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Roman Shipwreck Off Alexandria Volume 52 Number 3, May/June 1999
by Colin Clement

[image] Divers record the position of amphoras, cargo of a wreck near Alexandria. (Courtesy Centre d'Études Alexandrines) [LARGER IMAGE]

The cargo of a mid-first-century B.C. vessel lying under 30 feet of water about one-half mile off the coast of Alexandria has allowed researchers to reconstruct the ship's trade route. A team of six divers led by Jean-Yves Empereur, director of the Centre d'Études Alexandrines, found a mass of amphoras but no sign of the ship's hull, which was probably destroyed on the rocky seabed.

Examination of the amphoras revealed three different varieties. The majority, some 495 examples, bore stamps on their rims and handles, and a number still had their stoppers, made of fired clay sealed with pozzolana, a kind of mortar. These were manufactured on the southeastern coast of Italy, possibly in Apulia or the neighboring regions along the Tyrrhenian Sea. The contents of the vessels have not been studied and none has been raised to the surface, but traces of resin on the interior of some broken amphoras indicate they were used to transport wine. The two other types of amphoras, roughly a dozen of each, were of Cretan and Rhodian manufacture.

The Cretan and Rhodian vessels were found on the surface of the deposit, an indication of loading order and, consequently, the probable itinerary of the ship carrying them. In all likelihood, the vessel set off from southeastern Italy after loading the largest part of its cargo. It then made a stop on Crete; study of the amphoras should determine where, since a fair number of the island's ancient amphora-production workshops are known. The ship then sailed for Rhodes, where it added a small complement to its cargo and headed for Alexandria.

The team suspects the ship took a direct route rather than following the Levantine coast; fourth-century B.C. literary sources attest that ships were then making direct crossings. Whatever its adventures at sea, the unfortunate vessel was in sight of Alexandria when it must have struck a rocky outcrop, almost certainly the one at the foot of which lie the amphoras. Without enough sand to envelop and protect the ship, its wood eroded from exposure to salt water and the sea's turbulence.

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© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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