Ancient Roman Shipwreck Recovery Proves Difficult, Rewarding for Divers

excavators are searching for relics, knowledge of 4th century a.d.

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Divers are retrieving artifacts from a 1,700-year-old Roman shipwreck, The Daily Mail reported. Since its discovery in July, the ship has offered up more than 100 containers of olive oil, wine, and fish sauce. Underwater archaeology is a delicate and exciting process.

Scuba diver swimming over a ship wreck
Archaeological underwater investigations of ancient shipwrecks reveal much about trade thousands of years ago due to the cargo that is found. Photo by Shane Gross / Shutterstock

According to The Daily Mail article, the sunken ship was discovered off the coast of the Mediterranean island of Majorca (also called Mallorca) by a local resident and his wife. Archaeologists have deduced that it was a merchant ship dated to around the 4th century A.D. measuring approximately 33 feet long and 16 feet wide. Recovering the historic artifacts of sunken ships goes far beyond pulling up pirates’ treasure chests, as is evidenced by the legendary Uluburun shipwreck, first discovered in 1982.

Finding the Ship

According to Dr. Eric H. Cline, Professor of Classics and Anthropology and current Director of The George Washington University Capitol Archaeological Institute, the Uluburun shipwreck sank off the coast of southwestern Turkey c. 1300 B.C. “It was found with a full cargo and finished goods that shed light on the international trade and the relations that were taking place more than 3,000 years ago,” he said.

Credit for the excavation of the ship goes to George Bass, considered to be the father of underwater archaeology, and his former student-turned-colleague Cemal Pulak. Amazingly, Dr. Cline said, the person who found the ship was a local 17-year-old sponge diver on his first season of diving in 1982. Two years later, Bass began directing the excavation of the ship, handing the project to Pulak in 1985.

“From then until 1994, excavations were conducted virtually every summer, with a team of professional archaeologists and eager graduate students,” Dr. Cline said. “They dove on the wreck every day, with each of them diving two times per day, but only spending about 20 minutes on the bottom each time. Even with such short individual dives, they collectively worked for more than 6,600 hours excavating the ship during those 10 years, since they dove on it more than 22,000 times.”

The Secrets of the Uluburun

Over the decade that archaeologists spent excavating the ship, the relics they didn’t find are as fascinating as those they did. First, there were no human remains whatsoever found near the wreck—neither full skeletons nor partial ones. In addition, the front part of the 50-foot ship broke off somewhere and has never been recovered.

The biggest recoveries from the ship were its precious metals. “The main cargo was oxhide ingots—99 percent pure, raw copper from Cyprus,” Dr. Cline said. “There were more than 350 of these ingots on the ship, stacked row upon row in the hold. All told, there is more than 10 tons of copper on this one ship.”

They also found more than one ton of tin, which, when mixed with copper, makes bronze. Dr. Cline said that George Bass estimated this much bronze would outfit some 300 soldiers “with swords, shields, helmets, greaves, and other necessary accoutrements.”

Other raw materials found on the ship included colored glass and raw ivory; the finished goods they recovered included all sorts of pottery, from dishes to oil lamps.

The Majorca shipwreck may be just half as old as the Uluburun, but its contents are telling underwater archaeologists much about the trade of the time. The best relics of the ship may have yet to be discovered.

Dr. Eric H. Cline contributed to this article. Dr. Cline is a Professor of Classics and Anthropology and the current Director of The George Washington University (GWU) Capitol Archaeological Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in Ancient History from the University of Pennsylvania and an M.A. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from Yale University.