided by the Honor Frost Foundation will be used to begin the post-excavation documentation and reconstruction of one of the INA Yenikapı shipwrecks: Yenikapı Wreck 23 (or YK 23), the remains of a 15-meter-long merchant ship whose construction is tentatively dated to the late eighth century AD. First discovered in the spring of 2007, the shipwreck was fully uncovered by archaeologists of the Istanbul Archaeological Museums in December of that year. YK 23 was then mapped in situ with a total station and dismantled by the INA Yenikapı team over a period of several months in 2008. The hull timbers of YK 23 and three other Yenikapı shipwrecks were later transported to the INA Bodrum Research Center for full documentation and conservation.
Post-excavation documentation of YK 23 will consist of the creation of 1:1-scale drawings (which are later scanned on a large-format scanner), photographs, and timber catalogs of each hull timber, following methods and standards previously used in the documentation of the other Yenikapı vessels. This data will be compiled in a detailed archaeological report and will serve as the basis for a three-dimensional reconstruction of the hull. Hull timbers and materials associated with the shipwreck such as pitch and caulking will also be sampled for later analysis, including sampling for radiocarbon dating. Based on the completed studies of other Yenikapı shipwrecks of similar size documented by the INA team, the timber documentation phase of the project will require several summer research seasons to complete, the first of which will begin in the summer of 2015. After the timber documentation is completed, YK 23’s hull timbers will undergo conservation in polyethylene glycol (PEG), a water-soluble wax commonly used for the preservation of archaeological wood; the shipwreck will then be returned to Istanbul for storage and possible display in a planned museum at the Yenikapı site.
The study and reconstruction of YK 23 should provide valuable new evidence for the nature of Byzantine seafaring activity in the early medieval period. While Constantinople’s maritime trade has been extensively studied through written sources and archaeological evidence for trade goods, relatively little is known of the actual ships engaged in this trade. Moreover, very few Mediterranean shipwrecks from the eighth century, considered the period of the first millennium AD with the lowest volume of maritime traffic, have been discovered. The study of YK 23 should also make a significant contribution to the history of shipbuilding technology. In the first millennium AD, Mediterranean shipbuilders shifted from ‘shell-first’ ship construction, an ancient method in which a ship’s hull planking is assembled before its frames, to the ‘frame-first’ or ‘skeleton-first’ construction that became the dominant form of ship construction from the medieval to modern periods. However, the origins of skeleton-first construction, as well as the course of its development and dissemination in the Mediterranean, are still unclear. Research on the Yenikapı shipwrecks, including YK 23, should provide important evidence for a transitional and, as yet, poorly-understood phase in the history of technology.
Gökçay, M., 2007, Architectural Finds from the Yenikapı Excavations, in Z. Kızıltan (ed.), Istanbul: 8,000 Years Brought to Daylight: Marmaray, Metro, Sultanahmet Excavations, 166-79. Istanbul.
Kızıltan, Z., 2010, Excavations at Yenikapı, Sirkecı, and Üsküdar within Marmaray and Metro Projects, in U. Kocabaş (ed.), Istanbul Archaeological Museums Proceedings of the 1st Symposium on Marmaray-Metro Salvage Excavations, 5th-6th May 2008, 1-16. Istanbul.
The Institute of Nautical Archaeology’s web page on the INA Yenikapı project.
Web page on the Marmary Project excavations by the Istanbul Archaeological Museums.