Sea Archaeology and Roman-era Shipwrecks

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nuclear submarines like this have been put to use looking for Mediterranean shipwrecks

Sunken vessels in the Mediterranean are being studied with U.S. Navy nuclear submarines, with powerful sonar that can detect even small objects on the ocean floor, and the tethered Jason submersible craft, which can pick up delicate artifacts with its netted hand. The submarines are used mostly to find promising sites and do electronic photo mosaics. Jason is used to actually locate and retrieve the stuff. [Source: Robert Ballard, National Geographic, April 1998]

Nuclear submarines have trash-can-size reactors which allow them to stay underwater for a month at a time without surfacing. In contrast, the ascending and descending process for a submersible like Jason takes the better part of a day. The project is headed by Robert Ballard, the man who found the Titanic and the Bismarck. He said the project was so successful, the submarine "was finding a Roman ship every other day. We had to tell them to stop. “

A number of Roman-era vessels have been excavated from the muddy ancient harbor of San Rossore in Pisa, They include merchant vessels, river boats and a warship described as the “the best-preserved vessel of antiquity ever found." The warship was preserved in 15 feet of mud and is practically undamaged. Some of the ships are on display on Pisa's Museum of Ships.

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Eight Ancient Romans Ships Found Near Pisa

Roman ships, dating to the first century B.C. and fifth century A.D., have been found in almost perfect condition at a site near Pisa. In 1999, ABC Online reported: “Eight wooden Roman ships have been found perfectly preserved in one of the most remarkable archeological discoveries of its kind. The vessels, dating from the first century BC to the fifth century AD, were found near Pisa in central Italy. "So far, we have found eight of them, but the excavations are continuing and the fleet is certainly much bigger," Stefano Bruni of the Tuscany archeology department who is in charge of the dig. [Source: ABC Online, April 14, 1999 ==]

“The first ships were found in early February during work to extend the Genoa-Rome railway line. "This is an exceptional discovery, both because of the good state of preservation of the wooden ships, and because of their number," said Culture Minister Giovanna Melandri, who has overall responsibility for the excavation, which is costing an estimated $600,000. In addition, the archeologists have begun to excavate what they believe is a Roman warship, which would make it the first such vessel from ancient times still fully preserved. ==

“Mr Bruni explained that the terrain in which the ships had been found contained practically no oxygen, and was damp, which had ensured their conservation for centuries. The discoveries are to be coated in a layer of protective varnish and transferred to the Arsenal of the Medicis at Pisa. In the so-called "port of wonders" site where the ships were discovered, archeologists have also found nearly 300 amphoras, two-handled, narrow-necked bottles, of Punic and Roman style dating from the second century AD.” ==

Roman Ships and Their Contents

amphoras used to carry Egyptian wine

The Rome-Carthage trade ships were wooden vessels with square rigs and a deep belly which held amphoras filled with wine, olive oil, fish sauce and other goods. Planks were fastened together with hand cut mortise-and-tenon joints. Most products were carried in amphora (large terra-cotta jars), Normal-size sea vessels held about 3,000 amphorae while large freighters held as many a 10,000. Grain was the main commodity, followed by wine and olive oil.

As time went the ships became larger and larger. Galleys rated as "fours," "fives," and "sixes" were introduced between 400 B.C. and 300 B.C. They were followed up by "16s," "20s" and "30s." The Emperor Ptolemy IV built a massive "40." The numbers refereed to the number pulling each triad of oars. Ships with more than three bank were built but ultimately they proved to be impractical.

Describing one of the largest boats, a 2nd century Greek wrote: "It was [420 feet] long, [58 feet] from gangway to plank and [72 feet] high to the prow ornament...It was double-prowed and double-sterned...During a trial run it took aboard over 4,000 oarsmen and 400 other crewmen, and on deck 2,850 marines."

A Roman trading ship dated to 200 B.C. that was found was 100 feet long and featured cargo holds in the fore and aft. It carried two lead anchors, bronze vessels and eight types of amphora (double-handed jars). Items found on a ship dated to the time of Christ have indicated that trade took place between North Africa, southern France and Campania in southern Italy. First century A.D. ships have been found with cargos of granite stones, columns and a large anchor and amphorae carrying wine and oil. A fifth century ship has been found with iron anchors, hand-operated mill, a lamp from Carthage and Roman coins.

