Archaeologists find first intact, undisturbed Roman shipwreck off the coast of Cyprus

An underwater archaeological project funded by the Cyprus government for the first time paid off big this week when the team discovered an intact Roman shipwreck that amazingly had not been disturbed by humans before.

The ancient Romans dominated the entirety of the Mediterranean Sea during the reign of their empire, controlling Northern Africa, most of Europe and Britain and part of the Middle East, establishing trade with Phoenicia, Carthage, and Egypt, among many others.

The Roman Empire relied on trade. After all, empires don’t pay for themselves, and the people living in the empire needed resources. So, it was crucial that Rome protect the seas and ensure the safe passage of merchant vessels, which is why the Romans built lighthouses and safe harbors all around the Mediterranean coast, including the island of Cyprus. The island is located in the Eastern Mediterranean off the southern coast of what is now Turkey.

Becoming a senatorial province in 22 BC, Cyprus served as a strategic position and produced Cypriot copper the Romans needed. As a safe harbor, Cyprus became a hot spot for ships coming and going throughout the region carrying all sorts of goods for trade, including wine and oils.

Not all of these ships made it to their destinations, of course. Sea travel could be perilous and storms often sank ships and the cargo they carried.

One such ship that went down off the southern coast of Cyprus has now been discovered by the University of Cyprus’ underwater archaeological team.

Volunteer divers Spyros Spyrou and Andreas Kritiotis of the Maritime Archaeological Research Laboratory found the Roman shipwreck south of the resort town of Protaras. Remarkably, the wreckage had been “undisturbed” and the cargo it carried largely intact.

“It is the first undisturbed Roman shipwreck ever found in Cyprus, the study of which is expected to shed new light on the breadth and the scale of seaborne trade between Cyprus and the rest of the Roman provinces of the eastern Mediterranean,” Cyprus’ Department of Antiquities said in a statement. “The site is a wreck of a Roman ship, loaded with transport amphorae, most probably from Syria and Cilicia.”

According to Live Science, amphorae are “ancient jugs that have handles and narrow necks and often held precious liquids, such as oil and wine.”

And the Romans certainly enjoyed their wine. A recent grape DNA study reveals that several wines we still drink today are the same imbibed by Roman emperors, most likely resulting from cuttings from an original vine.

It’s not the first Roman shipwreck to be found that has yielded treasures. Divers found a similar shipwreck off the coast of Israel in 2016 that was loaded with bronze statues that were on their way to being melted down 1,600 years ago when the ship went down.

“Metal statues are rare archaeological finds because they were always melted down and recycled in antiquity. Jacob Sharvit and Dror Planer of the Israel Antiquities Authority said at the time. “When we find bronze artifacts it usually occurs at sea. Because these statues were wrecked together with the ship, they sank in the water and were thus ‘saved’ from the recycling process.”

The shipwreck also yielded Roman coins and other artifacts as Live Science reports:

IAA divers found fragments of life-size bronze statues and a bronze lamp bearing the likeness of Sol, the sun god. They found a figurine of Luna, the moon goddess, and a bronze statue of a whale. There was a bronze faucet shaped like a boar with a swan on its head, and a lamp shaped like the head of a slave from Africa.

See more on those discoveries from TheLipTV below:


Yet another Roman shipwreck was discovered by accident in 2013 after fisherman pulled ancient pottery shards out of their nets and alerted Italian authorities, who executed a dive and found the ship 160 feet down that had been protected over the last 2,000 years by mud. That ship also contained jugs filled with wine and oil, but also food. So, it’s possible archaeologists can also find food in the Cyprus shipwreck.

The Cyprus Department of Antiquities is currently in the process of trying to “secure the necessary funds to cover the cost of the preliminary in situ investigation,” and is working to document and protect the site, especially from those who might try to loot the shipwreck. The ship may very well be hiding other secrets such as coins, statues, weapons, and other artifacts. Looting could also destroy what’s left of the ship itself, robbing researchers of an opportunity to study it as well.

As these other shipwrecks have done, this latest find will help archaeologists learn more about regional trade in the Roman Empire and add more artifacts to museums so more people can understand trade in the Roman Empire as well. This is an extraordinary discovery and it must be exciting to know that no other humans have seen that ship since it left port and sank all those years ago.

Editor’s note: Although few humans have yet to see the Protaras shipwreck, the area is apparently overrun with poisonous lionfish. Below you can see a team of divers remove a lionfish from a shipwreck in Protaras recently.


Featured Image: University of Cyprus

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