“Another thing” is a series of occasional posts, each presenting a particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual object on display at one of the museums or sites on our tours.

Simple enough: two marble disks, 14 cm (5.5″) in diameter, each pierced by a lead spike at the centre, surrounded by a painted circle. What might they be? Gaming pieces? Some kind of tools? Architectural features of some sort? An unusual type of tableware?

Let’s put it like this: as you are looking at these objects, they are looking straight back at you, at least in symbolic terms. They are eyes – the eyes of a Classical Greek ship! But let’s hold on and provide a little context first…

A stack of wine amphoras from Tektaş Burnu in Turkey

A stack of wine amphoras from the wreck site.

These rare objects were discovered at the wreck site of Tektaş Burnu, about 40m (130 ft) below the sea in the waters between the Turkish port of Çeşme and the Greek island of Chios.

The wreck, discovered in 1996 and excavated in 1999 and 2001, is highly significant, as it dates to between 440 and 420 BC, the High Classical period of ancient Greek history, when Athens was at the height of her power, controlling much of the Aegean shores and islands as a quasi-empire. To date, Tektaş Burnu is the only fully excavated Greek shipwreck from that time-frame.

The vessel, by the way, was a small one, carrying a cargo of somewhat over 200 amphoras. That’s not a lot – other ancient shipwrecks carried them in their thousands. Most of the amphoras at Tektaş Burnu contained wine, while others were used to transport pitch (resin) and at least two – apparently – held salted beef.

Judging from the finds, the ship must have plied its trade in the vicinity, between what are now the Greek islands of the Eastern Aegean and the adjacent shores of Turkey. The wine amphoras are stamped with the abbreviation “ERY”, suggesting that they came from Erythrai, an ancient city not far from Çeşme, which may thus have been the ship’s home port (but that’s speculation). There were also a few Athenian-made objects, probably personal effects of the crew, such as some finely-made black-glazed kantharoi (cups for drinking wine). Their presence on what appears to be a local cargo vessel illustrates the dominant political and economic role of Athens at the time – the city’s “luxury” products were found everywhere.

Picture of a warship on an ancient krater from Thera

Image of a warship on the inside of the rim of an Athenian krater, or wine-mixing vessel from the late 6th century BC, found at ancient Thera on Santorini. An eye is clearly visible on the left.

Interesting enough – but what about the eyes? They are an intriguing topic: we know from imagery and literature that ancient Greek (and Roman) ships bore representations of eyes on either side of the bow. For example, they are often seen on vase paintings. On that evidence alone, we would probably assume that a ship’s eyes were simply painted onto the hull. Archaeology has supplied the further detail that – at least in some cases – they were made of stone. In Piraeus, the port of Athens, excavations have revealed a number of very well-carved marble eyes, probably meant to be attached to the famous Athenian fleet of warships. In comparison, the Tektaş Burnu eyes are a more modest affair: most likely, they represent the only the iris and pupil, with the rest of the eye painted on the wood as suggested above. They are, however, the only such eyes to have been found in direct association with a shipwreck so far!

Marble eye probably for an ancient trireme in the Piraeus Museum

Marble eye, probably for an Athenian trireme (the key warship of the Classical era). Piraeus Museum.

Finally, what were they for? That is a difficult question to answer, and scholarship has come up with more than one option. Perhaps, they were meant to imbue the ship with a consciousness, making it a being rather than an object, such as the mythical Argo, its watchful eyes looking out for the correct course and potential threats. They might also represent the eyes of a deity, placing the vessel and her crew under the protection of a god – but which one? A third possibility, not necessarily incompatible with the first two, is that the eyes served as an apotropaic symbol, a protector against evil and particularly against envy – much as the blue glass eyes that are common in both Greece and Turkey to this day (including on the gulets we use).

The Tektaş Burnu ship’s eyes are on display in the Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Bodrum Castle, along with many other fascinating finds from famous sites like the Bronze Age Ulu Burun shipwreck. If you want to see them – and maybe them to see you – you should join us on one of our tours in Turkey.

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