Uncharted Roman shipwrecks discovered off Tunisian coast

Uncharted Roman shipwrecks discovered off Tunisian coast

Using a robot and multibeam sonar, underwater archaeologists have discovered three previously unknown Roman shipwrecks off the Tunisian coast.

The researchers hail from Algeria, Croatia, Egypt, France, Italy, Morocco, Spain and Tunisia. In their recent mission, coordinated by UNESCO, they found three new shipwrecks. One wreck dates back to between 100 BCE and 200 CE, while the other two date from around the turn of the 20th century. The researchers presented their findings at a press conference held at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, where they had gathered to examine the shipwrecks resting at the bottom of the water body that separated them.

Using multibeam sonar and remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs), the archaeologists mapped the seafloor and the unfortunate vessels sitting on it. They specifically investigated the continental shelves off Tunisia and Sicily as part of distinct projects led by Tunisia and Italy, respectively.

The newly discovered shipwrecks are located near Keith Reef, a particularly treacherous region of the Skerki Bank. According to a UNESCO release, the bank is bordered by Sicily to the north and Tunisia to the southwest. Keith Reef nearly breaks the surface of the Mediterranean at certain points, making navigation difficult for ships, both ancient and modern. The research clearly demonstrates that some ships have met their demise in this area.

Photogrammetric map

The shallow reef is uniquely situated in one of the Mediterranean’s busiest maritime routes, which has been trafficked for millennia. The investigation off Sicily followed in the footsteps of marine archaeologists Robert Ballard and Anna McCann, who discovered eight stranded wrecks on the Italian continental shelf between 1998 and 2000.

Multibeam sonar was used to create a photogrammetric map of the Skerki Bank, which revealed several anomalies on the seafloor that turned out to be archaeological remains. Using the new research vessel Alfred Merlin, 28 scientists from the aforementioned countries discovered a 74-metre motorized wreck and a 15-metre wooden wreck, both dating back to the late 19th or early 20th century, as well as a 15-metre merchant vessel from antiquity.

The team also examined three Roman wrecks off the coast of Italy: two merchant vessels from the 1st century loaded with amphorae, stone, ceramics and common wares, and a 1st-century BCE cargo ship carrying similar cargo.

During the press conference, UNESCO officials stated that the exploration of the Skerki Bank was the first survey mission in this area. Although they did not retrieve any artifacts, as that was not the purpose of the reconnaissance mission, the findings provide further evidence of the cultural heritage preserved at the seabed, which needs to be protected.

One of the recently discovered shipwrecks on the Skerki Bank. (Image courtesy: UNESCO)
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