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Underwater archaeology: the Roman galleon shipwreck that inspired my writing

Underwater archaeology: the Roman galleon shipwreck that inspired my writing

Underwater archaeology: the Roman galleon shipwreck that inspired my writing

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The story of my latest novel, Aphrodite’s Tears, centres on the discovery of an ancient shipwreck off the coast of a little Greek island called Helios. Archaeologist Oriel is hired by island leader Damian to explore the wreck and try to establish its origins. For Oriel, this is the chance of a lifetime. Her own Roman wreck, she thinks; what archaeologist wouldn’t welcome this opportunity?

Here is Oriel’s first glimpse of the shipwreck, as she swims towards it in her diving suit:

The pounding of the surf grew softer and softer. The brilliant colours of the algae, sea anemones and sponges on the cliff-like formation that composed the edge of the reef were followed by bizarre bushes of gorgon coral. A startled scorpion fish withdrew its red head into a grotto, spines extended. Oriel passed through a school of blue-black sea swallows … and then suddenly she saw it.

The huge wreck loomed beneath her. She had excellent visibility; still a few metres above it, Oriel could see the entire length of the cargo vessel, which lay on its side. As she approached it was like a vast rock, not ten feet from her, covered in calcite and barnacles. Here and there its body was creviced by fissures. Everywhere it was festooned with sea vegetation – seaweed, kelp, anemones – and, together with the coral and calcite fingers, the great wreck rose up like some surreal piece of Gothic architecture. Oriel floated motionless a moment, entranced.

A key inspiration for the underwater archaeology in the story was a real-life wreck discovered not a million miles from my French home – off the coast of a small island called Le Grand Congloué across from Marseilles.

It was the famous explorer Jacques Cousteau who explored the wreck, back in the 1950s. Along with Émile Gagnan, Cousteau had designed the first ‘aqua-lung’, and he was a pioneer of scuba diving, publishing the book The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure. Based on this bestselling book in which he described his explorations underwater, he made the ground-breaking Silent World documentary, one of the first featuring colour footage of the ocean depths, which won a Palme d’or in 1956, the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.

So goes the tale, Cousteau saved the life of a French fisherman called Cristianini by curing his decompression sickness through the use of the decompression chamber aboard his ship – one of the very earliest in existence. In gratitude, Cristianini let Cousteau in on a secret: he had found, while diving for lobsters at a depth of forty-two metres, piles of what he called ancient jugs.

Cousteau was intrigued – and excited. ‘Jugs’ (amphoras) meant a wreck someplace nearby. So it was that with Cousteau at the helm, the Grand Congloué wreck became famous as the first to ever be explored by scuba divers – and underwater archaeology was born!

The wreck in fact turned out to be two wrecks. Luc Long, chief curator of heritage for the Department of Underwater Archaeological Research, explained:

‘The original explorers thought they were dealing with a single wreck. But… all the evidence, doubts, sketches recorded in their notes pointed towards there being two ancient ships superimposed with two distinctly different cargos, both wrecked in the same place within a hundred years of each other. One wreck was hiding the other.’ [Source]

Cousteau and his team found Greek, Greco-Italian and Roman amphoras in the shipwreck, which were used to store wine. They raised hundreds of the amphoras, filling them with air so that they would rise to the surface. Cousteau was brave enough to taste some two-thousand-year-old wine, still sealed in one of the earthenware pots his team brought to the surface, although it had long lost its alcohol content. He reportedly declared it to be ‘a poor vintage century’.

The seals of these large amphorae were stamped with the owner’s trademark – SES – which identified the cargo as having belonged to the Roman shipping magnate Marcus Sestius in the third century BC.

All of this provided rich inspiration for my novel Aphrodite’s Tears. In my writing, I draw upon this fascinating real-life exploration, tying the Roman trader Sestius and his wrecked cargo to an island of my invention, Helios. I write that Sestius’s business was destroyed by a massive tidal wave following an earthquake, his ships lost beneath the waves… until, that is, my hero and heroine have their own Undersea Discovery and Adventure, and make an exciting discovery straight out of any archaeologist’s dreams!

If you are interested in the Grand Congloué wreck, you can see plenty of slides on the website of the MIT Museum relating to Cousteau’s exploration. Here’s the link to the website.

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TREKnRay
TREKnRay
3 years ago

Thanks for the link.