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Ancient Roman wreck near Croatian island of Šćedro - new 3D model

A new, even more detailed scan of an ancient Roman shipwreck from near the Croatian island of Šćedro has been made available on Sketchfab. The ship pictured sank near the Croatian island of Šćedro about 2000 years ago. Today its The wreck rests at a depth of 45 m practically intact. It is one of
Published: March 17, 2022 - 09:00
Updated: July 23, 2023 - 00:18
Ancient Roman wreck near Croatian island of Šćedro – new 3D model

A new, even more detailed scan of an ancient Roman shipwreck from near the Croatian island of Šćedro has been made available on Sketchfab.

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The ship pictured sank near the Croatian island of Šćedro about 2000 years ago. Today its The wreck rests at a depth of 45 m practically intact. It is one of the few so well-preserved wrecks from this period, which makes the find extremely unique.

We published our initial scan of this wreck back in 2020. A more detailed model, on the other hand, was until recently only available for archaeologists to study. Now, however, everyone can take a closer look at it on their own computer or phone – and it’s completely free!

amphora from an ancient shipwreck at the bottom of the sea
Amphorae filled with stones Photo Ewelina Heil

Archaeological work carried out in secret

The research on the wreck of the ancient Roman vessel is led by Tea Katunarić, an archaeologist from the University of Split. The archaeological work began about 3 years ago, and for most of the time it was kept completely secret. In addition, the location of the wreck itself was known only to a few insiders. It was feared that such a valuable find could be stolen if its location became widely known. It was only when the wreck was secured with a special steel cage that everyone breathed a sigh of relief and it was time to talk about the find.

Modern digital technologies in underwater archaeology

Underwater archaeological research usually consists of a number of individual dives, each of which has a specific objective and plan of action outlined. These may include visual inspection of the wreck, drawing its fragments, measuring individual elements, or underwater excavation. However, in this case the wreck is located quite deep, which limits the time the divers can spend underwater each time to just a few minutes. Therefore, a different approach had to be taken, largely based on modern digital technology. And that is exactly what we did!

Diving trip in Croatia
Piotr Stós from the Nautica Vis Diving Centre Photo: Mariusz Milka

First, together with Piotr Stós from the Nautica Vis Diving Centre, during one dive we collected large amounts of digital photographic data, more than 2,000 photos in total. Then, on this basis, we created the first detailed 3D model of the wreck, which shows all the amphorae and their location. This gave the archaeologists a first map and enabled them to plan their further activities. We, on the other hand, already with the initial map, started to devise the execution of an even more detailed scan. But this time on the basis of pictures taken during many dives. When some time later the archaeologists went again to Šćedro, we went there together with them and started to scan again.

Specifics of wreck diving

Although the wreck lies quite close to Šćedro Island, it is not easily accessible from the shore. It is therefore necessary to dive from a boat. Fortunately, there is a special, very strong lowering rope on site, which can be moored to. With its help, divers can also move to and from the wreck.

As we were descending to a depth of 45m, we had to do a decompression dive. That is, we could not ascend immediately after we had finished photographing, as is the case with non-decompression dives. Instead, we spent enough time at different depths on the way back to the surface to safely rid our bodies of excess nitrogen. The decompression time depended on the time spent photographing. The longer we were on the wreck, the longer the return journey took. And because of this we had to plan our dives very carefully and take more cylinders with us. All this to have an adequate supply of gases for the return journey, as well as for any unforeseen situations.

Nobody lives permanently on the island of Šćedro. There are only two or three seasonal restaurants and a few lucky people have their holiday cottages there. So while sometimes someone can help with something, when it comes to diving we can only count on ourselves. The nearest compressor for filling cylinders was in Zavala, on the neighbouring island of Hvar. This involved a boat trip of several kilometres, and the compressor was only occasionally available. Also, the weather conditions were not always favourable for us to sail safely to Hvar. Therefore, we refilled the cylinders only on those days when it was possible. This situation meant that sometimes we had stoppages in the project, because we simply ran out of diving gases. Another problem was electricity. On the island there is only access to solar batteries and accumulators, so we had to plan what and when to plug in, so that there would be enough for everything.

Creation of a detailed model of the wreck

In total, we dived on the wreck several times and took several thousand photographs. Processing these photographs and creating a three-dimensional model on their basis took several weeks. However, when it was finally created, it delighted the scientists with its wealth of details. From now on, they could analyse the site without having to enter the water. This reduced the cost of the research and also allowed non-diving specialists to take a closer look at the discovery. In addition, our model allowed them to see the wreck in its entirety, which can be difficult in reality. All due to the limited visibility underwater.

For a long time, our model was only available to researchers. But now we can finally publish it and make it possible for anyone interested to virtually explore the ancient Roman wreck.

As can be seen from the model, the wreck is mostly covered with sand and sediment. Therefore, only part of the cargo is visible so far, probably less than half. There are several hundred amphorae, of at least two types, each about 1 m high. Specialised visual examination of the construction of several of them has made it possible to determine their age at 2nd-Ith century BC.

The amphorae protruding from the sand are arranged in the shape of a boat, by which we can approximate its size. The wreck measures some 15-18 m long and 6-7 m wide. There is also a small space between the amphorae, where the mast was most probably located. Underwater research leader Tea Katunarić believes that the amphorae are only the tip of the iceberg. In her opinion, there are also other treasures buried under the sand.

What are these amphorae for?

This type of vessel was usually used for the transportation of wine or oil, so it is to be expected that this was also the case here. Particularly as some of the amphorae still have their original corks, although due to the water pressure at this depth, they are now pushed deeper into the neck. However, we will only be absolutely certain once specialists have carried out a chemical analysis of their contents.

There are also amphorae on the wreck without plugs, empty, and some that appear to be filled with stones, most likely ballast. As the ships used in those times did not have dinghies, they were less steerable and less stable. Especially in more difficult weather conditions and when sailing without cargo. Therefore, sailors commonly used ballast stones whenever the ship was too light to sail safely. So it seems that in this case some of the vessels were empty and before sailing someone filled some of them with stones to weigh the boat down.

Ewelina Heil dives into the wreck
Ewelina Heil dives into the wreck Photo: Mariusz Milka

The amphorae were designed to fit tightly together so that they could be transported standing up. This ensured that they did not topple over, even when there were difficult weather conditions at sea. In this particular case, the vessels were arranged in rows along the sides. It is possible that there was a narrow passage between them. This arrangement can still be seen today despite the passage of 2000 years and the complete decay of the wood around the amphorae. Of course, they are now banged up, but you can still see how thoughtfully such vessels were loaded.

Further research on the Roman wreck from Šćedro Island

The next phase of the research was the slow excavation of the wreck using ejectors, special machines that resemble underwater hoovers. The first preliminary excavations have shown that the wreck is even larger than the archaeologists assumed. Tea believes that under the sand and sediments we will find still well-preserved wooden elements of the hull, as well as objects from the sailors’ everyday life. Through them we will learn not only the history of the ship itself, but also the history of the ordinary people living on the surrounding islands.

A thorough cleaning of several amphorae, on the other hand, will undoubtedly make it possible to determine where they came from. Just as nowadays drinks producers put their labels on bottles, in ancient times they put their seals on amphorae. Their discovery will allow researchers to determine what trade contacts the local islanders had with other Mediterranean ports. Moreover, it is still unknown whether the amphorae were the only cargo on board the ship. For now, all we know is that archaeologists have found the amphorae and that they will continue digging…

The text by Mariusz Milka and Ewelina Heil about the ancient Roman wreck from Šćedro Island was originally published on seamagination.com.

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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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