A pirate flag in mediterranean waters. A pirate flag in mediterranean waters. Pirates flocked to the waters along Israel's coast during the 16th and 17th centuries. (Photo: Axel Alvarez/Shutterstock)

The Mediterranean was once a playground for pirates

New discoveries about 16th-century pirates reveal what private sailors had to do to protect themselves.

The Mediterranean waters along Israel's coast were once so infested with pirates that merchant ships felt the need to arm themselves for protection.

That's the conclusion of a study of three cannons found in Megadim, an excavation site off Israel's northern Mediterranean coast.

Thanks to new chemical analysis techniques, researchers now believe the Venetian-made bronze cannons were probably owned by a private ship at a time when the area was a flashpoint for pirates and merchant vessels.

two of the three canons found off the coast of Israel.Researchers found two of the three bronze cannons at sea in the 1970s, while the third one was only recently discovered in 2013. (Photo: E. Galili)

The fact that the cannons were Venetian comes as no surprise. At the time the Venetian Empire was mired in a long battle with the Ottoman Empire, which controlled the area. This led to an arms race as pirates came to capitalize on the chaos and merchant vessels sought to protect themselves.

Dr. Dana Ashkenazi from Tel Aviv University’s School of Mechanical Engineering, who led the research team, said the cannons were likely part of the armory of a European merchant ship wrecked off the shore of Haifa at the turn of the 17th century.

The breach-loading bronze chamber as retrieved and then restored. One of the breach-loading bronze chambers found went through several phases of restoration. Here illustrations show how it would have operated 500 years ago. (Photo: E. Galili)

The cannons themselves did not forego the elaborate designs Venetians were known for at the time. One cannon bears a coat of arms, two shields and was carried on dolphin-shaped handles. Another is emblazoned with a row of serpentine flames.

The findings of the Israeli team investigating the cannons are the culmination of 45 years of recovery and research. Two cannons were originally found in 1972. The third cannon was not raised from the ocean until 2013.

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