In the late 1990s an English-Greek team built a 170-oar trireme at a cost of around $640,000. Held together with 20,000 tenons fastened with 40,000 oak pegs, it set sail with a an international crew of 132 men and 40 women. Describing, the team in action, Timothy Green wrote in Smithsonian, "the crew rowed together and sang together, getting up high spirits and up to seven knots.

Roman Ships Found Off Italy in the 2010s

In 2012, archaeologists said they found an almost intact Roman ship in the sea off the town on Varazze, some 18 miles from Genova, Italy. Rossella Lorenz wrote in; “The ship, a navis oneraria, or merchant vessel, was located at a depth of about 200 feet thanks to a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) following tips from fishermen who had caught some jars in their nets. The ship sank about 2,000 years ago on her trade route between Spain and central Italy with a full cargo of more than 200 amphorae. [Source: Rossella Lorenz,, August 20, 2012]

“Test on some of the recovered jars revealed they contained pickled fish, grain, wine and oil. The foodstuffs were traded in Spain for other goods. “There are some broken jars around the wreck, but we believe that most of the amphorae inside the ship are still sealed and food filled,” Lt. Col. Francesco Schilardi, who led the Carabinieri Subacquei (police divers), said.

Zannone shipwreck

“The ship, which dates to sometime between the 1st Century B.C. and the 1st Century A.D., is hidden under layers of mud on the seabed, which has left the wreck and its cargo intact. The vessel will remain hidden at the bottom of the sea until Italian authorities decide whether to raise it or not. “Right now the area of the finding has been secured, and no fishing or water traffic is allowed,” Lt. Col. Schilardi said.

In 2010, A team of marine archaeologists using sonar scanners have discovered four ancient shipwrecks off the tiny Italian island of Zannone, with intact cargos of wine and oil. The remains of the trading vessels, dating from the first century B.C. to the 5th-7th century AD, are up to 165 metres underwater, a depth that preserved them from being disturbed by fishermen over the centuries. “The deeper you go, the more likely you are to find complete wrecks,” said Annalisa Zarattini, an official from the archaeological services section of the Italian culture ministry. [Source:, August 23, 2010 by Ancientfoods]

“The timber structures of the vessels have been eaten away by tiny marine organisms, leaving their outlines and the cargos still lying in the position they were stowed on board. “The ships sank, they came to rest at the bottom of the sea, the wood disappeared and you find the whole ship, with the entire cargo. Nothing has been taken away,” she said.

“The discoveries were made through cooperation between Italian authorities and the Aurora Trust, a US foundation that promotes exploration of the Mediterranean seabed. The vessels, up to 18 metres long, had been carrying amphorae, or large jars, containing wine from Italy, and cargo from North Africa and Spain including olive oil, fruit and garum, a pungent fish sauce that was a favourite ingredient in Roman cooking. Another ship, as yet undated, appeared to have been carrying building bricks. It is unclear how the vessels sank and no human remains have been found. The vessels are the second “fleet” of ships to be discovered in recent years near the Pontine islands, an archipelago off Italy’s west coast believed to have been a key junction for ships bringing supplies to the vast warehouses of Rome.

Roman Ship Loaded with Fermented Fish Sauce

In 2015, archaeologists announced that they had discovered a 25-meter-long ancient Roman vessel laden with 3000 jars garum – on the seabed off the coast of Alassio, in the northeastern Liguria region of Italy. “It’s an exceptional find that dates to the first or second century AD,” Dr. Simon Luca Trigona, who led the team, told The Local. “It’s one of just five ‘deep sea’ Roman vessels ever to be found in the Mediterranean and the first one to be found off the coast of Liguria. We know it was carrying a large cargo of garum when it sank.” [Source: AFP, December 11, 2015]

remains of a fish sauce processing plant in Albufeira

“In spite of the mystery that usually surrounds ancient shipwrecks, it is almost certain that the ship was sailing a route between Italy, Spain and Portugal in order to transport a precious cargo of Roman garum. The clue lies in the shape of the clay jars, as the sauce itself has all since seeped into the sea. “After we filmed the wreck and analyzed an amphora [clay jar] and some fragments that a robotic craft brought back to the surface, we realized the ship was carrying a huge quantity of fish sauce when it sank,” said Trigona. “The amphora are almost all of a certain type, which was used exclusively for garum.”

