Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Mediterranean Wrecks Volume 50 Number 6, November/December 1997
by Angela M.H. Schuster

A survey of the Mediterranean seabed by Robert D. Ballard of the Institute for Exploration, based in Mystic, Connecticut, has found the remains of eight ships, five of which date between ca. 100 B.C. and A.D. 400. Found in 2,500 feet of water off Skerki Bank reef, between the Tunisian port of Carthage and Sardinia and Sicily, the ships include five Roman trading vessels: one from the late first or early second century B.C., a boat of western Mediterranean origin dating to the time of Christ, two first-century A.D. cargo ships, and a fourth-century A.D. merchantman. An eighteenth- or nineteenth-century Islamic fishing vessel and two nineteenth-century merchant ships were also found.

According to project archaeologist Anna Marguerite McCann of Boston University, the earliest of the Roman traders is about 100 feet long with two cargo holds, one fore and one aft of the mast. Among the ship's artifacts were kitchen and household items, fine bronze vessels, and eight different types of amphorae, including some from Cosa on the Tyrrhenian coast. Amphorae on the ship from the time of Christ suggest trade with North Africa, southern France, and Campania.

One first-century A.D. trader was transporting column blanks and roughly cut marble or granite blocks, possibly quarried in Egypt. The ship was also carrying a large cache of Italian pottery still stacked for shipping. The other first-century vessel was loaded with North African amphorae and Campanian ceramics. The late fourth-century merchant ship had amphorae as well; a cluster of iron anchors was on deck, along with small hand-operated mills and cooking vessels.

Ballard and McCann discovered the wreck site in 1988 not far from where they found Isis, a fourth-century A.D. Roman ship, the following year. They returned this past summer with the Navy's nuclear submarine NR-1 to document the site. "Having access to this technology has been a triumph for archaeology," says McCann. "We can now learn about deep-water sites while leaving them virtually undisturbed." Ballard and McCann will return to Skerki Bank in 1999.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America