Archaeologists have long believed ancient mariners were excessively cautious when sailing the Mediterranean, staying close to the coast at all times to avoid the risk of tumultuous mid-sea storms and hidden reefs. But this view has been changed by an exhaustive underwater archaeological survey undertaken by the United Nations agency UNESCO has found evidence to suggest ancient sailors were far more daring than had previously been suspected.
This evidence comes in the form of 24 shipwrecks spotted by the UNESCO survey along a popular north-to-south sea route that cuts through the heart of the Mediterranean, with one of the wrecks dating back to the first century AD. The latter ship was found off the coastline of Tunisia in North Africa, and has been officially identified as a first-century Roman merchant vessel .
According to Alison Faynot, the UNESCO archaeologist who led the new survey, the discovery of these two dozen wrecked vessels shows that merchant ships carrying valuable cargoes of olive oil and wine were frequently sailing across the Mediterranean in past centuries, far back into antiquity. It seems the potential profits from the lucrative trade in such items was enough to convince them to undertake such voyages, despite knowing they were sailing across extremely dangerous waters.
Tracking the Incredible Voyages of the Ancient Mediterranean Mariners
It is possible to navigate the Mediterranean Sea using terrestrial landmarks. Seaborne travelers moving from Europe to Africa to the Near East could complete round-trip journeys without venturing out into more treacherous waters, and it has always been assumed that this is what they did in the distant past.
But this was only an assumption, and it was one that UNESCO underwater archaeologists were eager to challenge.
That’s why the UN’s leading cultural organization recruited underwater archaeologists from eight nations that border the Mediterranean—France, Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Croatia and Italy—to join a multi-year mission to explore the sea’s bottom along the Sicilian Channel . This heavily-sailed central Mediterranean Sea route runs northeast from the coast of Tunisia in North Africa to the island of Sicily just south of the Italian peninsula. This passage is prone to storms and high winds, and directly beneath it lies the notorious Skerki Banks, which feature hidden reefs and rocky peaks that nearly reach the sea’s surface at various points.
This sea route is only 90 miles long, and offers the fastest option for ships traveling between North Africa and Italy. This particular sea route is rich in marine life, and in addition to being attractive to merchants has also been popular with fishermen throughout history.
But for how long throughout history? This was the question that the international team of UNESCO-sponsored archaeologists set out to answer, as they journeyed across the Mediterranean along the Sicilian Channel on the research ship Alfred Merlin , which is owned and operated by the French Ministry of Culture.
While they were attempting to chart any and all new shipwrecks they might find, most of their discoveries occurred along the eastern section of the Skerki Banks, close to the Sicilian Channel’s North African destination point. In total, 24 sunken ships were identified along the Skerki Banks, which has always been an especially difficult place for ship captains to safely navigate.
“We knew this was a very dangerous area, and we knew also that there had been a lot of looting,” UNESCO’s Faynot told National Geographic . “We were afraid of finding a deserted area—but we were happy to find shipwrecks instead.”
The 2,000-year-old Roman ship was discovered not far from the coast of Tunisia, and it is this find that has most altered the current understanding about how long ships have been venturing out into the deep Mediterranean.
Roman amphoras found on the sea floor with remains of ancient cargo of wine or olive oil. ( V.CREUZE ROV DRASSM/UNESCO )
A close examination by the underwater archaeologists revealed this vessel was about 60 feet (18 m) long and was filled with amphoras, which are tall Greek/Roman jugs with two handles and a tapered neck that were frequently used to carry wine in Roman times. A few of the amphoras have been recovered and will be subjected to laboratory tests, to see if traces of wine can be detected.
At the other end of the time spectrum, the researchers found one wreck that likely dates to the late 19th or early 20th centuries. The ship is huge, approximately 250 feet (76 m) long, and made entirely from metal. No cargo has been spotted, so the ship’s purpose has not yet been ascertained, but the researchers are hopeful that a search of the historical records will reveal its true identity.
In addition to their new discoveries in the east central Mediterranean, the UNESCO research team were also able to verify the location of three shipwrecks previously spotted off the coast of Sicily. Notably, these ships were also found to have been filled with amphoras, many of which should be recoverable since they are strewn about across the sea floor.
Team members inaugurate the ROV Arthur from the Alfred Merlin. This machine can explore shipwrecks on the seafloor. ( UNESCO)
Robotic Technology is Revolutionizing Underwater Archaeology
All of this work was accomplished with the assistance of underwater ROVs (remotely-operated vehicles). These machines are able to go much deeper than human scuba divers, which allowed them to closely explore the seafloor along the Skerki Banks.
“In the not-so-distant past, deep water technologies were not widely available and deepwater projects were the realm of the few,” said University of Malta archaeologist Timmy Gambin, who did not participate in the UNESCO expedition but has closely followed its progress. “We can now do archaeology systematically at depth… [and] the science can now be initiated and conducted by local experts.”
With so much already having been achieved through the deployment of these robotic underwater explorers, their use is likely to expand in the very near future. The current plan is to use them to explore the seafloor along other routes across the Mediterranean, specifically those that move east-to-west and cover much longer distances than the Sicilian Channel. These may have been heavily sailed in ancient times as well, and the discovery of new shipwrecks along these passages could show that merchant vessels have been sailing across the Mediterranean in every direction not just for centuries, but for millennia.
The leaders of the latest UNESCO expedition have declared their intention to launch new searches along these east-to-west routes in the coming years, relying on underwater ROVs to empower their efforts. What they will discover remains uncertain, but the impact of their discoveries on historical understanding will undoubtedly be dramatic.
Top image: AI generated image of a complete shipwreck, representative of wrecks that have recently been discovered in the Mediterranean Sea. Source: MediaM/Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde