1,800-year-old Roman shipwreck found off Spain’s Balearic Islands

The vessel, thought to have been carrying fermented fish sauce, sank off Cabrera

Nuño Domínguez

A team of Spanish archeologists has discovered an Ancient Roman ship that sank off the tiny island of Cabrera, near the southern coast of Mallorca, around 1,800 years ago. The shipwreck, located in waters 70 meters deep, was explored and photographed by professional divers in October 2016. The Balearics Institute for the Study of Marine Archeology (IBEAM), which is leading the investigation, says many of the estimated 1,000 to 2,000 amphorae on board are still in their original position, and that the ship – which is buried beneath the jugs – and its contents have remained untouched for nearly two millennia.

A diver examines the remains, which are covered by hundreds of amphorae.
A diver examines the remains, which are covered by hundreds of amphorae.Jordi Chias

IBEAM says it is the best preserved of its kind in the Balearic archipelago, and one of the few intact examples in the western Mediterranean.

“As far as we know, this is the first time that a completely unaltered wreck has been found in Spanish waters,” says Javier Rodríguez, one of the marine archeologists who participated in the exploration and documentation of the remains of the ship, describing it as an “architectural jewel.”

The fact the waters are part of a National Park was key to preserving the vessel

The difficult-to-reach location and the fact the waters are part of a National Park have been key factors in the preservation of the vessel.

Local fishermen were the first to suspect the presence of an ancient wreck when fragments of amphorae turned up in their nets near the uninhabited islet. They tipped off IBEAM, which used a robot to probe the area in April 2016. That search turned up images of a large mound of amphorae of various sizes spread out across 15 meters of seabed.

In October, two professional divers under the direction of IBEAM, carried out a more extensive search, made difficult by the depth at which the ship was located. Some 2,000 images were captured that allowed researchers to establish the size of the vessel, and that will help them to carry out a detailed study of the wreck that is set to be published in the coming months.

Archeologists believe the ship – thought to be some 20 meters in length – dates from the third or fourth century BCE. It contains up to 2,000 clay jars, with most being a meter in size and from North Africa. The remainder consists of smaller containers from the south of Portugal.

It is thought to have traded between North Africa and Spain, as well as France and even Rome, and to have been carrying garum, a fermented fish sauce.

Amphoras in the ship designated Cabrera XIV.
Amphoras in the ship designated Cabrera XIV.Jordi Chias

“In antiquity, it was considered a delicacy and was very much in demand in Roman society,” explains Sebastiá Munar, IBEAM's scientific director.

The Roman ship is the latest of 12 from antiquity to be found in the waters of the Cabrera Archipelago Maritime-Terrestrial National Park. Munar stresses the need to create a comprehensive map of the area’s marine archeological assets before they are damaged or looted.

English version by George Mills.

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