“In addition to the fish sauce, archaeologists also identified two types of jar which were only manufactured in the area around the river Tiber in Rome. It is thought they were probably being used to transport some of the area’s excellent regional wines to the Iberian peninsular. “It’s a nice find because it means we are almost sure about the route this ship was on,” Trugona said. “She most likely sailed out of Rome along the Tiber and sank a couple of weeks later while making the return journey, weighed down by all that fish sauce.”

Roman Ship Had On-Board Fish Tank

Jo Marchant wrote in “A Roman ship found with a lead pipe piercing its hull has mystified archaeologists. Italian researchers now suggest that the pipe was part of an ingenious pumping system, designed to feed on-board fish tanks with a continuous supply of oxygenated water. Their analysis has been published online in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. Historians have assumed that in ancient times fresh fish were eaten close to where they were caught, because without refrigeration they would have rotted during transportation. But if the latest theory is correct, Roman ships could have carried live fish to buyers across the Mediterranean Sea. [Source: Jo Marchant,, May 31, 2011 \=]

“The wrecked ship, which dates from the second century AD, was discovered six miles off the coast of Grado in northeastern Italy, in 1986. It was recovered in pieces in 1999 and is now held in the Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Grado. A small trade ship around 16.5 metres long, the vessel was carrying hundreds of vase-like containers that held processed fish, including sardines and salted mackerel. Carlo Beltrame, a marine archaeologist at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice in Italy, and his colleagues have been trying to make sense of one bizarre feature of the wreck: a lead pipe near the stern that ends in a hole through the hull. The surviving pipe is 1.3 metres long, and 7–10 centimetres in diameter. \=\

“The team concludes that the pipe must have been connected to a piston pump, in which a hand-operated lever moves pistons up and down inside a pair of pipes. One-way valves ensure that water is pushed from one reservoir into another. The Romans had access to such technology, although it hasn’t been seen before on their ships, and the pump itself hasn’t been recovered from the Grado wreck. Archaeologists have previously suggested that a piston pump could have collected bilge water from the bottom of the boat, emptying it through the hole in the hull. But Beltrame points out that chain pumps — in which buckets attached to a looped chain scooped up bilge water and tipped it over the side — were much safer and commonly used for this purpose in ancient times. “No seaman would have drilled a hole in the keel, creating a potential way for water to enter the hull, unless there was a very powerful reason to do so,” he writes. \=\

“Another possible use is to pump sea water into the boat, to wash the decks or fight fires. A similar system was used on Horatio Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But Beltrame and his colleagues argue that the Grado wreck wasn’t big enough to make this worthwhile. They say that the ship’s involvement in the fish trade suggests a very different purpose for the pump — to supply a fish tank.” \=\

Roman Fish Tank Ship Used to Bring Fresh Fish to the Market?

Relitto del Nasuto Elba shipwreck

Jo Marchant wrote in ““The researchers calculate that a ship the size of the Grado wreck could have held a tank containing around 4 cubic metres of water. This could have housed 200 kilograms of live fish, such as sea bass or sea bream. To keep the fish alive with a constant oxygen supply, the water in the tank would need to be replaced once every half an hour. The researchers estimate that the piston pump could have supported a flow of 252 litres per minute, allowing the water to be replaced in just 16 minutes. [Source: Jo Marchant,, May 31, 2011 \=]

“Tracey Rihll, a historian of ancient Greek and Roman technology at Swansea University, UK, cautions that there is no direct evidence for a fish tank. The researchers “dismiss fire-extinguisher and deck-washing functions too easily in my view”, she says. But although no trace of the tank itself remains, Rihll says the pipe could have been used for such a purpose in the ship’s younger days. Literary and archaeological evidence suggests that live fish were indeed transported by the Greeks and Romans “on a small but significant scale”, she adds. \=\

