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Volume 37, Number 6November/December 1986

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The Punic Warship

Written by Daniel Morneau
Illustrated by Michael J. Leek

One day in 1969, off the west coast of Sicily near Marsala, a small commercial vessel was routinely dredging sand for making glass. Suddenly, the dredger bit into wood, triggering a major archeological investigation which would ultimately answer some of the most puzzling mysteries about that most inscrutable of all ancient peoples - the Phoenicians.

The Phoenicians appear in recorded history about 1200 B.C. in the region of present-day Lebanon. Unlike their Greek and Egyptian neighbors, the Phoenicians left modern archeologists with only the skimpiest evidence about themselves in the form of art, literature, or cities to excavate. In fact, practically everything we know about them comes second-hand from their enemies.

One fact, however, is certain: the Phoenicians were the premier mariners of the ancient world and by the eighth century B.C. had founded colonies - which historians call Punic - throughout the Mediterranean basin. The most important and durable of these was Carthage (See Aramco World, May-June 1985), but the Phoenicians also established trading enclaves all along the North African coast, as well as in Spain, Sardinia and Sicily. Punic merchants competed fiercely with Greeks, Egyptians and Romans for economic hegemony in the region.

Schoolbooks unfailingly contain drawings of Punic and Greek ships, but such depictions are entirely speculative, being based generally on the vivid but often hyperbolic descriptions of Thucydides, Pliny and other Greek and Roman historians. And while archeologists have identified hundreds of ancient ship-wrecks, these have uniformly proved to be merchant vessels, not warships.

The reason is simple. When ships sink, their hulls break up and sand covers the pieces, or the currents disperse them. Often, the only evidence left behind is their cargo, like the pottery amphorae which invariably signal the presence of a wrecked merchant ship. Since warships carry no such cargo, they simply disappear into historical oblivion.

Or so they did until that day in 1969. For what the sand dredger had stumbled upon was a whole cluster of ancient warships hibernating on the sea bed under a protective blanket of sand.

The dredger's crew did not know what they had found, but the English nautical archeologist Honor Frost did. What cued Frost to the presence of warships was piles of ballast stones, for ancient warships carried such stones as a steadying weight to compensate for the absence of cargo.

Frost quickly assembled a team that would eventually excavate and actually reconstruct one of the wrecks - a Punic warship of the third century B.C., and a crucial step in the advance of our knowledge of both ancient maritime warfare and naval architecture.

Success, however, did not come quickly. For two summers, Frost and her team surveyed the area, in search of a buried hull. Then, in 1971, due to what Frost describes as "lack of discipline" in following established procedure, one of her team found something new.

"I reluctantly answered his call," she recounts, "considering him to be too near to the shore to have come upon anything significant." Between two piles of ballast-stones, a large weed-covered timber emerged from the sand like the head of a primeval animal.

The projecting timber proved to be a ship's stern. Never before had an ancient ship been found with either extremity intact; stern and prow are usually among the first parts to break up on sinking and be carried away by the currents.

In a land excavation, the foundations alone often suffice for an architect to make a pretty accurate guess as to what a ruined building looked like whole. A ship, however, is far more complicated, for unless at least one end survives it is impossible to calculate mathematically the curvature and dimensions of the hull and therefore impossible to construct a faithful model. The presence of a stern signified to Frost that this ship might, with luck, be rebuilt.

As she inspected the wood more closely, she noticed signs painted on the sides of the hull, some of which she recognized as Punic letters. "When I saw that writing," she recalls, "I knew I was on to something important."

A host of problems bedeviled Frost and her co-workers. Because the ship lay only 2.4 meters (eight feet) underwater, a layman might assume it was easier to excavate than a wreck found at great depth. The reality proved just the opposite. Climatic changes on the surface have little effect on divers in deep water, but for Frost and her team, the fickle winds and storms along the Sicilian coast continually hampered progress.

To complicate matters, the shore in these parts has taken shape only recently and is consequently highly unstable. Underwater sandbanks shift constantly, covering and uncovering the wrecks at random. In 1974, when Frost arrived to resume excavation, the ship had disappeared, and she virtually had to rediscover it and begin afresh.

But all of these problems were nothing compared to that of Poseidonia, an algae-like plant which forms huge clumps and metamorphoses into a sort of soft rock. A "daily plague" for the team, Frost likens it to plastic in its indestructibility. "It became routine," Frost recalls, "to sweep the wreck first thing in the morning, as you would sweep a house."

Nevertheless, the team raised the Punic ship in four brief summer seasons. They made plaster casts of each timber and tracings of the painted signs. To preserve the wood from disintegration upon contact with oxygen, each fragment was transferred immediately to freshwater tanks, drained of salt content and impregnated with a kind of synthetic wax. More delicate finds, such as lengths of rope from the ship's cordage, were freeze-dried, while plant material was embedded in plastic.

A human vertebra, radius and femur demonstrated that at least one man went down with the ship. Two other bones, most likely from a pet dog, were found, as well as one from a large bird that had been shaped into a needle for sewing nets. Other homely, but extremely rare, finds included a plaited basket, a piece of rope fashioned into a simple eye splice, a little brush, a knife blade, a spade, and a couple of toggles.

Animal bones revealed what kind of food the Punic seamen consumed. In fact, there was such an abundance of ox, sheep, goat and pig bones that the sailors, Frost says, seems to have "lived like fighting cocks on a high-protein diet."

