The Marsala Punic Warship

Honor Frost

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An exceptional wreck means far more than the sum of its wooden parts; many features of this well preserved after-end of a cargo-less vessel are unique and heavy with implication. Phoenicio-Punic writing is one of them: when first excavated the black calligraphy showed clearly on pine-wood planking that was still yellow, just as the "dunnage" (or leafy branches laid to protect bottoms from ballast) was still green. Both soon faded on exposure to the light and oxygen in the water, but not before focusing attention on the wreck's chemical environment and - for reasons of "nationality" - on its geographic background. The place where a seagoing ship sank is usually of minor interest because, unlike river craft, ancient seagoing vessels usually carry no clue to where and by whom they were built, or to how many owners they may have had before sinking. This makes it impossible to assign any particular design of hull to any particular Mediterranean region, so leaving a serious gap in our knowledge of ship architecture.

The Marsala Ship's "nationality" is perfectly clear, having been written onto it its builders; it also sank when new. Its proximity to two Phoenician port sites is therefore relevant, although it sometimes causes confusion since popular belief links it with the best known: Phoenician Motya, instead of Punic Lilybaeum ("Punic" being the Roman name for the later Phoenicians who settled in the Western Mediterranean and founded Carthage). Neverthless, the link deserves consideration because, environmentally, both sites have been transformed since antiquity in a manner affecting the understanding of the wreck itself.

In 397 BC Greeks from Eastern Sicily sailed into the lagoon and destroyed the Phoenician town on the Island Motya. It was replaced on the mainland cape at the southern end of the lagoon by Punic Lilybaeum (modern Marsala). The lagoon then stopped being navigable, because the rocky islets making up the reef that separated it from open sea joined togheter (probably owing to the enlargement of salt pans which, here as elsewhere, were exploited by the Phoenicians). Once the reef became one long island, Isola Lunga, this blocked the flow of through-currents, so that the lagoon silted and stagnateed. Isola Lunga's alternative name: Isole dello Stagnone (the Islands of the Stagnant Lagoon) recall this happening. Furthermore, after the main coastal current could np longer pass through the lagoon, it started dropping the sand it carried on the seaward tip of Isola Lunga, forming the spit of land called Punta Scario off which the Punic Ship was found.

Punta Scario is opposite to and only twenty minutes by sail from, the Egadi Islands which gave their name to the Roman naval victory that took place on the morning of March the 10th, 241 BC and ended the First Punic War. The wreck's contents, epigraphy and Carbon 14 determinations are consistent with this period, while circumstantial evidence points to a connection with the Battle itself. The Ship's architecture and contents show that it was not a merchantman, but some kind of hastily built auxiliary warship, possibly a Liburnian. After the Battle the wind had changed direction, so that by the evening, any surviving craft could have made for the nearest shore that was still in Punic hands… the presence of other wrecks off Punta Scario suggests that they did. The brief sounding that was carried out on "The Sister Ship" (only 40 metres from the main excavation) revealed the wooden framework of a "beak" type ram which also had a Phoenicio-Punic letter painted onto it.

It was in 1969 that Diego Boninni, the Capitain of a commercial dredge working off Punta Scario, reported buried wood from ancient vessels. Archaeological survey followed, and in 1971, the movement of a sand-bank exposed (thus endangering) the "Punic Ship's" exceptional stern-post; rescue excavation began immediately and continued during four annual campaigns*.

Under water, the bottom off Punta Scario is mobile: winter storms shift banks of sand, while the seasonal fall of Poseidonia leaves pile high onto the beach, rotting and giving off a stench of iron sulphide; in the sea, decaying leaves get trapped around obstructions such as wrecks, gradually building up compacted layers of alternating leaves and sand, thus producing the chemical conditions favourable to the preservation of organic matter (but not metals).

The newness of the Punic hull and the haste of its launching were obvious from the freshness of the colours and tool marks and, more strikingly, from the condition of the putty that had been used as 'luting' (the filling for any small gaps occurring when frames were fitted into the hull's shell of planking). This putty had not even had time to harden before leafy branches, then ballast stones landed on top of it in quicksuccession; some remained stuck in it. Furthermore, while this was going on in the bottom of the ship, carpenters were still working in its superstructure, for shavings and chippings of rare woods (not used for planking and frames) mingled with the ballast and dunnage.

Study of the writing left by the builders revealed traces of two alphabetic sequences, togheter with the more usual incised markings; this showed the hull's design to have been preconceived, while the fact that one letter was written in several different ways, suggests several handwritings, and consequently several literate shipwrights (such literacy would be surprising in the traditional Mediterranean shipyards that survived until recently).

The contents of this wreck contrast with those of ancient merchantmen. The latter made regular journeys, so they carried large containers for storing water; grinders and mortars for dried food; large pots for communal cooking an fish-hooks for catching the only available fresh food. The Punic Ship had none of these things, only small cups and bowls for individual servings, while liquids were carried in amphorae of miscellaneous shapes. Food-remains were even more unusual, for they represented fresh ingredients including various kinds of meat (attested by butcher-cut bones).

After the excavation, the hull's wooden remains were conserved (using PEG) then, by 1978, put together in Marsala in a historic building on Cape Lilybaeum (Boeo), which has since become a Regional Museum. The intention is to explain both the vessel and its contents by new museographic display.

* The excavation: at the request of the Sicilian Authorities, the British School at Rome appointed Honor Frost to direct the excavation, which was under the patronage of Sir Mortimer Wheeler (British Academy), Dr Richard Barnett (British Museum) et al. Results were reported annually in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology (London and New York). As soon as field-work ended, a comprehensive report was published by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei (Rome) as a Supplement to Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità, XXX, 1976.

Field-work was carried out by an international team with skills ranging from engineering to naval architecture. The engineer Peter Ball remained head diver throughout. Archaeologists included: the late Prof. William Cullican (University of Melbourne); dr. John Curtis (British Museum) and the epigraphist Professor William Johnstone (Aberdeen University). Stones were identified by Prof. Georges Mascle (Grenoble); bones by Dr. François Poplin (Museum d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris) and plants by the Laboratory of the Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew). Finance came from various scholarly bodies in Europe and America. In Marsala, help was never lacking. Dr. Pietro Alagna contributed logistically throughout the excavation and latterly ran the conservation laboratory.


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