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To Dive for the Meaning of Words
by George F. Bass
Texas Classics in Action, Winter 1994.
When I learned to dive in 1960, while a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, it was to enable me to raise artifacts--tangible evidence of the past--from a Late Bronze Age shipwreck located off Cape Gelidonya, Turkey. I had no idea that the new field of underwater archaeology might also aid philologists by clarifying the meanings of words in ancient texts.
The excavation at Cape Gelidonya revealed mostly the cargo of a modest merchant vessel that had sunk around 1200 BC, approximately the time about which Homer wrote. Thirty-four ingots of Cypriot copper, the residue of tin ingots, and baskets filled with scrap bronze weighed about a ton in all. Between this metal cargo and the fragmentary remains of the ship's hull was a layer of twigs with their bark still preserved.
Someone on the excavation staff had brought an English translation of the Odyssey, so, looking for an explanation for the twigs, I eagerly turned to the passage in which Homer describes Odysseus building a wooden vessel in order to leave Calypso's island. After completing his hull, the translation said, Odysseus constructed a wicker fence to keep out the waves, and then backed up this fence with brushwood. There was my answer: the twigs were backing for a wicker fence, similar to the canvas spray-shield on the Turkish sponge boat from which we dived.
On my return to the University of Pennsylvania at the end of the excavation, I was asked to deliver a report on the excavation to members of the University Museum. Just before going to the auditorium, I thought I should refresh my memory by checking that passage in the Odyssey, and took another English translation from my shelf. It did not say the same thing. So I opened a German translation, and was surprised by a different reading. One said that Odysseus, after constructing the wicker fence, had made a bed of brushwood for himself, and the other said, instead, that Odysseus had thrown in a lot of wooden ballast!
Although I was studying ancient Greek, I had far more faith in professional classicists than in myself as a translator, but at last I turned to Homer's own words in Od. 5.257:
Nothing about a backing for the fence, or wooden ballast, or a bed of brushwood. What Homer said was that Odysseus spread out a lot of brushwood. That's all. The Cape Gelidonya excavation showed that the ulh, the brushwood, was simply dunnage, the cushion mariners use to keep cargo from damaging a ship's hull, and possibly to keep it out of bilge water. Homer should have been translated verbatim.
On a ship that probably sank in the late 14th century BC off Uluburun, the next great cape to the west of Gelidonya, my student and colleague Cemal Pulak has now found an even better preserved layer of dunnage, this time consisting of thorny burnet, a prickly bush that grows wild throughout the eastern Mediterranean area. In this case, he may also have found remains of the ships's wickerwork fence, a type of spray shield that appears in 15th- and 14th-century Egyptian tombpaintings of Syrian ships as well as in the Odyssey.
The Uluburun wreck has also helped clarify words in a number of Near Eastern languages. In a paper delivered in 1972, the late Leo Oppenheim suggested that two words found on cuneiform tablets of the 14th century BC--meku and ehlipakku-- meant raw glass. If he was right, there was written evidence that the major Syrian port of Ugarit exported glass, that Ashkelon, Acco and Lachish sent glass ingots to Egypt, and that the pharaoh, in turn, sent glass ingots to Babylon. There was, however, no archaeological evidence to support Oppenheim's theory until excavators from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology discovered at Uluburun approximately 200 disc-shaped ingots of glass, the first glass ingots known from the Bronze Age.
Most of the Uluburun ingots are cobalt blue, but some are turquoise, and one is lavender. And this distinction throws light on Egyptian heiroglyphic inscriptions. In a relief of Tuthmosis III, Syrians are shown bringing baskets of blue and green cakes as tribute to the pharaoh. The blue cakes are identified in Egyptian as "lapis lazuli" and "genuine lapis lazuli," and the green cakes as "turquoise" and "genuine turquoise." The Uluburun ingots now allow Egyptologists to identify the blue and green cakes as blue and green glass ingots, unless they are specified as being "genuine" in the inscriptions. This distinction was already known from Akkadian, which describes lapis lazuli as being either genuine (literally "from the mountain") or artificial (literally "from the kiln").
The Uluburun excavation may have allowed the correct translation of another Egyptian word, one on which Victor Loret published an entire book. Loret believed that sonter (written sntr) was terebinth resin. If he was correct, he could translate Egyptian texts to show the importation of tons of this substance from the Syro-Palestinian coast into Egypt, where it was burned as incense in religious rites. Because only two possible samples of terebinth resin had ever been found archaeologically, and neither of them identified with certainty, Loret's thesis did not gain general acceptance.
The Uluburun ship carried more than a hundred Canaanite jars filled with a resin chemically identified as coming from the Pistacia terebinthus tree and weighing about a ton. The reason such resin had not been found on land in such quantities is that shipments of resin that did reach their destinations presumably were quickly burned. When I looked at a storeroom scene from the Tomb of Rekh-mi-re in Egyptian Thebes and recognized the word sntr written in heiroglyphs on a Canaanite jar similar to those from Uluburun, my two years of struggling through Egyptian as an M.A. student at the Johns Hopkins University suddenly seemed worth while--especially as the jar was stored with copper ingots, of which the Uluburun ship carried ten tons.
The jars of resin at Uluburun also allow a new interpretation of Linear B ki-ta-no as terebinth resin. Ki-ta-no had earlier been translated by one scholar as being nuts from the pistachio tree, but the vast quantities in which they were used in Bronze Age Greece did not make sense. Perhaps we have a new insight into Mycenaean religion.
Perhaps my greatest thrill on an underwater excavation did not have to do with a new translation, but it did have to do with the history of literacy. It came with the 1986 discovery at Uluburun of a wooden diptych with ivory hinge. In all of Homer there is only one mention of writing. In the Iliad (VI.169) such a wooden diptych is mentioned, but it has been considered anachronistic by scholars, for the earliest such writing tablet known previously came from an 8th-century BC find at Nimrud. Unfortunately, the wax writing faces of the Uluburun tablet had disappeared, so we not only do not know the message it carried, but what language it was written in!
Applicants to our Nautical Archaeology Program at Texas A&M University often detail their diving experiences. How much better if they tell us what ancient languages they have studied. A healthy linguist, after all, can usually learn to dive in a week or two.