The Museum of Ancient Shipping

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The Museum of Ancient Shipping in Mainz was opened on November 25th 1994, since when it has continually extended its exhibition. It provides an overview of the manifold connections between the Mediterranean and northern Alpine boat-building traditions on the one hand, and the social standing and responsibilities of Roman marines on the other.

The heart of the exhibition is provided by five military ships of the late 3rd and 4th century found in Mainz in 1981/82. They are partly to be seen afloat, as ship 3 and ship 5, partly, however, in the positions in which they were found, as ship 1, ship 2 and ship 4. Although all according to the shape of their hulls can be classified as military ships, they belong to two different types. Ships 1, 2, 4 and 5 can be described as Type A. They were very narrow, fast rowing boats with a row of oars on either side. They could also be sailed when necessary. reconstruction Mainz A in the exhibition, a ship 21,5 m long, 2,79 m wide and roughly 1 m high, conveys an impression of the original appearance of this type of vessel. For the reconstruction of the parts which had not survived in the original, recourse was made to the representations of Roman ships on reliefs, mosaics, wall-paintings, coins etc.

The original ship 3 belongs to Type B, a more compact vessel, as illustrated by the 18 m long, 4,80 m wide and 1,30 high reconstruction 2. Here, too, references were made to contemporary representations, in this case to the silver ship's model from the treasure of Rethel in France. As opposed to reconstruction Mainz A, which represents a troop transporter, reconstruction 2 is a patrol vessel employed in surveilling the Rhine border. The existence of such patrol ships is documented by classical authors.

Large illustrations elucidate the historical situation in which the ships operated and through which their fate was ultimately sealed, i.e. through the German invasion of A.D. 402, which at first forced the Romans to abandon the Rhine zone and the fleet stationed there. Beyond that, imaginative reconstructions give an impression of how one might envisage the construction of the ships, their slipway and their operation on the river during late antiquity.

A little later, the remains of two flat-bottomed ships of type Zwammerdam came to light close to the findspot. From one of these a roughly 2 m long piece was able to be recovered, which can also be seen in the exhibition as ship 6. On the strength of the excavation drawings of the originally longer surviving ship and of the piece recovered, the ship could be completely reconstructed. A model to the scale of 1:10 shows the results of the scientific analysis of this type of vessel. It is complemented by further models of this type in 1:10 based upon the wrecks Zwammerdam 2 and Woerden 1 found in The Netherlands. These heavy-duty barges common north of the Alps during the Roman Imperial period were distinguished by characteristic constructional parts, such as the chine-block, but also present a considerable variation in width, as is demonstrated by the models.

As well as the original wrecks from Mainz, the Museum of Ancient Shipping displays Roman reliefs with representations of ships. These are intended to demonstrate the variety of types and development of Roman military ships, at the end of which are the late Roman ships of Mainz. In this connection a splendid example is provided by the representations of ships on Trajan's Column. Copies of these scenes can be seen in the exhibition.

Starting from the proportions obtained from the representations of the individual ships and combining finds of surviving wrecks, as well as physical and technical considerations, construction plans of such ships are being developed in the Museum of Ancient Shipping and transposed into model ships to the scale of 1:10.

As well as clearly military ships, the Museum is also interested in civilian riverine craft, as can also be seen on Roman monuments. Here the connections between the northern Alpine region and the Mediterranean world can be demonstrated. Thus, constructional features known from the ships of type Zwammerdam seem also to have been employed in ships operated for the transport of goods between Portus, the sea-harbour of Rome, and the city itself. Models of further freighters are based upon completely reconstructed original wrecks, such as Blackfriars or Comacchio.

The model-builders produce all the model ships intended for the exhibition in front of the visitors' eyes. This project is supported financially by the Ministry of Employment, Social Services and Health of the Rhineland-Palatinate, as well as the Employment Office of Mainz.

A further section of the exhibition is devoted to the explanation of Roman ship construction. Using selected examples, the most important constructional parts of the late Roman ships, their designation and their function are explained here. Moreover, the special construction of the Mainz ships is discussed, as well as their system of measurements, which allows conclusions on the origins of the Roman shipwrights.

The social standing of the members of the fleet, the structure of Roman fleets and their responsibilities during periods of peace provide the focus on the navy in the Roman Imperial period. The most important basis for such statements is provided by gravestones, the bases of statues and dedicatory altars of members of the Roman fleets, on which their deeds or their ranks are mentioned. All the inscriptions of members of the Rhine fleet have been collected in the Museum of Ancient Shipping to demonstrate this historically very important group of monuments.

So long as the conservation and restoration of the two ships Oberstimm 1 and Oberstimm 2 found in the Danube continues, these wrecks, too, can be seen in the Museum of Ancient Shipping. During this the assembly of the individual sections in which the ships were dissected for transport to Mainz also takes place in front of the visitors' eyes directly in the exhibition hall.

Barbara Pferdehirt

Translated by Clive Bridger

Museum für Antike Schiffahrt
Neutorstraße 2 b
D-55116 Mainz
Tel.: +49 - (0)6131 - 286630
Fax: +49 - (0)6131 - 2866324
Opening times : Tuesdays to Sundays 10 a.m to 6 p.m.; Mondays closed
Entrance free