By Natasha Sheldon
Ventotene is a small island just off the Campanian coastline, known as Pandataria in Roman times. Its coastline is notorious for sudden storms and dangerous currents, making it a perfect island prison, most famously for Julia, the daughter of the Emperor Augustus, who was exiled there for adultery.
But Ventotene is important because it lay along the ancient trade route between Rome and North Africa. In 2008, archaeologists found five trade ships that fell victim to the perils of the area. Well preserved, with almost intact cargos, they are perfect for the study of Roman trade and vessels during the imperial period.
Underwater Rescue Mission.
The ships were discovered 150 metres under the sea by a team of explorative archaeologists. The team's aim was to discover and secure potential underwater sites of interest against looters who had been plundering the area of treasures and destroying valuable archaeology. Using sonar and mini robotic submarines, the team discovered five ‘high priority’ features on the seabed.
Roman Trading Vessels.
These undersea features turned out to be five roman trade ships wrecked between the first century BC and 5th century AD.
The earliest of the ships dated to the first century BC.18m long and 5 metres wide, it was carrying a cargo of Campanian wine. Many of it’s the amphorae were intact and remained in their original positions.
Three of the ships dated to the first century AD. The largest two ships were both carrying a mixed cargo from Italy. The largest of these was carrying goods including wine, glassware and metal whilst the other carried mortars for grinding grain and Campanian wine. The final first century ship was travelling from Baetica in Spain, as indicated by its cargo of Spanish amphorae. Inside the jars was Roman fish sauce or garum.
The youngest ship sank in the fifth century AD and at 12m x 4 m was the smallest vessel. Well preserved, it again carried garum but this time the vessel originated from North Africa. Other finds on board the ships included kitchen equipment.
Implications for Roman Trade.
The wrecks and their cargos are important because they are so well preserved. The ships sank without capsizing, preserving much of the cargo in situ. Once sunk, the wrecks were prevented from breaking because of the gentler currents at the bottom of the sea.
The good state of preservation made them perfect subjects to study in relation to roman trade.
In 2010, archaeologists led by Timothy Gambin returned to the site for 5 days to continue profiling the area of the shipwrecks-and to search for others.
Amongst the finds recovered from 100m metres down was one of the amphorae which made up a major part of the ship’s cargo. This has been taken to the museum of Ventotene for restoration and display.
One of the conclusions reached by Gambin was that the cargo of amphorae probably doomed the ships when they hit heavy storms off the coastline. The amphorae were used as ballast and when the vessels were hit by heavy waves, the ballast shifted, capsizing and sinking the ships.