BIELLA, Italy—For 2,000 years it has remained mired in the mud of the northern Mediterranean Sea. Until now, the only evidence of the ancient ship has been the bits of its cargo—ceramic storage jars or amphorae—that from time to time get dredged up in fishing nets.
By combining these clues, recorded since the 1930s, and using modern technology, the Carabinieri (military police) dive team of Liguria has identified the wreck of an ancient Roman merchant ship once used in the food trade. The ship sank off the coast of the Ligurian town of Varazze.
“We started in March to investigate this accident, which occurred 2,000 years ago,” said Lt. Col. Francesco Schilardi, commander of the dive unit. “For us, looking for a Roman ship is like looking for a gun under water, we use same techniques.”
The reports from fishermen were instrumental in identifying the wreck. Knowledge of ancient navigation methods also helped divers imagine the route the ship would have been traveling.
“They sailed in sight of land, going from cape to cape,” said commander Schilardi. “And we think that in that sector they went from Portofino to Capo Noli,” he said, drawing a hypothetical line.
These elements helped narrow down the area to probe with side-scan sonar, looking for irregularities and roughness on the sea floor, as evidence of the ancient shipwreck.
The certainty of the discovery came on Aug. 2 and 3, when, using the wire-guided underwater robot named Pluto, the dive team rescued first the neck of an amphora and then a whole one broken into two parts, enough to tell the story of the vessel.
“Returning it to the surface allowed us to understand that the cargo belonged to a Roman ship, carrying food,” said Lt. Col. Schilardi. The recovered amphora was a Dressel 1B type, produced in the kilns of Tuscany between the first century B.C. and A.D. the first century and was used for transporting wine.
Although not unique in this sea, which in antiquity was a very busy route, the finding offers plenty of information to archaeologists.
“It confirms the intense activity, which took place in Roman times in the Ligurian Sea, between Italy, Southern France, and Spain,” explains Dr. Paola Bottini, coordinator of underwater archaeological activities at the Archaeological Heritage Superintendence of Liguria.
For now, Pluto’s sonar-eye can only see shards of amphorae on the seabed surface. The ship sank into the soft mud bottom, which complicates search efforts, but may also have protected the keel of the ship and the layers of amphorae cargo, expected to contain other foodstuffs, in addition to wine.
A more detailed study, an excavation, and a recovery would require a massive investment that is difficult to predict during such times of economic crisis. The projects of the superintendence are more modest and concrete.
“[We would] do a thorough photographic documentation, and determine the extent of this good heap of amphorae to assess what could be more or less the size of the ship,” says Bottini.
Yet even submerged under the sea, the existence of the ship says many things, and confirms what archaeologists have been piecing together about the Roman past in these lands.
For now, the location of the wreck will be protected. Fishing, diving, or anchoring will be prohibited in that area, as the sea continues to guard ancient Rome’s secrets for while longer.
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