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2000 years waited to be found - research into Roman shipwreck off Costa Brava

El Port de la Selva is a small port town located on Cap de Creus, the easternmost peninsula of Spain. It is surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea on one side and limited by the mountains on the other. Here you will mainly find fishermen and French tourists who want to relax on the peaceful Costa
Published: December 4, 2016 - 07:00
Updated: July 22, 2023 - 14:19
2000 years waited to be found – research into Roman shipwreck off Costa Brava

El Port de la Selva is a small port town located on Cap de Creus, the easternmost peninsula of Spain. It is surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea on one side and limited by the mountains on the other. Here you will mainly find fishermen and French tourists who want to relax on the peaceful Costa Brava. Already the ancient Romans knew and used this bay and it is the relics of their activities that have brought us here. We come to this place to participate in the archaeological research of a shipwreck that sank here only 2000 years ago.

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At dawn we enter the port, passing the part with yachts, already prepared for winter. When we reach the fishing part, we notice the vessel on which we are to embark. Thetis does not look like a ruin at first glance, but not like a luxury yacht. When we start to get to know the ship from inside, it turns out that it is a very well thought-out and quite comfortable vessel with a large social base. On the first day we do not dive. This is the time to get to know the crew and the ship. The core of the team are three archaeologists from the Centre d’Arqueologica Subaquatica de Catalunya: Rut, Gustau and Carlos, and the captain of the Geordia, whose face has years at sea written all over it. He is assisted by two sailors, Armand and Guillieme, who is also an archaeologist. The team is completed by people invited to the excavation: Marina – an archaeology graduate from Spain, Ahmed – an employee of the Underwater Archaeology Department from Oman, Paul – an archaeologist from California and us, i.e. two underwater archaeologists from Poland.

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The next day we finally get into the water. Two dives are planned each day, all at the 33 meter depth where our wreck lies. The bottom phase of the first dive will last 35 minutes, followed by a deep stop at 17 meters and 10 minutes of oxygen decompression at 6 meters. Between the dives we have a 3 hour break, during which we eat lunch and discuss the plan for the next dive. The second dive in the bottom phase lasts 30 minutes, followed by a deep stop at 17 meters, 3 minutes at 9 meters and a boring 20 minutes of oxygen decompression at 6 meters. We use the anchor chain as a lowering rope, while the oxygen for decompression is fed via long hoses from the ship’s deck to the deco bar.

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The wreck under investigation is named Cala Cativa 1. It was a Roman vessel dating from 50-30 BC. The ship was used to transport wine from the Iberian Peninsula, or present-day Spain, to Roman tables. It probably sank from hitting the rocks, which are very dangerous in this place. For centuries, ships have been sinking here because of a wind called “Tara Muntana” by the Catalans. This is a dangerous north wind that pushes vessels onto sharp rocks. Even today, sailors and captains of larger vessels, fear this wind. We are not the first researchers at this site. In the 1980s, the site was explored by classical divers and 63 whole amphorae were excavated. The current objective of the Catalan archaeologists is to study the exact construction of the wreck, as all the features indicate that it was built in Iberia.

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Our team’s first objective is to excavate two sounding trenches on both sides of the wreck. We are exploring with the help of water ejectors. The work goes slowly because of the thousands of fragments of amphorae lying around the vessel. Those which can be identified are put into special bags, while those which cannot be identified are dumped on a heap. In one of the excavations we discover a very interesting wooden element. Certainly a fragment of a ship’s construction. However, its purpose is not obvious. In our free time and especially in the evening, we have discussions trying to identify this element.

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The second task that Kuba and I were given was to cut out one frame and staves across the entire section of the wreck. This fragment of the vessel is to be preserved and placed in the museum. The staves are very delicate. They are made of soft wood. Being in the water for 2000 years they became more like a sponge than wood. It takes us 2 dives to cut them. We do it very gently with a saw blade. On the next dive we mount the frame and use the buoyancy balloon to bring it to the surface. It takes another two dives to remove the staves from both sides and the keel.

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During all these activities, cross-sections of the wreck are being documented all the time, which is mostly done by Rut. The plan from above was made using photogrammetry. Some of the documentation is done with an iPad in a special underwater case. Apart from being very useful in our work, it definitely speeds up the time spent on decompression.

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Once the documentation and exploration was complete, our task was to backfill the wreck. First, we turned the ejectors so that the excavated sand covered the wreck. The work was sped up, as it turned out, by placing pottery and bags of marker on the site. Wooden objects are backfilled not only to protect them from antiquity hunters, but also to protect them from torredo navalis, a wood-eating shipworm. The rate at which this creature eats elements of a vessel is enormous. Even the ancients tried to fight the torredovalis by covering ships with sheet metal.

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To make the work of backfilling the site more enjoyable, we decided in the meantime to check one position that the team got from the fishermen. In this place they were supposed to pull out ceramics in their nets. Unfortunately, the position was not very precise. In addition to the approximate coordinates, we had information that the wreck was supposed to lie at a depth of 40 meters. The first drop of the anchor. We go down to the bottom, but it turns out that it is a little too deep, because the computers indicate 48.8 meters. Despite this, we continue the search with the reel. In 25 minutes we still have no results, so we start ascending. We still have 35 minutes of decompression ahead of us. Unfortunately, also the second team has not found the wreck.

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The last underwater task that awaited us in Spain was cleaning and decommissioning the anchors. The pleasure fell to Cuba, myself and Gustau – the research manager. I got 2 displacement balloons of 100 and 250 kg each, 2 baskets for ceramics and a stage to pump the balloons. Kuba and Gustau also got 2 balloons, but 250 and 500 kg each, and a stage for filling them. We went down together. While I was loading the ceramic bags into the baskets and launching them, Kuba and Gustau went down to the first heaviest anchor. They were to release it on a buoyancy balloon. The baskets were picked up by the surface team without any problems, but while launching the anchor, the chain got snagged on the rocks. It was dangerous, but after a short struggle it was freed.

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Then the team had to swim to the next rocks, where the last anchor was waiting. Unfortunately the visibility dropped dramatically and we had to do it by feel. We found the anchor, unhooked the shackle, untangled it from the rocks and released the anchor on the buoyancy balloon. The task is scheduled for 30 minutes, but we manage to leave the bottom in 16 minutes. We don’t have any lowering line, so we let go of the deco buoy. Now all we have to do is find our ship, under which the decompression gases are suspended. If we could not do this, the motorboat would come to the buoy and show us the way. However, we manage to find the ship and the rest of the dive goes smoothly.

We spend our last evening in Spain with Fideua – a traditional dish of Catalan fishermen and excellent wine. The next day we pack up our toys and set off for Poland, where another interesting project awaits us.

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About author

Tomasz Andrukajtis
Editor-in-chief of the DIVERS24 portal and magazine. Responsible for obtaining, translating and developing content. He also supervises all publications. Achived his first diving certification – P1 CMAS, in 2000. Has a degree in journalism and social communication. In the diving industry since 2008.
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