The Madrague De Giens Wreck; a Roman Freighter Yields Its Secrets

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The Madrague de Giens wreck

FOR eleven years, from 1972 to 1982, diver-archaeologists of the Archaeological Institute run jointly in Aix-en-Provence (France) by the University of Provence and the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), pitched camp each summer in a pine wood over-looking the sea on the southern shore of the Giens peninsula, some thirty kilometres east of Toulon.

A Roman wreck had been discovered near the little fishing port of La Madrague de Giens in 1967, and since it was lying at a reasonable depth--18 to 20 metres--and had not, like so many others, been pillaged by looters, it was chosen as the site of the first truly scientific underwater excavation carried out in France on a considerable scale. Three years of work were planned: little did we know, at the time, that the wreck would prove to be one of the two or three largest ancient ships whose remains have ever been found under the sea.

The method adopted is easier to describe than it was to implement, given the nature of our equipment and changing conditions at sea. It meant extricating the objects carefully and completely using an air pump, without moving any one of them before its position had been recorded; attaching clearly visible numbers to all the amphoras and other important objects; carrying out a stereoscopic photographic coverage of the area explored; raising to the surface the objects thus identified, and continuing to probe, level by level, as far as the hull. Lastly, we carefully examined the hull itself and dismantled parts of it in order to determine how it had been constructed.

The ship was wrecked some time around 70-60 BC. It was carrying a cargo of wine from Italy--to be precise, from the region of Terracina: we know the location of the workshop where most of the amphoras in the cargo were manufactured. It measured nearly 40 metres in length, and could carry 7,000 or 8,000 amphoras, which gave it a tonnage of 350 to 400 tons: a respectable capacity for any traditional sea-going vessel as late as the nineteenth century.

But we did not find so many thousands of amphoras on the sea-bed. Firstly because, on its last voyage, the ship was not fully loaded with wine. An extra cargo, consisting of crates of black glazed pottery, had been packed on top. Secondly, and above all, because we were able to establish that divers--probably professionals--had come to salvage the sunken cargo shortly after the wreck, and had raised to the surface at least half of the amphoras. There were two consistent pointers to this. The wreck is strewn with large stones; a geological study has shown that they very probably came from the peninsula itself, or from the opposite coast adjoining the town of Hyeres. …