Ghostly Remains of Massive Roman Shipwreck Found in Mediterranean

A scale reproduction of the wreck site showing an estimated 1,200 amphorae outlining the remains of the Roman vessel. (Photo: Ionian Aquarium)

Researchers exploring the eastern Mediterranean Sea using advanced sonar technology have uncovered one of the largest Roman shipwrecks ever discovered.

The ancient merchant vessel lies at a depth of 197 feet off the coast of the Greek Island of Kefallinia. All that remains visible are 1,200 ceramic shipping jugs known as amphorae, resting in a haunting outline of the wreck.

According to Dr. George Ferentinos, who along with nine other academics detailed the find in the Journal of Archeological Science, the organized distribution of the amphorae likely rules out sinking of the 110-foot vesel due to inclement weather.

"The outline of the amphorae on the seafloor resembles the outline of ships at that period," Dr. Ferentinos told MNN of the 'Fiscardo' wreck, named after a nearby fishing village. "This indicates that the cargo has kept the outline of the ship, suggesting that the ship sank very slowly in an up-wright position and and came to rest on its keel and then gradually tipped in the one side with the hull keeping its overall structure. Therefore, it may-be assumed that the ship did not sink due to stormy weather but probably due to amphorae shifting in the hull."

A floor mosaic representation of a Roman merchant vessel dating back to about A.D. 300 and discovered in Lod, Israel. (Photo: Carole Raddato [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)

The team, part of the Oceanus network of the University of Patras and funded by the INTEREG Greece-Italy 2007-2013 Programme, was able to collect data that indicates the amphorae were stowed in five layers of the ship's hull. As a result, it's estimated that as many as 6,000 of the ceramic jugs may have been aboard when the vessel foundered.

Based on its cargo and measurements, it's believed that large Roman merchant ships like the Fiscardo were fully capable of shipping up to 400 tons of cargo to ports throughout the Mediterranean and beyond.

Amphorae from the wreck of the Roman merchant vessel 'Fiscardo.'. (Photo: Ionian Aquarium)

After a performing a detailed analysis of the amphorae dimensions, the team was able to date the merchant vessel to sometime between the first century B.C. and the first century A.D.

According to Ferentinos, there's much to be learned from studying these shipping containers, which were often used for transporting dry and liquid products throughout the ancient world.

"Possibly, some of the amphorae may remain sealed," he explained. "However, even if the amphorae are opened, by taking a sample from the inside wall of the amphorae you can find with what they were filled by determining the DNA of the absorbed material in the wall."

Photomosaic of the Roman wreck on the seafloor. (Photo: Ionian Aquarium)

Cargo aside, the team also expressed hope that the wooden hull of the ship, extending possibly nine feet into the sea floor, may yet remain preserved under the sand.

"In general after a few centuries the wooden parts of the ships that lie on the seabed disintegrates due to the presence of aerobic bacteria," Ferentinos explained. "However, if the wooden frame of the ship is buried by mud and/or sand, due to the low % of dissolved oxygen in the sediment pore-water, the presence of bacteria would be limited. Thus the disintegration of the wooden parts would be reduced."

As shown in the sonar image above, the wreck has also suffered from what's likely the result of scouring due to an anchor being dragged along the sea floor. As tourism has increased over the years to the Fiscardo embayment, so too has the presence of yachts and cruise ships anchored offshore. The authors hope the discovery of priceless ancient treasure such as this one leads to increased efforts to provide permanent off-shore moorings to reduce damage and preserve the sites for future exploration.

"All the above demonstrate that the shipwreck on one hand covers a wide range of values such as scientific, cultural, socio-economic and educational," they conclude in the study, "but on the other hand lies in an area of continuously fast growing tourism which affects all the above intrinsic values if protective measures are not taken very soon."