Israeli Scientists Use Rat Skeletons to Understand the Mysteries of an Ancient Shipwreck

April 25, 2022 | Sahir Pandey
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In the 7th or 8th century CE, a ship now known as the Ma’agan Michael B sunk into the Mediterranean not far from what is now Haifa. Because it was buried in sand, the vessel was very well preserved, and has been studied extensively. Sahir Pandey reports on some of the latest research:

Most significant has been the find of the “largest maritime cargo assemblage of Byzantine and early Islamic ceramics discovered along the Israeli coast to date,” according to preliminary findings of the study published in the Journal of the Council for British Research in the Levant. These consist largely of late Roman amphorae and globular amphorae, several of them bearing inscriptions. . . . The ship appeared to be carrying a cargo, among other things, of walnuts from Turkey and fish sauce made of fish caught in the Sea of Galilee.

Interestingly, the evidence points to the ship being manned by a crew of diverse faiths and possibly ethnicity. . . . Christian crosses were found alongside Muslim blessings such as “Bismillah,” meaning “in the name of God,” and Greek and Arabic letters carved into the walls. The absence of human remains indicates that the crew had a lucky escape when the ship sank close to shore.

But that is not all. The well-preserved remains of the ship also contain an unusual source of information. The skeletons of rats that once infested the ship are proving to be very useful in finding out more about life aboard the ship before it ran aground, cutting short its career.

Some of the remains were of black rats, a species that had reached the Middle East aboard trading ships from South Asia and India more than 2,000 years ago. However, dental morphology revealed that others were “exotic to the area.” They may have come from Tunisia or Corsica.

If so, there was much more trade going on in the Land of Israel at the time than previously assumed.

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