National Geographic : 2014 Apr
128 national geographic • april 2014 riches noticed a mass of wood swelling from the mud at a depth of 13 feet. It turned out to be the aft port side of a 102-foot-long barge. The barge was almost intact; most of it was still buried under the layers of mud and amphorae that had sheltered it for nearly 2,000 years. It had held on to its last cargo and even to a few personal effects left behind by its crew. And through a further series of small miracles, including another inter- vention by Julius Caesar, it has emerged from the trash to resume its last voyage—safe this time in a brand-new wing of the Musée Départemental Arles Antique. Last June, as restoration experts were rush- ing to ready the barge for its public debut, I spent a week in Arles in a small stone house overlooking the Rhône. The summer season was not yet in full swing, and away from the tourist hot spots the narrow streets of the town were lonesome. The mistral blew relentlessly. At night I awoke to rattling shutters and the hollow grind of a plastic bottle rolling down the stone quay. From the roof terrace I could look across the river to the quay on the right bank, where on an earlier visit photographer Rémi Bénali and I had picked up two large, rusty, hand-forged nails—small spikes might be a better description. Then as now the quay was empty save for a large shipping container. But for seven months in 2011 that container had served as a hive for the divers and archaeologists who buzzed in and out of the river every day, vacuuming away the mud that covered the Roman barge, hand-sawing it into ten sections, and hoisting them one by one out of the water with a crane. The nails had fallen from one of the dripping timbers, which meant they were roughly contemporary with, and probably similar to, the ones that had attached Jesus to the Cross. Gazing down at the Rhône, which was gray and ill-looking and stirred by shifting, rushing eddies—it’s the most powerful river in France—I tried to imagine wanting to dive into it. I could not. Neither could Luc Long, at first. Long is the archaeologist whose team discovered the barge. He’s been diving in the Rhône for decades, but the first time still haunts him. Boyish at 61, with a Beatle-ish shock of brown hair, Long works for the DRASSM, a French gov- ernment department tasked with protecting the nation’s underwater patrimony. Long had worked on wrecks all over the Mediterranean when, in 1986, his friend, diver and wreck hunter Albert Illouze, guilt-tripped him into diving in his home river. The Arlésiens turned away from the Rhône centuries ago, Long explained, even before roads and the railway diminished its commercial im- port. They came to fear it as a source of floods and disease—and he was raised in that tradition. “I had no desire to dive in the Rhône,” he said. Long and Illouze entered the river on a Sat- urday morning in November, just across from where the antiquities museum is today. The wa- ter was around 48 degrees Fahrenheit, foamy and odoriferous—there were sewage outfalls nearby. Long could see no more than three feet in front of him, which for the Rhône was a clear day. Its strong current buffeted and scared him. Gooey streams of algae licked his face. At a depth of around 20 feet, he found himself clinging to a hubcap. It was attached to a truck. Slowly, apprehensively, Long felt his way around to the driver’s side of the cabin. He found a Roman amphora in the driver’s seat. After that, he and Illouze swam over a vast field of amphorae. Long had never seen so many intact ones, and his future opened before him: He’s been mapping the Roman dump ever since. But the Rhône never became pleasant to work in. Long and his divers had to get used to the gloom, the pollutants, and the pathogens. There were rare but unsettling encounters, among the shopping carts and wrecked cars, with giant catfish. As long as eight feet, the beasts would loom from the murk and grab a diver’s swim fin. “When you find yourself being pulled by a flip- per,” Long said, “it’s a moment of great solitude. It’s a few seconds that you don’t forget.” For the first 20 years or so, no one paid much attention to what he was doing. In 2004, when Photographer Bénali lives in Arles; this is his first piece for the magazine. Kunzig is a senior editor.