That the Punic sailors drank wine on board came as no surprise, and the presence of amphorae with the resinous lining associated with wine-carrying proves it. But the totally, unexpected discovery of a bundle of cannabis sticks indicates the sailors indulged in a mild form of marijuana tea as well.

Another major surprise was the discovery of a system of spray deflectors along the waterline of the hull, similar to those found on many fast modern warcraft. These allowed the decks - and the men - to stay dry during rough seas.

In addition to the ship's stern, a good part of the keel and timbers from the port side of the hull up to the waterline were recovered, as well as large sections of floor planks and a few slivers from the ship's superstructure.

Using this evidence, naval architects succeeded in coming up with a model that was accurate at least up to the ship's middle. But without knowing how the prow was made, they could not be certain of the other end.

Again, fortune intervened. Though Frost and her team knew there were other wrecks in the immediate vicinity, the urgency of saving the Punic ship denied them the time to explore further. One wreck, however, which lay only a short way off periodically came into view, depending on the caprices of the underwater sandbanks, and, as the excavation of the Punic ship drew to a close, the team decided to take a look at this vessel.

They dubbed it the "sister ship," and what should they find but an intact prow - complete with painted lettering and nearby potsherds - confirming its close similarity to the Punic ship. What's more, this prow possessed a ram, for piercing the vulnerable underside of an enemy vessel. The find furnished the missing link that permitted the completion of not only a truly accurate model, but the reconstruction of the Punic ship itself.

As expected, the Punic ship was long and undoubtedly fast. Thirty-five meters (115 feet) long and 4.8 meters (15.7 feet) wide, it had a displacement of 120 tons. Two banks of oars powered it, 17 oars to each side, and because the spaces between them seemed to Frost unusually wide, she believes that two men controlled each oar. Thus, the Punic ship probably carried 68 oarsmen and perhaps half again as many men whose job was exclusively fighting.

The sister ship cleared up yet another puzzle. For centuries, naval architects had assumed that rams of ancient ships were mere extensions of their keels. The sister ship's ram, however, was disposable; the nails which attached it to the keel were not bronze, as they would have been had the ship's builders meant it to be permanent - they were iron, which would have rusted away on long exposure to seawater. Also, the ram was cut across the grain of the wood to facilitate snapping off.

The discovery of a disposable ram designed to break off on impact, says Frost, now seems "so obvious that it is difficult to realize how the alternative hypothesis could ever have been seriously maintained." Were it simply an extension of the keel, any ramming operation would have been as dangerous to an attacking ship as to its intended victim.

Another mystery the Punic ship solves is the seemingly impossible speed at which the ancients raised a flotilla. Pliny, for instance, boasts that "in the First Punic War the fleet was on the water within 60 days after the timber left the tree, while the 220 ships that fought against King Hiero sailed on the 40th day after the timber had been felled." Experts have tended to dismiss these pretensions as wild exaggeration.

Astonishingly, it was the signs painted on the hull which confirmed the accounts of the ancient historians. Phoenician expert William Johnstone painstakingly traced each letter, each stray mark, and even each paint spill, deducing, from the logic of their arrangement and their correspondence with nail holes, the precise order in which the ship's builders had originally fitted its parts together. Indeed, he concluded, it was likely that several sections had been pieced together before construction of the vessel as a whole and were joined as prefabricated units.

Thus, rather than designing each ship haphazardly to conform to whatever lumber happened to be handy, as had been assumed in the past, the precocious Punic shipbuilders must have worked from a model, shaping the wood to fit it. This explains the extraordinary ability of the shipbuilders of antiquity to raise a fleet within weeks. As Frost remarks, it "adds up to a degree of industrial organization not again recorded until the Industrial Revolution."

To date the ship, Frost called upon a diverse groups of experts. Nuclear physicists conducted carbon-14 tests on timbers and plant materials and came up with a date of 235 B.C. Pottery experts examined the amphorae and - while admitting that the whole issue is fraught with imprecision - arrived at a date somewhere between the late third and the late second century B.C.

Now Frost turned to the history books. Because the ship's position led her to believe it was driven into the sand as if it had been rammed, she looked for a documented sea battle and found one obvious possibility. On March 21, 241 B.C., the Punic and Roman fleets clashed off the west coast of Sicily in the Battle of the Egadi Islands, turning point of the First Punic War. Fifty luckless Punic ships went down, among them, Frost speculates, both her ship and the sister ship. We will never know for certain.

Controversy has not abated since Frost announced the discovery of the ship in the mid-1970s. One expert insists the ship is Roman, while another claims it is not a warship. And shortly before it was due to go on public display in June, this year, Sicilian officials ordered the demolition of its reconstructed parts.

Two thirds of the metal skeleton which defined the ship's original shape were, according to the newspaper La Sicilia, "dismantled and their enormous concrete plinths thrown onto a rubbish dump." The reason given was rearrangement of the new Marsala National Museum where the ship was to be displayed, although La Sicilia says the officials acted "in an attempt to gain kudos with Italian divers" frustrated at Frost's success.

Now the Italian government has stepped in and ordered the dismantled parts recovered and put back in place. Soon it is hoped the ship will go on display.

Daniel Morneau is a freelance editor and regular visitor to Sicily.

This article appeared on pages 2-9 of the November/December 1986 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1986 images.