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Sunken Frigate Yields Carthaginian Artifacts Volume 52 Number 4, July/August 1999
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

[image] Stelae recovered from Magenta (G. Martin/GRAN) [LARGER IMAGE]

One hundred fifteen ancient stelae found at the site of ancient Carthage in 1874-1875 and shipped from Tunis to Toulon in southeastern France have reached their destination--125 years later. French divers recovered the stelae, many bearing inscriptions, from the remains of the warship Magenta, which had crossed the Mediterranean with its precious cargo only to catch fire, explode, and sink in Toulon's harbor. Scholars studying the second-century B.C. limestone slabs, some in fragments, say they form one of the most important collections of Punic inscriptions ever found and are important evidence of Carthaginian cult practice before the Roman occupation. Meanwhile, divers have brought to the surface the face and midriff of an exquisite statue of the Roman empress Sabine (A.D. 86/87-137), wife of Hadrian; the face has been reunited with pieces on display at the Louvre that were salvaged from the ship shortly after it sank.

The Magenta, flagship of the French Mediterranean fleet, was carrying 2,080 stelae excavated by Evariste Pricot de Sainte-Marie, an interpreter at the French Consulate in Tunis. Infatuated by Punic inscriptions, Pricot de Sainte-Marie obtained financial support from the French Academy of Inscriptions and Belles Lettres to compile them for publication in their Corpus of Semitic Inscriptions. Near the tophet, or cemetery, at ancient Carthage he found hundreds of pointed stelae, re-used as building material for a structure erected after the city was destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C. The slabs commemorate the sacrifice of children to the Phoenician gods Baal and Tanit; they also record the sacrifice of sheep or rams as substitutes. While his permit expressly forbade him from seeking out statues or mosaics, Pricot de Sainte-Marie's chance discovery of a nearly seven-foot-tall marble statue of Sabine dating to A.D. 125-127 in the southeastern part of the Carthaginian forum persuaded French officials to make an exception. The statue was found in six pieces and is believed to have stood in the atrium of a sanctuary to the Egyptian god Serapis.

[image] Diver Guy Martin holding the face of a statue of the empress Sabine (G. Martin/GRAN) [LARGER IMAGE]

In 1992, Jean-Pierre Laporte, an amateur archaeologist, read an account of the wreck in a history of ancient Carthage by University of Grenoble archaeologist Serge Lancel and surmised that hundreds of stelae might still be resting at the bottom of Toulon's bay. He and Lancel managed to interest the French Ministry of Culture, which referred the project to a team from the Naval Archaeology Research Group led by Max Guérout, who had conducted an eight-year excavation of the Confederate wreck CSS Alabama off Cherbourg. The team used old maps and a magnetometer to locate the hull of the wreck under four feet of sediment, 50 feet below the harbor's surface.

Magenta was 312 feet long and 58 feet wide, one of the largest ironclad ships in the French fleet. Archival records pinpointed the stelae in a hold just before the foremast. It is still not clear what caused the conflagration, but the team's divers traced its origin to an officers' quarters containing several bottles of wine and spirits. Guérout says the fire appears to have smoldered for some time before igniting a powder magazine. Magenta foundered, but didn't sink to the bottom and had to be dynamited shortly afterward to prevent obstruction of the harbor. The salvage effort after the fire retrieved most of the stelae, and though the team recovered more still in 843 dives between 1994 and 1998, Guérout estimates that nearly 400 more may still be dispersed on the bottom. These slabs, some in very fragmentary condition, will remain underwater because excavations ended last fall. Decorative work and engraving on the newly recovered stelae have yet to be studied.

Sabine's face, blackened by gunpowder from the explosion, was recovered in the first excavation season and sent for desalinization and conservation. Subsequent chemical and thermoluminescence tests on the face have shown that marble for the statue was quarried on the Greek island of Thasos. Though it has been reunited with the rest of the statue in the Louvre, it still retains a darker appearance than the rest of the piece. The remaining pieces of midriff are still undergoing conservation at a lab in Cannes.

* Click here for the French Ministry of Culture.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America