Three shipwrecks – one ancient and two more recent – were discovered in diving depths on the Tunisian continental shelf during a Mediterranean archaeological mission carried out for UNESCO and eight of its member-states last August and September. Another three previously known deep ancient wrecks were revisited on the expedition – the results of which have only recently been revealed.
Twenty researchers from Algeria, Croatia, Egypt, France, Italy, Morocco, Spain and Tunisia collaborated on the 14-day expedition aboard the French scientific vessel Alfred Merlin.
The team were working on two autonomous projects. One group was exploring the Skerki Bank area of the Sicilian Channel closer to the Tunisian continental shelf, while the other was following up on the expeditions of US explorers Robert Ballard and Anna Marguerite McCann in the 1980s to 2000s towards the Italian end of the channel, with the aim of capturing hi-res images of three previously discovered Roman wrecks lying between 750 and 850m deep.
The team used the Alfred Merlin’s sonar and underwater mapping and imaging equipment to find and record the shipwrecks, and then deployed ROVs rated down to 900m to survey them.
The Sicilian Channel was in ancient times a 90-mile trade route running north-east from what is now Tunisia in North Africa to the island of Sicily. It is prone to storms and high winds, and the hidden reefs of Skerki Bank beneath it reach almost to the surface in places.
Exploration was carried out in a particularly dangerous area called Keith Reef, revealing the three previously unknown wrecks, designated SK 1, 2 & 3.
SK1 and SK2 were estimated to date back to the turn of the 19th-20th century. SK1, lying between 80 and 90m deep, was a “large motorised metal wreck” showing no traces of cargo. Its lifeboat davits faced outward on each side and there was no sign of a lifeboat, suggesting that the people onboard might have been able to get clear.
SK2 at a depth of 65m was a 15m wooden wreck from the same approximate era and, with no sighting of an engine or cargo, thought to be a fishing-boat. Like SK1, it now requires archival research to identify.
The third wreck-site, also at 65m, was considered likely to be that of an ancient 15m merchant vessel dating to between the 1st century BC and 2nd century AD and containing amphoras, possibly for carrying wine.
Roman wrecks revisited
The three revisited Roman trading vessels, designated G, F and D, lay between 750 and 850m deep on the Italian continental shelf.
G dated from the 1st century AD and would have been carrying common wares and amphoras between western Mediterranean ports. F, from the same time, was also carrying granite and a since-perished organic substance, while the deepest wreck, D, was also the oldest.
Dating from the 1st century BC, this ship had been loaded with at least 12 different types of amphoras plus jugs, pots and other smaller ceramics, lamps and stone weights.
The researchers had feared that these wrecks might have been looted since their discovery because they lay outside territorial waters, but they were described as “largely undisturbed”. They now fall under UNESCO’s 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.
Croatia, Egypt, France, Italy, Morocco and Spain helped to fund the UNESCO mission, with Italy also providing naval support.