“The first-century Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote that parrotfish taken from the Black Sea were transported to the Neopolitan coast, where they were introduced into the sea. And the second- and third-century Greek writer Athenaeus described an enormous ship called the Syracousia, which supposedly had a lead-lined saltwater tank to carry fish for use by the cook. However, a fish tank on board a small cargo ship such as the Grado wreck might mean that transport of live fish was a routine part of Roman trade, allowing the rich to feast on fish from remote locations or carrying fish shorter distances from farms to local markets. It would change completely our idea of the fish market in antiquity,” says Beltrame. “We thought that fish must have been eaten near the harbours where the fishing boats arrived. With this system it could be transported everywhere.” \=\

Evidence of Smuggling on a Roman Ship

In 2012, Italian archaeologists said they had uncovered evidence of smuggling between North Africa and Italy on a third-century A.D. shipwreck off the west coast of Sicily. Rossella Lorenzi wrote in Archaeology magazine: “The most complete Roman ship ever found, the 52-by-16-foot merchant vessel was carrying amphorae filled with walnuts, figs, olives, wine, oil, and fish sauce from Tunisia to Rome when it sank. [Source: Rossella Lorenzi, Archaeology, Volume 65 Number 4, July/August 2012 ^^^]

“Intriguingly, among the ship's official cargo were hidden stashes of so-called tubi fittili (fictile tubes). According to Sebastiano Tusa, Sicily's Superintendent of the Office of the Sea, "Basically they are small terracotta cylinders open at one end and closed at the other. Rows of these hollow tiles were used in vaulting and other construction." ^^^

“The tubes, which were used from the mid-Imperial era to the end of the Byzantine period, worked by fitting the narrow end, or nozzle, of one tile into the larger end of another. Because they were joined loosely, series of the lightweight tiles could be arranged in curves, making it easier to form arches and vaults. In North Africa, especially Tunisia, the valuable tubes were manufactured and cost a quarter of what builders paid for them in Rome. "To augment their poor salaries, sailors bought these vaulting tubes cheaper in Africa, hid them everywhere on the ship, and resold them in Rome," Tusa explains.” ^^^

Archaeologists Find “Recycled Treasure” in Roman Shipwreck

Items recovered from the Caesarea shipwreck

In 2016, Israeli archaeologist said they had found a merchant ship said to be filled with treasure that wrecked in the ancient harbor of Caesarea in the A.D. 4th century. The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) reported that the finds included a bronze lamp depicting the sun god Sol, a figurine of the moon goddess Luna, a lamp of the head of an African slave, animal carvings, and a bronze faucet shaped like a boar with a swan on its head along with thousands of coins with images of Emperor Constantine, who ruled the Western Roman Empire from 312-324 A.D. [Source: Jeva Lange,The Week, May 16, 2016]

According to AFP: “The find, happened upon by two divers a few weeks ago who then alerted the authority, consisted primarily of "metal slated for recycling" borne on the ship from Caesarea in the late Roman period, IAA experts said.But a storm at the entrance to Caesarea harbour crashed the large ship into the seawall and rocks, the IAA said, spilling the cargo into the sea and preserving the "exciting finds". [Source: AFP, May 16, 2016]

“"Metal statues are rare archaeological finds because they were always melted down and recycled in antiquity," Jacob Sharvit, director of the Marine Archaeology Unit of the IAA and his deputy Dror Planer said. The artefacts include "fragments of three life-size bronze cast statues" and "objects fashioned in the shape of animals such as a whale (and) a bronze faucet in the form of a wild boar with a swan on its head," the IAA said, noting the sand protected the statues which were "in an amazing state of preservation."

“The find includes thousands of coins in two lumps weighing around 20 kilogrammes (44 pounds) bearing the images of Constantine the Great and of Licinius, an emperor who ruled the eastern half of the Roman Empire and was a rival of Constantine. Fragments of drinking jars were also found, as well as iron anchors, apparently cast from the ship in the vain hope of preventing it crashing in the storm. The discovery comes a year after the exposure of a record trove of some 2,000 gold coins in the same area, with Sharvit crediting the abundance of divers with the growing number of finds. According to Sharvit and Planer, the finds reflect the "economic and commercial stability in the wake of the stability of the Roman Empire," a period in which "Christianity was on its way to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire."

