Rewriting the Timeline: New Radiocarbon Dating Reveals True Age of Ancient Greek Shipwreck

Kyrenia Ship Hull During Excavation

Kyrenia Ship Hull during excavation. Kyrenia Ship hull on the seabed off northern Cyprus during underwater excavation in the later 1960s. Credit: Image provided to authors by Kyrenia Ship Excavation team for use with this paper, CC-BY 4.0

Research updates radiocarbon calibration curve and reevaluates dates of Greek shipwrecks.

Improved radiocarbon calibration techniques now offer more accurate date estimates for Greek shipwrecks, according to a study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Sturt Manning of Cornell University and colleagues.

The Kyrenia Ship was found in the 1960s off the coast of Cyprus, and it has become a key vessel in the study of ancient Greek shipbuilding. Archaeological evidence has indicated the age of the ship’s final voyage at around 300 BCE, but previous radiocarbon dating efforts have not lined up with the archaeological evidence. Manning and colleagues suggest that this discrepancy is due to outdated radiocarbon calibration data.

Kyrenia Ship Hull Remains

Kyrenia Ship hull remains shortly after the reassembly of the timbers recovered from the seabed excavation. Credit: Image provided to authors by Kyrenia Ship Excavation team for use with this paper, CC-BY 4.0

Accurate radiocarbon dating relies on calibration data based on known-age tree-ring dates to correct for errors caused by variations in atmospheric carbon over time. As radiocarbon dating techniques have improved, some time periods within the current Northern Hemisphere calibration curve have yet to be updated. In this study, the researchers applied new tree-ring samples and modern dating techniques to revise calibration data for the period between 433 and 250 BCE.

Improvements in Calibration Data

The authors then applied the updated calibration to newly acquired radiocarbon dates on materials from the Kyrenia Ship (both from the ship and its final cargo). The resulting dates are compatible with existing archaeological data, and they indicate the ship’s last voyage around 280 BCE, slightly later than previous estimates. The authors also applied the new radiocarbon calibration curve to radiocarbon dates from another Greek ship, the Mazotos ship, and estimated an age of around 370 BCE for the last voyage. This was again slightly later than indicated by previous research.

This study emphasizes the importance of continuing revision of radiocarbon calibration data. The authors note that further refinements to this and other time periods will be especially important for archaeological materials that require dating precision on the order of decades.

The authors add: “We are excited to apply scientific techniques to date the famous Kyrenia Ship a little over 2300 years ago. Central to the history of ship technology and maritime trade in the classical Mediterranean, the methods we use to date the ship – and solutions to various technical challenges we had to overcome – will now help date other shipwrecks and better inform the history of ancient seafaring.”

For more on this research, see Surprise Discovery Reveals Secrets of Ancient Greek Shipwreck.

Reference: “A revised radiocarbon calibration curve 350–250 BCE impacts high-precision dating of the Kyrenia Ship” by Sturt W. Manning, Brita Lorentzen, Martin Bridge, Michael W. Dee, John Southon and Madeleine Wenger, 26 June 2024, PLOS ONE.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0302645

Funding: SWM, New Frontiers Grant, College of Arts & Sciences, Cornell University

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