Ancient Roman Shipwreck Loaded With Wine Amphorae Found Off Sicilian Coast

The vessel dates to the second century B.C.E.

Roman amphorae at the bottom of the ocean
Researchers used a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to capture photographs of the wreck. Soprintendenza del Mare

Archaeologists off the coast of Palermo, Sicily, have discovered an ancient Roman shipwreck laden with amphorae, or jars used mainly for transporting wine and olive oil.

The Superintendence of the Sea (SopMare), a Sicilian government body responsible for safeguarding historical and natural objects found in marine waters, uncovered the second-century B.C.E. vessel near the Isola delle Femmine, reports local newspaper PalermoToday. The ship rests in the Mediterranean Sea at a depth of about 302 feet.

On board the wreck was a “copious cargo” of wine amphorae, writes Lorenzo Tondo for the Guardian. Authorities hailed the find as one of most important archaeological discoveries made in the region in recent years.

“The Mediterranean continually gives us precious elements for the reconstruction of our history linked to maritime trade, the types of boats, the transport carried out,’’ says Valeria Li Vigni, expedition leader and superintendent of the sea for Sicily, in a statement, per a translation by the Guardian. “Now we will know more about life on board and the relationships between coastal populations.’’

Experts used an oceanographic vessel called Calypso South to investigate the sunken ship. The boat is equipped with high-precision instruments, including a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that was used to capture photographs of the wreck.

Roman amphorae at the bottom of the ocean
The second-century B.C.E. ship was carrying a sizable cargo of wine amphorae. Soprintendenza del Mare

During the days of the Roman Republic, Sicily’s wine trade was “one of the most profitable and widespread activities for [local] entrepreneurs,” notes Giacomo Galeazzi for Italian newspaper La Stampa, per Google Translate. A type of Sicilian wine known as Mamertino was reportedly so popular that it attracted the attention of Julius Caesar himself.

Per La Stampa, the newly discovered wine amphorae testify to a period of peace and prosperity in the Mediterranean—referred to by the Romans as Mare Nostrum (Latin for “Our Sea”). Researchers hope the cargo will reveal information about ancient trade routes used to transport spices, wine, food and other goods to North Africa, Spain, France and the Middle East.

Found throughout the classical world, amphorae represent a wealth of information for contemporary scholars. As Mark Cartwright wrote for World History Encyclopedia in 2016, the two-handled jugs—whose name is derived from amphiphoreus, the Greek term for “carried on both sides”—hold clues to archaeological sites’ dates, trade links and inhabitants. Though the vessels are commonly associated with ancient Greece, civilizations ranging from the Romans to the Phoenicians also used them.

Amphorae appear in the cargo of many ancient shipwrecks. In May, the superintendence actually discovered another Roman vessel near the Sicilian island of Ustica. Found at a depth of 230 feet, the wreck held a trove of amphorae filled with wine dated to the second century B.C.E. And, in 2013, authorities came across a nearly intact Roman ship resting at a depth of 164 feet off the coast of Genoa. That vessel held around 50 amphorae, as Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata (ANSA) reported at the time.

According to La Stampa, amphorae, as “one of the basic elements for the transport of various consumer goods, in addition to wine,” oil and fruit, are “an irreplaceable element” for archaeologists hoping to trace ancient trade networks.

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