Divers Descend 125 Meters to Examine a Roman-Era Shipwreck

In 2014, divers with lights descended 125 meters into dark Mediterranean waters off Italy and laid their eyes on the skeleton of a Romans-era ship and it barnacle-encrusted anchor resting on a rock situated among scattered piles of amphora. Jason Dearen of Associated Press wrote: “Highly trained technical divers with a Florida-based group called Global Underwater Explorers - GUE for short - are helping Italian researchers unlock an ancient shipwreck thought to date to the second Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. Able to descend hundreds of feet deeper than most divers, they aide the archaeologists by swimming about the wreck fetching artifacts. [Source: Jason Dearen, Associated Press, Oct 28, 2014]

“On this dive, they swam past the large amphora used to carry wine, olive oil and other cargo on Mediterranean trade routes centuries ago. “It felt very much like a ghost ship awaiting the boarding of ancient mariners,” said Jarrod Jablonski, one of the divers with the exploration group based in the Florida community of High Springs. Many of these divers honed their deep-water diving abilities in Florida’s labyrinths of underwater caves. Now GUE provides the technical divers needed to access cargo and other artifacts from a ship thought to have sailed around 218-201 B.C. - when Rome and Carthage were fighting for naval superiority in the Mediterranean.

“Called the Panarea III, the ship was discovered off the Aeolian island of Panarea in 2010 by American researchers using sonar and a remotely operated submersible. Archaeologists said the ship is a wooden vessel about 50 feet long that could have hit rough seas and broken up on rocks before plunging to the sea bottom - possibly a wealthy merchant’s cargo ship or one used to supply the Roman military. “This shipwreck is a very important occasion to understand more about daily life on the ancient ship, as well as the real dynamics of ancient trade,” said Sebastiano Tusa, an Italian archaeologist. “Of course, there are other similar shipwrecks that can offer similar study cases. But this has the peculiarity to be in a very good preservation condition.”

“The ship was so far deep that it has been safe for centuries from looters and entanglement in fishing gear. As Jablonski and seven other GUE divers explored the wreck in September, Italian archaeologists shadowed them in a small submarine, shining a bright light on the trove of Greco-Roman artifacts. As researchers in the sub pointed to objects, the divers retrieved them, swimming to the sub’s window for viewing. A thumbs-up, and the items were attached to balloons and sent to the surface.

Scale of Trade Revealed at Ancient Roman Port

In 1999, ABC Science reported: “ A detailed picture of the huge, vital and complex trade regimes in ancient Rome has been revealed by English and Italian archaeologists working on the remains of Portus, an ancient trading port. The investigation was led by Professor Simon Keay and Professor Martin Millett, University of Southampton in collaboration with Dr Helen Patterson, British School at Rome and Dr Anna Gallina Zevi and Dr Lidia Paroli, Soprintendenza Archeologica di Ostia. [Source:ABC Science, November 29, 1999]

remains of a AD 5th century ship in Mainz, Germany

“"Portus is the largest maritime infrastructure of the ancient world, created to guarantee the food supply of the population of Rome whose inhabitants numbered almost one million in the Imperial period," said the Soprintendente Archeologo di Ostia, Dr Anna Gallina Zevi. "Portus is therefore central to understanding one of the fundamental mechanisms of the economic life of Rome from its peak as an Imperial power to its decline in the early Middle Ages." "While the techniques of the geophysical survey are not new, the scale of this investigation, and its speed, have brought new possibilities to archaeological research. We've been able to map an area of 28 hectares in two weeks," said Professor Millett, "and new software allows us to analyse results and produce startling images of the buried structures."

“Portus was first built by the Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54), and was later enlarged by the Emperor Trajan (AD 98-117). It was a major port which handled all the trade and tribute destined for Rome, as well as the supplies for its provinces. Although the site has been known since the sixteenth century, excavation has been extremely limited, and little was previously known about the internal organization of Portus or about its links to the River Tiber and to Rome.

“Concentrating on the harbour of Trajan - a large hexagon linked to the sea and to the River Tiber - the archaeological team has discovered rows of warehouses and a colonnaded square along the eastern side of the hexagon. Even more significant are discoveries on flat land between the hexagon and the Tiber. Here the geophysics clearly reveal the line of the late Roman wall which defined the limits of the harbour area on its landward side. Also visible is a major canal, around 40m wide, which linked the Trajanic harbour to the river; this was lined with buildings in which pottery containers and marble from around the Mediterranean were unloaded. Running parallel to the canal are an aqueduct, the road to Rome, and a number of mausolea. The detailed images will allow precise excavations to be carried out in the future at particular buildings, which will further enhance knowledge of Portus and its historical development. A large part of the site will be open to public next year as part of Rome's millennium celebrations.”

