National Geographic : 1969 Feb
Ancient Shipwreck Yields New Facts-and a Strange Cargo By PETER THROCKMORTON Photographsby KIM HART and JOSEPHJ. SCHERSCHEL, National GeographicStaff DURING THE EARLY Christian cen turies, wooden merchant ships carried the trade of Imperial Rome to the far thest reaches of the Mediterranean. Gale and accident took their toll, and the doomed craft left their skeletons on submerged reefs and sand bars and on the bottoms of anchorages that could not protect them from the siroccos and other vicious winds that scourge the "Sea in the Middle of the Land." Pottery and marble, nails of copper and bronze, coins and other metal objects have lasted out the ages to mark sites of many of these wrecks. Rare it is, however, to find in tact the wood of these vessels' hulls. Over the centuries, the pine, oak, elm, Lebanon cedar, and cypress that formed planks and timbers have rotted away, been devoured by worms, 282 or suffered decay in the embrace of sea plants. But in 1967, diving to a Roman wreck I had found in the Gulf of Taranto in southern Italy, it was my extraordinary good fortune to lift from the bottom pieces of ship's planking, much of itbroad-hewn pine, looking as yellow fresh as the day it was felled. Wooden nails and tenons still joined timbers cut from trees that grew before Christ walked the stony hills of Palestine. What was there about this wreck that had allowed such an archeological treasure to be preserved over so great a span of time? The explanation is the cargo-chiefly marble cof fins. Scores of tons of precut sarcophagi and their lids, architectural blocks and smooth panels, all lay disposed pretty much as they had been loaded on the ship nearly 18 centuries The first hull plank of a drowned Roman ship returns to the surface of the Gulf of Taranto with archeologist-diver Peter Throckmorton. After locating the wreck and its cargo of marble coffins, the author and his crew spent two summers salvaging them. Divers gleaned informa tion permitting reconstruction of a Roman merchantman with greater accuracy than ever before (painting, above). Carbon dating indicates the ship was built of wood that grew in the first century B.C. She sank when old and patched, more than two centuries later. KODACHROME BY KIM HART© N.G.S.