Impressive Roman Glass Shipwreck Found Near Corsica
A joint mission organized by underwater archaeologists from Italy and France was recently deployed to the site of the Capo Corso 2 shipwreck, which was first spotted in 2012 and is located at a depth of 1,150 feet (350) meters near the coast of Corsica to the south of France. During remote excavations of the ship, the archaeologists recovered an impressive collection of high-quality unfinished glass and ornate Roman glassware in various forms, Italy’s National Superintendency for Underwater Cultural Heritage reports.
This is only the second Mediterranean shipwreck with a cargo made up exclusively of glass ever found, and the loss of this cargo would have represented a significant financial loss to the sponsors of the voyage.
Based on the appearance of the ship, the archaeologists believe it would have been built and wrecked sometime between the late first century and the early second century AD. The Capo Corso 2 was a Roman merchant vessel, and at this point its direction of travel at the time of its sinking has not been conclusively determined.
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A Spectacular Cargo Meets a Tragic End
The team of Italian and French archaeologists began their exploration of the Capo Corso 2 with a photogrammetric survey. This procedure was designed to collect photographic evidence about the current state of the shipwreck site, to assess how sedimentation and possibly human actions might have affected it.
With this vital information in hand, they were then able to safely dispatch a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) called Arthur to the bottom of the sea. After taking videos of the glass pieces strewn about across the ocean floor, the ROV collected numerous samples of these artifacts to bring back to the surface. These samples featured nothing but glass in both raw and worked form, and high-resolution imagery produced no evidence of any other cargo except glassware.
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View of the Roman wreck which has a cargo solely of glassware. (M.Añò-V.Creuze-D.Degez / Soprintendenza Nazionale per il Patrimonio Culturale Subacqueo)
Most of the Capo Corso 2’s glass was unworked and had been transported in raw blocks for later processing. The glass blocks came in an assortment of sizes and colors, and would have been converted into fine glassware if they had reached their final destination.
The archaeologists know this is what would have happened, since the ship’s cargo included thousands of pieces of glass table and kitchenware that had already gone through such a conversion. In addition to collecting a few raw glass blocks, the ROV called Arthur recovered whole and partial pieces of cups, bottles, plates, bowls and other assorted glass vessels. The vehicle also came back carrying two large bronze basins and several small Roman Empire-era jugs known as amphorae.
The ROV, Arthur, was controlled from the boat on the surface to collect the delicate glass items. (M.Añò-V.Creuze-D.Degez / Soprintendenza Nazionale per il Patrimonio Culturale Subacqueo)
At this point, no signs of any skeletal remains have been discovered. It is possible that the crew escaped before the ship sunk, but without being able to rescue any of their prized cargo. Tons of glass remains on the bottom of the sea, creating a spectacular site for underwater archaeologists to survey, photograph and excavate remotely.
An Archaeological Mission Enabled by Diplomacy and ROV Technology
The newly launched study of the ship was carried out by archaeologists from two government-sponsored organizations: the National Superintendency for Underwater Cultural Heritage on the Italian side, and the Département des Recherches Archéologiques subaquatiques et sous-marine, or Drassm, on the French side. An expert in ancient glassmaking from the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), Souen Fontaine, has now been recruited to help with the analysis of the recovered Roman glassware.
When the shipwreck was first discovered 11 years ago, it was believed to be in French territorial waters, because of its proximity to Corsica. But in 2016, diplomatically-negotiated changes in the sea borders separating French and Italian waters transferred authority over the site to Italy. At that time the two countries agreed to launch a joint exploration mission, and it was only this July that the first visit to the site of the shipwreck took place.
To give the new mission a maximum chance of success, the French Ministry of Culture assigned its primary research vessel, the Alfred Merlin, to the shipwreck site. This ship is equipped with two ROVs, of which Arthur was the most advanced.
This underwater-exploring robot can reach the extraordinary depth of 8,200 feet (2,500 meters), in contrast to human divers that can never go past 1,000 feet (300 meters). Arthur has the rare capacity to shoot high-definition video, even at these extreme depths, and is also able to vacuum up sediment from the sea floor to recover objects hidden within.
Arthur’s gripper claws were designed to treat fragile artifacts gently, which is why “he” was able to recover so many pieces of fine glassware in addition to several raw glass blocks.
ROV Arthur, was deployed to collect the glass.(M.Añò-V.Creuze-D.Degez / Soprintendenza Nazionale per il Patrimonio Culturale Subacqueo)
Secrets of the Roman Glassware Trade Revealed
The Italian and French archaeologists are fairly certain the vessel sunk in the late first to early second century AD, yet they will be doing an in-depth analysis of the recovered artifacts to verify this conclusion. While they can’t say for sure where the ship was going based on the underwater debris field they’ve identified, they strongly suspect it was destined to land on the French Provençal coast, after originally leaving from a port in the Middle East. This conclusion is based on the type and quantity of the glass blocks and tableware items recovered, which contained samples that link it to Lebanon or Syria.
Regardless of the specifics of the Capo Corso 2’s trade route, the Romans were in control of all this territory in the first two centuries of the first millennium. So the Mediterranean trade in glassware during this time period was very much incorporated in the vast Roman economic empire.
Many future visits to the site of the 1,900-year-old shipwreck are planned, as ROV technology will give archaeologists unprecedented access to a deep-sea site that would otherwise be difficult to reach.
Top image: Collection of Roman glassware collected from the wreck site. Source: ManuelAñò-ProdAqua / Soprintendenza Nazionale per il Patrimonio Culturale Subacqueo
By Nathan Falde