Roman River Barge

Reporting from Arles, France, Robert Kunzig wrote in National Geographic: “In the summer of 2004 a diver surveying the dump for archaeological riches noticed a mass of wood swelling from the mud at a depth of 13 feet. It turned out to be the aft port side of a 102-foot-long barge. The barge was almost intact; most of it was still buried under the layers of mud and amphorae that had sheltered it for nearly 2,000 years. It had held on to its last cargo and even to a few personal effects left behind by its crew. And through a further series of small miracles, including another intervention by Julius Caesar, it has emerged from the trash to resume its last voyage—safe this time in a brand-new wing of the Musée Départemental Arles Antique. [Source: Robert Kunzig, National Geographic, April 2014]

Arles-Rhone 3

“To that snapshot of the boat, the nearly 1,200 cubic yards of mud and Roman trash that eventually buried it add a kind of time-lapse image of the commerce that was Arles. In the museum’s dim basement, Djaoui and I walked down long aisles of amphorae, many with their necks sliced off. “All this will have to be studied,” he said, with a trace of ambivalence. The dump is almost too rich; the archaeologists had already placed 130 tons of ceramic sherds back in the riverbed, in the hole left by the boat. I asked Djaoui about the building stones that had started the whole story. They were too heavy for the restored boat, he said; replicas were being used. Djaoui took me out behind the museum. The stones were there, next to a large trash bin, awaiting their own return to the river.

“When Arles-Rhône 3 sank, it was carrying 33 tons of building stones. They were flat, irregular slabs of limestone, from three to six inches thick. They had come from a quarry at St. Gabriel, less than ten miles north of Arles, and were probably headed toward a construction site on the right bank or in the Camargue, the marshy farmland south of Arles. The boat was pointed upstream, though, rather than downstream, indicating it had been tied up at the quay when it sank. A flash flood had probably swamped it.

“As the flood subsided, the cloud of sediment it had kicked up settled out of the water again, draping the barge in a layer of fine clay no more than eight inches thick. In that clay, in contact with the boat, Marlier and her team found the crew’s personal effects. A sickle they’d used to chop fuel for their cooking fire, with a few wood splinters next to the blade. A dolium, or large clay jar, cut in half to serve as a hibachi, with charcoal in the bottom. A plate and a gray pitcher that belonged to the same man—both bore the initials AT. “That’s what’s exceptional about this boat,” said Marlier. “We’re missing the captain at the helm. But otherwise we have everything.” The mast, with its traces of wear from the towropes, is to her the most precious find.

“Before that diving season was out, the same diver who had found Arles-Rhône 3, Pierre Giustiniani, discovered the statue that set the boat on its present course: a marble bust that looked like Julius Caesar. Portraits of Caesar are surprisingly rare. This one might be the only one extant that was sculpted while he was alive—perhaps right after he declared Arles a Roman colony, launching it into long centuries of prosperity.

Archaeology of the Roman River Barge

Robert Kunzig wrote in National Geographic: “The quay was empty save for a large shipping container...For seven months in 2011 that container had served as a hive for the divers and archaeologists who buzzed in and out of the river every day, vacuuming away the mud that covered the Roman barge, hand-sawing it into ten sections, and hoisting them one by one out of the water with a crane...Gazing down at the Rhône, which was gray and ill-looking and stirred by shifting, rushing eddies—it’s the most powerful river in France—I tried to imagine wanting to dive into it. I could not. Neither could Luc Long, at first. Long is the archaeologist whose team discovered the barge. He’s been diving in the Rhône for decades, but the first time still haunts him. [Source: Robert Kunzig, National Geographic, April 2014 ]

“Boyish at 61, with a Beatle-ish shock of brown hair, Long works for the DRASSM, a French government department tasked with protecting the nation’s underwater patrimony. Long had worked on wrecks all over the Mediterranean when, in 1986, his friend, diver and wreck hunter Albert Illouze, guilt-tripped him into diving in his home river. The Arlésiens turned away from the Rhône centuries ago, Long explained, even before roads and the railway diminished its commercial import. They came to fear it as a source of floods and disease—and he was raised in that tradition. “I had no desire to dive in the Rhône,” he said.

