The shipwreck found at the foot of the Tower of Flies in Akko harbor is beginning to share its secrets. In a new study combining maritime archeology and metallurgy, research student Maayan Cohen of the University of Haifa managed to unravel the chemical composition and microstructure of the ancient nails used in the construction of the ship. Her study enabled the dating and identification of a ship that has puzzled researchers for over half a century. “Even the most experienced investigators from the police forensic identification unit would have been proud of the work done here,” the research team declared. “The chemical composition and other evidence show that the nails were manufactured in the first half of the nineteenth century, probably in England.”*
The Akko Tower Wreck has been playing tricks with researchers for over 50 years. The shipwreck was discovered during the first maritime archeological survey conducted in Israel using remote sensing technology, in 1966, and bears the distinction of being the first shipwreck identified off the coast of Israel. But the shipwreck is also unique in another respect: to date, researchers have been unable to agree on its identity, and as time passed the mystery only seemed to become more opaque.
The shipwreck was discovered in 1966 by the late Dr. Elisha Linder, the pioneer of maritime archeology in Israel and the founder of the Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies at the University of Haifa, working together with a British team. The researchers hypothesized that the ship was sunk at the entrance to the port of Akko by the British during their attempt to prevent entry by the navy of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799. A map found in a British archive that allegedly belonged to one of the British soldiers who participated in the battle, indicated that the British had indeed sunk a ship at the appropriate location and convinced the researchers that their hypothesis was correct. As the years passed, however, new details emerged. For example – Napoleon Bonaparte arrived in Akko via land and there would have been no need to sink the ship. Moreover, further exploration of the shipwreck revealed that the vessel was smaller than had originally been believed – 25 meters rather than 45 – and was in all probability a merchant ship.
However, throughout this period the researchers had no firm scientific evidence supporting any particular hypothesis. This situation has now changed following a new study undertaken by the research student Cohen, under the supervision of Dr. Deborah Cvikel of the Department of Maritime Civilizations and the Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies at the University of Haifa, together with Prof. Yaacov Kahanov of the Institute for Maritime Studies at the University of Haifa, Dr. Dana Ashkenazi of Tel Aviv University, Prof. Adin Stern of Ben Gurion University, and Dr. Sabina Klein of Frankfurt University. The study uncovered the first scientific evidence from the shipwreck.
More than a hundred brass nails were found in the ship, most of them still embedded in the wooden hull components, while others were scattered inside the vessel. Two different types of nails were found, with lengths of approximately 10 centimeters and 6.5 centimeters, respectively. Both types of nails underwent a series of tests that would not have been out of place in a forensic criminal investigation: Measurement of the density of the brass; fluorescent spectroscopic examinations using x-rays (XRF) examining their chemical composition; optical inspection using a light microscope and a scanning electron microscope to determine the quality of the metal casting and the microstructure and structure of various parts of the nails; examination of the rigidity of the material; lead isotope analysis, and so forth. In the final test, the researchers took two brass nails from the ship and two modern steel nails and hammered them in order to examine who each nail penetrated different pieces of wood.
The long series of studies revealed numerous details. The microstructure of the nails and the presence of silicon revealed that they had been manufactured using the sand casting method. The researchers found a high proportion of zinc and other substances in the alloy. The composition and rigidity of the nails illuminated the manufacturing process, while the isotope analysis identified the most probable location in which they were made. Drawing together all their findings, the researchers formed the following conclusion: The nails were manufactured in the first half of the nineteenth century, probably at a European foundry using raw materials from Britain. “In light of the research findings, we now believe that this is a European merchant vessel that sunk off the coasts of Akko at some time during the first half of the nineteenth century,” the researchers concluded.
The research findings were published in the journal Metallography, Microstructure, and Analysis. The International Metallurgical Society awarded the authors its prestigious Buehler Prize for the best metallurgical study published in 2015.