Tour des Fouilles (2): Lost at Sea

There is not a lot of spectacular (Roman) archaeology going on in the inlands of Corsica, but the bay of Ajaccio is an interesting place. There may or may not have been an urban settlement in the area in antiquity. Literary sources suggest something, but no substantial remains have been found: from Ajaccio comes just one inscription (containing two letters: "BR"). Maybe, there was a bit of agriculture going on in the valley of the Gravona, but we don't really know. Yet, along the south and west coast of Corsica, numerous shipwrecks have been found and, with the emergence of underwater archaeology in the last decades, an increasing number of these wrecks have also been investigated - sometimes with spectacular results.

Porticcio: Glass from the Porticcio-wreck - [source]

One of the most interesting wrecks from Corsica was found in the bay of Ajaccio - at Porticcio. It dates to the third century AD and was discovered some 15 years ago; archaeologists have been working on it since 2001. Typically, what remains of such wrecks is the load, and you will discover it fromt the amphorae on the bottom of the sea. This load of this wreck was remarkably varied: it included eleven (!) types of amphorae (classified with illustrous names as 'Kapitän I and II', 'Africano I and II', 'Dressel 20', 'Gauloise', 'Almagro 50' and 'Béltran 72'), and besides all that, several millstones, at least 250 kilo of glass fragments (source: OXREP). Furthermore, there were two larger-than-life statures of the third century (short-lived) emperor Philip the Arab and his wife.

Porticcio: Excavating the Porticcio-wreck - Discovery of the statue of Phillip the Arab [source]

So: why did this ship end up here? The varied cargo makes it hard to tell where the ship comes from - it may just litterally have come from everywhere - but it is possible that it, like so many other ships that stranded in this area - was sailing from somewhere in the Western Mediterranean (Spain, Africa, Gaul) to Rome, and that it intended to pass through the strait of Bonifacio (between Corsica and Sardinia), ended up in a storm, was able to make it to the bay of Ajaccio - and sank - either because of damage suffered at sea, or because of bad navigation. 

It was not at all unique for ships to have a varied cargo, but it has of course implications for the interpretation of such a ship - it makes it, for example, possible that the ship was transporting stuff for several people, or that it belonged to a trader who traded in a variety of commodities. Other ships had a much more homogeneous cargo - as for example the Madrague de Giens wreck (75-60 BCE), which contained 6000-6500 (!) amphorae of one and the same type, Dressel 1B, which contained wine, probably all coming from one and the same place in Italy, and on their way to Gaul..


Cubells, J.-F. (2005). ‘Le verre à vitres de l'épave romaine de Porticcio (Golfe d'Ajaccio, Corse)’, in S. Lagabrielle (ed.), Verre et Fenêtre de l'antiquité au XVIIIe siècle. .