Naval Archeology

Antiquity, and especially the Roman era from the last centuries of the Republic until the end of the Empire, remains the best-studied period, essentially because of the many finds associated with it. Detailed research being conducted right now further enhances our knowledge of Roman trade vessels, and more particular, of construction methods toward the end of Antiquity. Meanwhile, studies are mainly conducted on the bottoms of ships' hulls, since the upper portions are rarely discovered (a major exception being the Laurons 2 shipwreck), and exclusively on merchant ships.

Noah's arc
Abbaye de Saint-Savin

Drawing of the wreck of the Lomellina

On the other hand, vessels from High Antiquity, the High Middle ages, and the Middle Ages are still little known (very few finds). However, the situation improves as we move into the Renaissance. After a prolonged hiatus, three operations were conducted, two of which are of exceptional significance (La Lomellina shipwreck in the basin of Villefranche-sur-Mer in the Alpes Maritimes).

Research is directed toward the least-known areas. Chronologically, the focus is on ships from High Antiquity, the High Middle Ages, the Middle Ages, and in the Modern era, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Initiatives are launched (research on the teenth-century Batéguier shipwreck at Cannes and Agay shipwreck) to give us a better understanding of an epoch that encompasses close to a thousand years of maritime history. Conversely, regarding the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, only research into trade vessels, for which we have little documentation, is advocated. Concerning the remaining periods, most notably the Roman era, two types of research are favoured. The first deals with transport vessels or specific types of vessels (transportation of materials, dolia ...), in order to study characteristics of shape, structure, and operating equipment. The second focuses on wrecks that are homogeneously preserved, especially those with intact super-structure and equipment.

Study of the hull
of the Madrague de Giens allowed it to be associated
with this ship in a mosaic from Tunesia.

In all these cases, the studies consider the totality of the archeological data. The examination of ships is not limited to their apparent shapes and structures, but attempts a thorough structural analysis and study of basic construction methods. They take into consideration all data concerning cargo, specifically its distribution, equipment, and on-board fixtures.

Over and above, one of the major difficulties is to determine a ship's origin and construction date in Antiquity and, to a lesser extent the Middle Ages. This is why, in 1991, work on a table of chronological reference for Mediterranean woods was begun. For this, a collection of data pertaining to "dendrochronology of Mediterranean shipwrecks" was established.

Parallel to this, a rudimentary dendromorphological study was conducted, which is imperative for the understanding of the use of woods in ancient shipbuilding, as well as the nature of the Paleolithic environment. At the same time, it is highly important to protect shipwrecks. Priority is on combined efforts to guard vessels of exceptional importance, and to publish them. For this, the role played by the Archéolyse International laboratory is of fundamental significance.

Finally, two directions for research are strongly encouraged. First, the study of marine carpentry, which is very promising, and second, experimental archeological studies (from sketches to models) which alone can make us understand the actual functioning of a ship and its equipment.

Photos : Sous-direction de l'Inventaire et P. Pomey (CNRS/CCJ)
Drawing : Noël Blotti, with kind permission of the magazine Géo.