Baron Shipwreck Baron Shipwreck Nautical archaeologists from the University of Haifa in Israel believe this shipwreck belongs to the late Baron de Rothschild of France. (Photo: University of Haifa)

Mysterious sunken ship may no longer be a mystery

Nautical archaeologists studying the wreck believe it belonged to a French baron.

Indiana Jones once said that "70 percent of all archaeology is done in the library." While Dr. Jones is nothing but a celebrated figment of Hollywood cinema, his words ring true for anyone in the profession today. The physical act of digging up the past (sans dodging poison arrows, booby traps and giant rolling boulders) is actually the easy part.

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This exhaustive investigative approach was recently put to task in uncovering the identity of a mysterious shipwreck found off the coast of Israel. Discovered by a diver in 1976, the site underwent its first excavation some two decades later, with researchers dating the two-masted schooner to 1690.

In 2008, a team led by nautical archaeologist Deborah Cvikel at the Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies at the University of Haifa in Israel attempted yet again to identify the vessel, performing a detailed excavation that turned up glassware, ceramics, utensils and even sacks of food.

shipwreck roofing tilesRoofing tiles discovered in the mysterious shipwreck stamped with the named of French companies. (Photo: University of Haifa)

Unfortunately, the shipwreck did not give up a name – leading Cvikel and a graduate student to pour over centuries-old shipping records in search of clues. As most of the excavated items had French factory names stamped on them, the researchers were able to narrow the ship's date to the late 19th century. Their big break came when they discovered a stamped lion motif with the words "Guichard Frères," a company that only appeared in records from 1889 to 1897.

That date range coincides with the loss of one of three ships owned by Edmond James Rothschild, a 19th-century French baron who owned a glass factory near the site of the shipwreck. Based on the raw materials found in the ship's hold, including a substance used to make glass more transparent, Cvikel believes this mystery may finally be solved.

"We know that two of the baron's three ships were sold, but we have no information concerning the third ship," she said. "The ship we have found is structurally consistent with the specifications of the baron's ships, carried a similar cargo, and sailed and sank during the right period."

As the site is located in relatively shallow water, scuba divers interested in paying a visit to Baron de Rothschild's lost vessel will find a gorgeously preserved shipwreck. The site now joins one of dozens of historical vessels off Israel's coastline that offer a unique look-but-do-not-touch opportunity to gaze into the past.

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