THE SKERKI BANK DEEP WATER ARCHAEOLOGY PROJECT, 1989, 1997
Today the discipline of archaeology underwater is undergoing technological changes just as revolutionary as the introduction of the SCUBA apparatus in the 1950s. It is now possible to locate wrecks in the deep ocean and to remove artifacts, using easily available technology. The legal and methodological framework of deep-water excavation, however, has not kept up with the technology, and many historically important shipwrecks are being plundered for commercial gain. In 1989, Dr. Robert Ballard and Dr. Anna Marguerite McCann organized a deep-water archaeological survey and excavation project focused on surveying Roman shipwrecks in 850 m of water near Skerki Bank 80 km NW of Sicily. This expedition was designed to show how archaeologists might make use of these new technologies and to bring attention to the international problem of illicit excavation. In 1997, Drs. Ballard and McCann returned with a larger team, more sophisticated equipment, and the U.S. Navy nuclear research submarine NR-1. While the NR-1 surveyed the area for new wreck sites, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) deployed from a mother ship were used to survey, record, and remove a sample of artifacts from several Roman shipwrecks. As one of the project archaeologists, Prof. Oleson was involved with survey work on the NR-1 and recovery of artifacts by the ROVs (NR-1 bridge). In the course of the four week project, seven new shipwrecks were located and studied at depths around 850 m: four Roman merchant ships of the late Republic and early Empire (Wreck D, Wreck F), one fishing vessel possibly of the twelfth or thirteenth century, and two nineteenth-century vessels. We also documented the debris fields of Roman ships that were dumping cargo to stay afloat or spilling cargo as they sank. The Jason, the most sophisticated ROV (remotely-operated vehicle) ever used for archaeological work, documented the sites with digital and video photography, then recovered selected artifacts for study. The Roman wrecks show a fascinating mix of cargoes, including quarry-rough blocks of granite, a wide variety of amphoras, whole sets of kitchen ware and fine ware, and bronze vessels. The expedition was widely reported in international print and television media.
The final report of the project has been published: A.M. McCann, J.P. Oleson, Deep-Water Shipwrecks off Skerki Bank: The 1997 Survey, Journal of Roman Archaeology, Suppl. 58. Portsmouth R.I.: JRA, 2004. Pp. 224, 228 illus., 42 colour pls..
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McCann, A.M., "Amphoras from the Deep Sea: Ancient Shipwrecks between Carthage and Rome."Rei Cretariae Fautorum Acta 36 (2000) 443-48.
McCann, A.M., "An Early Imperial Shipwreck in the Deep Sea off Skerki Bank."Rei Cretariae Fautorum Acta 37 (2001) 257-64.
McCann, A.M., J.P. Oleson, et al. Deep-Water Shipwrecks off Skerki Bank: The 1997 Survey. To be published as a Supplement to Journal of Roman Archaeology. Portsmouth, R.I.: 2004.
J. Oleson, "The Extraordinary Skerki Bank Project." Discovery: Newsletter of the Royal B.C. Museum 25.5 (January 1998) 4-5.