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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
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.