National Geographic : 1987 Dec
"One hundred pieces of ebony I have dispatched." - Tablet from Amenhotep III to King Tarkhundaradu of Arzawa, found at Tell el-Amarna EARLY IN THE 1986 SEASON Cemal showed me another of those uncanny discoveries of his. He had seen hun dreds of tiny opercula, the button-like plates attached to the feet of murex and many other mollusks. Al though the shells were absent, I argued that the oper cula were natural to the seabed, like countless shells we removed routinely from the wreck. But Cemal knew better. He showed me that the opercula were arranged in recognizable patterns and thus had been stowed by human hands. We later learned that opercula were an ingredient of ancient incense. Perhaps they were also a by-product of the Canaanite industry that extracted the legendary Tyrian purple dye from murex glands. The 1986 season also produced fragments of tortoiseshell from the wreck-perhaps part of the sound box for a lute, the stringed instrument popular in ancient Egypt. We had already re covered a pair of small bronze cymbals only slightly larger than the finger cymbals used by modern belly dancers. Did musicians sail aboard ancient merchant ships? We know from records that they accompanied donkey cara vans on overland treks in the Near East. In 1985 we had found a number of dark logs on the wreck, the largest a yard long. I assumed they were ebony, one more of those raw materi als shown in Egyptian tomb paintings being brought as tribute to the pharaoh, from lands to the south such as Nubia. But not till 1986 did we send a sample to Donna Christensen at the Center for Wood Anatomy Research of the U. S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. Within a week Donna was on the telephone. "Your logs aren't true ebony," she said, "they're African blackwood. The scientific name is Dalbergia melanoxylon, and the tree grows from Sudan as far south as Mozambique and Angola." I was disappointed. I'd wanted badly for our logs to be ebony. But I later turned to my library and got a surprise. I found that what the Egyp tians called hbny, or ebony-the same word we use today but for a different tree-was in fact Dalbergia melanoxylon. It is the same wood used in an elegant bed, a chair, and a stool in Tutankhamun's tomb. So we had our Egyptian connection after all. ENTLYASCENDING a staircaseof copper in gots, Nicolle Hirschfeld removes an amphorafrom the wreck (facingpage). The under side of an ingotfound at the bottom of one stack still bears strands of thorny burnet (bot tom), a shrub used as dunnage. Ashore in a storage basin Michael Halpern (below) emp ties a Canaanitepilgrimflask, as amphorae already inspected for their contents soak in water to prevent splitting.All artifacts are moved to theirpermanent home in the Bodrum Museum of UnderwaterArchaeology.