Treasures from the Abyss

Indiana Sarah - Salvo Emma (left) and Alba Mazza (right) analyzing the inscribed base of the so-called “sacrificial altar” of the Panarea III shipwreck.

This is a black and blue story of a +2000-year-old shipwreck discovered in Sicily-Italy. Black like the lava of the Aeolian Islands, a volcanic archipelago located north of Sicily-Italy, which has been named after Aeolus, the Greek god of the wind. Blue like the intense color of the sea when you dive up to a depth of 130m.

Panarea III was discovered in 2010 by the Aurora Trust Foundation and investigated in 2014 by Soprintendenza del Mare and GUE within the scope of the Project Baseline. The teams were comprised of archaeologists under the direction of Prof. Sebastiano Tusa and archaeologist Roberto La Rocca and by tech divers lead by pioneer technical diver Jarrod Jablonski.

Indiana Sarah - diver inspecting artefacts on the seabed

The two teams worked symbiotically under the surveillance of a non-diving archaeologist in a submarine. By performing a sort of “dry survey” and being directly on-site, archaeologists and divers were actively interacting in order to perform mapping and sampling tasks. Two teams of divers composed of three divers each successfully performed high-resolution images and a 3D map of the site which was employed to study the findings, nature and date.

My role in the expedition was to bridge the gap between divers and archaeologists by acting as a liaison coordinator. Additionally, I was charged of supervising onboard operations, such as the recovering of archaeological objects. Graphic and photographic documentation were also tasked and combined with conservation procedures.

The shipwreck was a cargo ship, like a modern container ship. Thanks to the analysis of archaeological materials it has been possible to date it to the 3rd century BCE. Amphorae, pottery made containers for food trade, are key elements that allowed investigating ancient navigation routes across the Mediterranean Sea. Wine from the Pompeii area and fish or olive oil from Cartage or  Sicily were the main traded products. It is likely that the ship was sailing from Cartage to Rome or vice versa when a strong storm dragged it against a reef nearby the Island of Panarea.

Indiana Sarah - The so-called “sacrificial altar” of the Panarea III shipwreck. From left to right Salvo Emma (Soprintendenza del Mare), Alba Mazza (The University of Sydney) Sebastiano Tusa (Soprintendenza del Mare).

One of the most interesting findings was the discovery of a sacrificial altar. The altar was an expensive and precious object. It was used to perform religious ceremonies required the protection of the Gods from uncertainties and perils at sea during the voyage. Sacrifices were performed on the altar when crossing dangerous places for navigation such as the Messina Strait, a 3km narrow passage famous for its whirlpools and sudden changes of winds.

The shipwreck environment, challenge of diving and performing archaeological investigation at such a depth, along with the uniqueness and fragility of the archaeological materials, were the many aspects that made the investigation of Panarea III one of the 10 most important discoveries of the decade. Indeed, Panarea III is the deepest archaeological investigation ever performed by divers.

The discovery of Panarea III is a tech dive into the past. It is a challenging but unique experience which gives lights to the most intimate and sacred believes of a community whose gods didn’t have any mercy for. We expect to know more about it during the next research seasons.

Indiana Sarah - Diver showing an artefact from Panarea III to archaeologists in the submersible, Titan.

Many thanks to both Soprintendenza dal Mare and Project Baseline for allow us to use their stunning images. More information are available on the website of the Soprintendenza dal Mare and by clinking on Project Baseline.



About Alba Mazza

Alba Mazza is a PhD Candidate in Archaeology at the University of Sydney. Her research focuses on the maritime and coastal archaeological landscape of Sicily-Italy and the human interactions with that landscape.


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(c) Indiana Sarah 2016