“Long and Illouze entered the river on a Saturday morning in November, just across from where the antiquities museum is today. The water was around 48 degrees Fahrenheit, foamy and odoriferous—there were sewage outfalls nearby. Long could see no more than three feet in front of him, which for the Rhône was a clear day. Its strong current buffeted and scared him. Gooey streams of algae licked his face. At a depth of around 20 feet, he found himself clinging to a hubcap. It was attached to a truck. Slowly, apprehensively, Long felt his way around to the driver’s side of the cabin. He found a Roman amphora in the driver’s seat.

“After that, he and Illouze swam over a vast field of amphorae. Long had never seen so many intact ones, and his future opened before him: He’s been mapping the Roman dump ever since. But the Rhône never became pleasant to work in. Long and his divers had to get used to the gloom, the pollutants, and the pathogens. There were rare but unsettling encounters, among the shopping carts and wrecked cars, with giant catfish. As long as eight feet, the beasts would loom from the murk and grab a diver’s swim fin. “When you find yourself being pulled by a flipper,” Long said, “it’s a moment of great solitude. It’s a few seconds that you don’t forget.”

“For the first 20 years or so, no one paid much attention to what he was doing. In 2004, when his team discovered the barge he named Arles-Rhône 3—he had found evidence of two other boats previously—he had no notion of there ever being enough money available to raise it. He and a colleague sawed a section out of the exposed part, which the colleague analyzed down to matchsticks. In 2007 three younger archaeologists, Sabrina Marlier, David Djaoui, and Sandra Greck, took over the study of Arles-Rhône 3.

model of the Arles-Rhone 3

“As they began diving onto the wreck that year, just north of the highway bridge with its thundering current of long-haul trucks, Long proceeded with his survey of the rest of the dump, around 50 yards upstream. Opposite the center of Arles now, he started finding pieces of the town: monumental blocks of stone, including the capital of a Corinthian column, on which he could make out traces of weathering by the mistral. He also started finding statues—a Venus here, a captive Gaul there. Word began to leak out. The French customs police warned Long that antiquities thieves might be watching his operation. When his divers found a life-size statue of Neptune, god of the sea and sailors, they brought it up at night.”

Placing the Roman River Barge in a Museum

Robert Kunzig wrote in National Geographic: “That sounds like enough time unless you know about ancient wood and about the Rhône. Mud had protected the wood of Arles-Rhône 3 from microbial decay, but water had dissolved the cellulose and filled the wood’s cells, leaving the whole boat soft and spongy. “The wood was held up only by water,” said Francis Bertrand, director of ARC-Nucléart, a restoration and conservation workshop in Grenoble. “If the water were to evaporate, the whole thing would collapse.” The solution was to bathe the wood for months in polyethylene glycol, then freeze-dry it—gradually infusing it with the polymer before removing the water. But the barge would have to be cut into sections small enough to fit into the freeze-dryers. And the process would take nearly two years.

“That left only one field season, 2011, to extract the boat from the Rhône. “The project was doomed to fail,” said Benoît Poinard, a professional diver and the site foreman. The gloomy premonition had come to him even before he got stuck briefly under the boat one day. Normally, Poinard explained, the Rhône is safe for diving only from late June to October; otherwise the current is too strong. Three or four months would not be enough to excavate Arles-Rhône 3.

“Then 2011 arrived. It hardly snowed in the Alps that winter; that spring it barely rained. The Rhône’s current was so gentle that Marlier’s team got in the water by early May. The visibility that month reached an almost unheard of five feet. Marlier, who managed her anxiety about diving in the Rhône by never straying from the barge, saw for the first time that she’d been working for four years right next to an abandoned car. Her team worked straight into November, losing only a single week to bad weather—and completed the job. “Two hours after we finished,” Poinard said, “the Rhône became undivable for the whole winter.”

“Late in the field season, as restorers from ARC-Nucléart were disassembling the bow of the boat on the quay, they found a silver denarius the size of a dime. The boat’s builder had sealed the coin between two planks; it was meant to bring good luck. And it did—2,000 years later.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Zannone stuff, VOA News, and Caesarea,

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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