Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Ancient ship was carrying the finest wine

I love nautical archeology. I've always loved the ocean, and I've always loved archeology, so I guess it's a natural fit. There have been many famous Greek and Roman discoveries made underwater, probably the most important being the Antikythera mechanism. Ancient shipwrecks that are discovered today provide us with a rare look into the the seafaring side of ancient civilizations. More often that not, it is the cargoes of these ships that provide the greatest amount of information, not the ships themselves. If you're looking to find an ancient wooden ship sitting quietly on the sea floor, the Mediterranean is a bad place to look. Shipworm and the passage of thousands of years eat away most wood and other biodegradable material. There have been several notable ships found, mostly burried in sand and mud, but these are more likely to be found close to shore or in rivers and lakes. It's the cargo, though, that really gives us incite into the ancient world. What the cargo is, where it was found and when it sank all help to paint a clearer picture of what ancient sea trade was like. Finds like the garum carrying ship a few years ago, and the wine carrying ship from the article above are important not because of sunken gold or statutes, but because of the seemingly mundane cargo of bulk goods. Though gold, coins, statues and such are indeed important artifacts, it's the cargo of these merchant ships that help us understand the "lower" aspects of Greek and Roman life. Much is knows about the Caesars and Senators ruling over Rome, or of great figures and philosophers of Greece, but studying the cargoes of merchant ships can put us in touch with the lower classes of ancient society. Cicero didn't neatly stack up those amphora full of fish sauce, a slave or pleb did. It's their story that is so often left untold, but by looking past the gold coins and studying the pottery shards encrusted with garum or wine residue, perhaps we'll be one step closer to hearing it.