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Cannons found off Israeli coast may have been used to fight 16th-century pirates

Scientists research unique bronze weaponry from Megadim, made in Venice during the ‘Age of Sail’

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

The bronze cannons as found at sea and decorative elements of cannon C after cleaning (E. Galili)
The bronze cannons as found at sea and decorative elements of cannon C after cleaning (E. Galili)

Three bronze cannons found off the coast of Megadim in northern Israel shed light on how the Venetian weapons industry innovated tools to help merchants fight off pirates hundreds of years ago.

As reported in an article in the August edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science, the three cannons were likely part of the arsenal of a sailing merchantman, whose ship was wrecked off the shore of Haifa in the last quarter of the 16th or the early 17th century, during the first half of the “Age of the Sail” (1571–1862).

The three long-barreled bronze cannons were first discovered and surveyed during 1972–1973. Cannons A and B were lifted with air bags, transported ashore and retrieved for study then. In 2013, Cannon C, the removable chambers and the rigging elements were also retrieved. A and B were classified as “sakers” — circa 3.5 m. (11.5 ft.) long, and C is a “falcon” 2.8 m. (9 ft.) long.

It was an era of Barbary corsairs. Enmity with the Ottoman Empire was ever-present for Christian European traders. Adding to these existential maritime threats were a few well-known Jewish pirates who were bent on retribution after the Spanish Expulsion. Foremost among them was Sinan the Jew, who sailed under the notorious Ottoman admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa.

Since the 1470s, the Venetian navy had begun employing cannon as anti-ship weaponry. Likewise merchants, forced into preparation for warfare by sea, helped fund an arms race that fueled innovations in maritime munitions, especially in the super-industrial zone of the Venetian Arsenal.

The Venetian Arsenal was an amazingly advanced center of manufacturing for its time. it used assembly line techniques and had a huge store of standardized prefabricated replacement parts, which made for quick ship and weaponry building and a robust navy.

Dr. Dana Ashkenazi from Tel Aviv University's School of Mechanical Engineering (courtesy)
Dr. Dana Ashkenazi from Tel Aviv University’s School of Mechanical Engineering (courtesy)

The three Venetian cannons found at Megadim were not used by the Venetian navy — a well-known foe of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the Holy Land. Rather, “it has been suggested that they were a private ship-owner’s property,” according to the multidisciplinary research team, headed by Dr. Dana Ashkenazi from Tel Aviv University’s School of Mechanical Engineering.

Ashkenazi’s research is the first chemical analysis study of Venetian bronze cannons from the period. Therefore, the findings presented in the Journal of Archaeological Science serves as a database for future investigations of similar cannons.

The cannons are predominantly composed of bronze. However, “slight elemental variations between the cannons may be related to the use of pre-industrial technologies, where the available materials were not uniform and only sketchy analytical methods were available,” according to the report. The team hypothesizes that incorporation of scrap metals in the melt during the casting of the cannons may account for some variances.

The chain and deadeye: (a) as found on the sea bottom; (b) the wooden deadeye; and (c) the iron chain and deadeye (Drawing and photos: E. Galili)
The chain and deadeye: (a) as found on the sea bottom; (b) the wooden deadeye; and (c) the iron chain and deadeye (Drawing and photos: E. Galili)

 

As befits Venetian craftsmanship, the cannon are works of art as well as utility.

Cannon A, which weighs 1,260 kg. (2,778 lbs), is decorated with a “vegetal motif,” according to the report. Other decor includes a coat of arms, an oval shield containing two seashells, and three six-pointed stars. In a feature unique to this cannon, a pair of dolphin-shaped lifting handles is on the reinforcement’s front end.

At 1,145 kg. (2,524 lbs), Cannon B features rows of acanthus leaves (commonly imitated in Corinthian capitals), which alternate with rosettes around the circumference. A row of serpentine flames decorate the weapon, as well as “a decorative shield edged by vegetal motifs, containing an emblem representing two hands holding what appears to be a scroll.” According to the study, this saker was cast by Giovanni (Zuane) II Alberghetti and can be dated to the 1570s or 1580s.

The bronze cannons as found at sea and decorative elements of cannon C after cleaning (Photos: E. Galili)
The bronze cannons as found at sea and decorative elements of cannon C after cleaning (Photos: E. Galili)

The smallest of the three cannons at a mere 575 kg. (1,267 lbs.), Cannon C also bears a vegetal motif with scrolled ribbons. Formed by a pointed shield with two lion heads depicted at its sides, a blank coat-of-arms, according to the team, is a characteristic mark of this foundry. This gun is attributed to Sigismondo II Alberghetti, son of Emilio I, Giovanni II (Zuane) first cousin of Giovanni II (Zuane).

In addition to the metal analysis, the few scant wood remains and other wrought-iron artifacts were also studied. According to the article, “a multidisciplinary testing approach was applied, combining typology, metallurgical characterization, archaeobotanical analysis and 14C radiocarbon dating.”

The breach-loading bronze chamber 1: (a) as-retrieved; (b) the chamber after removal of the concretion, with two holes where the iron handle is missing; (c) the chamber after removal of the concretion, far from the missing handle; (d) drawing of chamber 1, area of the missing handle; and (e) cross-section of chamber 1 and its wooden wad (wad 1) (Drawing: R. Pollak, Photos: E. Galili).
The breach-loading bronze chamber 1: (a) as-retrieved; (b) the chamber after removal of the concretion, with two holes where the iron handle is missing; (c) the chamber after removal of the concretion, far from the missing handle; (d) drawing of chamber 1, area of the missing handle; and (e) cross-section of chamber 1 and its wooden wad (wad 1) (Drawing: R. Pollak, Photos: E. Galili).

There were three types of trees represented in the wood remains, which points to the nationality of the ship. “Although all taxa are native to southern Europe, two extend within the Mediterranean zone reaching as far as Israel (Italian cypress and Sicilian sumac).”

However, the researchers dismiss a Holy Land origin because the third tree, the Italian stone pine “is limited to northern areas.”

“This information reinforces the suggestion that the ship may have originated in a southern European country that had contact with Venice, Naples, and Ragusa (Dubrovnik),” according to the study.

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