In 2009, archaeologists discovered an underwater graveyard of five Roman shipwrecks off the coast of Ventotene, a small Italian island with a notorious past. It was one of the biggest archaeological finds in recent history. The vessels’ well-preserved cargo indicates that these ships did not break up on the island’s rocks, but instead sank to the seabed intact and upright. They were laden with exotic goods including wine, olive oil, and the ancient delicacy garum; a condiment highly prized among ancient Romans. These sunken treasures are providing researchers with insight into the wreck, how the Romans lived, and Ventotene’s intriguing past.
The island served as a vacation resort for Rome’s emperor but it became a kind of ancient Alcatraz when the Emperor Augustus imprisoned his own daughter, Julia, there for adultery, or as more recent research suggests, for political intrigue against her father.
This past summer, a team of explorers returned to the site to recover some of the ancient artifacts in hopes of shedding new light on these mysteries. THIRTEEN’s Secrets of the Dead tracks their efforts in the premiere of Lost Ships of Rome, airing nationally Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings). Actor Liev Schreiber (Salt and X-Men Origins: Wolverine) narrates.
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Granted only five days access to the site, the experts accompanied by a special branch of the Italian army – the Carabinieri – embarked on a series of dangerous deep-sea diving expeditions that break new ground in marine archaeology. Because of the extreme depth of the sites, every minute was vital to the safety of the divers. It was a race against time to retrieve the antiquities.
Spearheaded by archaeologist Timmy Gambin, the team of explorers include diver Roberto Rinaldi, captain Aaron Podesta, Craig Mullen, Eric Mullen, among others. Classicist Annelise Freisenbruch is also featured in the film, recounting Julia’s tragic story while local Ventotene historian Salvatore Schiano provides insight on the island’s ancient architectural feats.
Intertwining current investigation with historical records, Lost Ships of Rome presents evidence to show Ventotene was once a strategic maritime hub that anchored the Roman trading empire. Augustus radically transformed this remote barren island into his personal seaside resort and a thriving port community. Engineering marvels constructed 2000 years ago include a system of underground aqueducts that harvested rainwater and an impressive man-made harbor, hand-carved from the seawalls.
Until now, the drowned cargo has laid undisturbed for two millennia. Among the archaeological treasures retrieved by Gambin’s team are cooking utensils and amphorae, common containers used to carry wines and foodstuff. This humble piece of pottery with a peculiar pointy base, dates back to the first century B.C. For Gambin, it holds valuable clues about the shipwrecks. Its impractical pointy base was actually a design feature that allowed the jugs to be stacked and to also serve as the ship’s ballast. Ironically, the amphora played a critical role in destabilizing the ship. Gambin believes some of the vessels were hit by heavy waves while en route to the imperial provinces in France and Spain. As a result, the ships’ cargo shifted, the vessels capsized and sank to the seabed completely intact.
While no one knows exactly what happened to the shipwrecked sailors, the story of Princess Julia is taking on a new interpretation. Historians now believe Julia did not commit adultery but may have been engaged in a risky political conspiracy against her father which landed her in solitary confinement on Ventotene.
The team ended their five-day journey with a taste of ancient Rome when the crew’s cook adapted an ancient recipe to make a modern-day version of garum. Despite its rancid pungency, the garum tasted surprisingly pleasing to his shipmates.
THIRTEEN’s Secrets of the Dead: Lost Ships of Rome is a Windfall Films production for THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG and National Geographic Channel. Robert Hartel is Producer/Director. Ian Duncan is Executive Producer for Windfall Films. Jared Lipworth is Executive Producer. William R. Grant is Executive Producer of Secrets of the Dead.