Tuesday, May 25, 2010

History: Ancient Merchants And Rich Cargo

On what was probably a clear day, at least initially, in approximately 50 BCE, a Roman merchant ship very similar to the one above (via Image Shack) made her way under sail past the coast of modern Sardinia. She was about 100 feet long and 20 feet in the beam. Her compliment would have been small; probably between 10 and 20 men. Possibly on her way to the great city of Rome, the vessel was carrying only one cargo: lead ingots.

It was within sight of the coastline that tragedy struck. What may have caused the sinking of the little merchant is up for speculation, even years after her skeletal remains were found. Some experts envision a sudden, hurricane-like storm that overtook the ship and - with the aid of heavy and possibly ill-positioned cargo - sank her. Others imagine a rogue wave coming up over her aft and "pooping" her; in other words, literally dragging her down into the sea by her backside. Finally, one archaeologist speculates that the Captain, now a nameless, faceless entity just like his crew, deliberately sank his ship.

Of course the next question is why, and weather doesn't need to answer puny human questions. Why a Captain who successfully managed the treacherous Mediterranean would purposefully sink his ship so close to his goal is beyond fathoming, especially for those of us with a seafaring bent. I find, though, that scientists like to tell tall tales. It's so much more exciting to imagine a hurried and deliberate foundering for some intriguing and now lost reason than to think of a simple hurricane, isn't it? If the honorable expert in question had ever sailed through heavy weather, he or she wouldn't think so but that's another story. At this point, all we know is that the merchant went down and then lay on the sandy floor of the Roman lake for 2,000 years.

When she was found over ten years ago she was considered a common merchant, worth excavating certainly but nothing unusual. Funds weren't rolling in for the project and it started to look like the vessel might slip back into obscurity. Then the ingots that made up her cargo and could have sealed her doom came to light and the ancient ship was suddenly of far more interest than anyone on the original team could have imagined.

Lead, as many of you are probably aware, is an important substance to those who research radioactive materials. They use it as a shielding material for their studies. The problem is that modern lead has traces of radioactivity and must, therefor, be treated prior to use. This is expensive evidently, although this article at Discovery News (which explains the entire "neutrino detection" process and why this ancient lead is so important to it far more capably than I ever could) doesn't really go into that. What it does make clear is that the guys and gals at Italy's Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events (CUORE) can't wait to get their hands on the ancient lead. They will then whisk it away to their "...neutrino observatory buried under the Gran Sasso mountain in Italy."

As James Bond as all that sounds, CUORE's interest in the ingots has been a boon to the archaeologists studying the sunken Roman merchant. The physicists managed to fund the salvage of the ship, in return, of course, for a bunch of now non-radioactive lead. You scratch my back; I scratch yours.

At this point, the excavation continues. It will be interesting, at least for me personally, to see what becomes of the ship and the entirety of her cargo. Will all the lead go to the physicists, eventually? Will the ship be picked apart and then left in boxes - neatly tagged, catalogued and dated - in an Italian museum or college? Or will some of this amazing find actually help our understanding not only of the potential of "ghost particles", but of the history of seafaring and trade as well.

Only time will tell. And time, it seems, is very much on the side of that little merchant that sank around 50 BCE.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I can't help picturing the guy in charge of CUORE sitting in a big chair with a cat on his lap and a monocle and a cigarette holder saying, "Riiiiiiight" in his best Dr. Evil voice...

I know I'm just being silly. It is an interesting story and strange how all these things intertwine, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I don't think you can avoid at least a hint of that imagery when you're talking about observatories buried under mountains and the like.

At least we know that was one shipment that didn't give a whole lot of Ancient Romans lead poisoning.

Daggar said...

Shipwreck metal for sensitive devices seems to be a growth industry these days. The wrecks of the Germany's High Seas Fleet from World War 1 get scavenged for similar reasons. The fleet was scuttled at Scapa Flow, so the positions of the wrecks are precisely known. They apparently make Geiger Counters and the like out of the salvaged steel.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Daggar, and thanks for the additional info. Now I plan to keep my eye out for more of these kind of stories. I think the whole thing is fascinating!

Marcus Demetrius said...

Good tale. So how would things have been different if there had been maybe 50 Roman Marines onboard? It's not uncommon for soldiers to have been stationed on ships, especially when in known pirate waters, or if the cargo were especially valuable.

Pauline said...

Excellent point, MD. As you note, Roman soldiers were a fixture aboard many of their ships. Perhaps those Marines could have changed the fate of this little vessel.