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The Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project is a collaborative excavation, survey, and heritage management initiative focusing on the maritime landscape and seaborne communication off the southeast coast of Sicily, Italy. The concentration of accessible sites and their location at the intersection of the eastern and western Mediterranean facilitates inquiry into long-term structures of regional and interregional maritime exchange from the early Roman era (3rd/2nd c. BC) through Late Antiquity (6th/7th c. AD). The first field seasons undertake the excavation of the so-called Marzamemi “church wreck”, which sank while carrying prefabricated architectural elements for the construction of an early Byzantine church alongside other cargo from the northern Aegean during the 6th c. AD. This ship’s cargo, personal items, and hull remains may offer unique insights into the relationship between state-driven and independent commerce as well as the ambitious reconstruction program integral to the Byzantine Emperor Justinian’s projection of imperial ideology across his realm. Equally important to this research, the project situates fieldwork within a broader dialog on responsible collaborative natural and cultural heritage practices. We aim to utilize community archaeology and public outreach to implement site management alongside local initiatives for environmentally sustainable tourism and economic development.

Recent Posts

Eroded surfaces obscure detail.

Small pockets reveal the marble's sparkle.

4 Aug

My favourite artifacts from the ‘church wreck’ are ones that have been entirely consumed by erosion and marine life. I see endless beauty in the decay that 1500 years beneath the sea has caused. There are no better examples of this than Proconnesian marble, quarried and shipped from the island of Proconnesus in Turkey. An ever-present artifact on the site, Proconnesian marble is registered as ‘gray marble’ because of its colour. Shipped widely, gray marble was used in many sacred buildings across the ancient Mediterranean, including the Hagia Sophia.

At Marzamemi we see Proconnesian marble in columns, capitals, and chancel screens. Underwater, the stone erodes dramatically, and its surface takes on a bubbly appearance. This transformation often makes it difficult to distinguish underwater between badly eroded marble and limestone rocks. Sometimes marble can be identified by looking into the little eroded pockets in the stone and seeking the sparkle of the stone. More deeply buried sometimes seem less eroded, preserving a polished surface.

What I love about Proconnesian marble is how ever present it is, visible virtually everywhere on the site in sizes ranging from large columns and capitals to tiny gleaming chips. While we generally assume that all fragments of green marble come from the ambo, Proconnesian marble is full of possibility. Through careful observation of preserved shapes and decoration we have the chance to determine what each piece might have become if the ship hadn’t met its fate off the coast of Marzamemi.


Munsell soil color book.

Loupes help view inclusions.

Fun collages with Munsell charts.

1 August

You can't learn everything about a ceramic fragment at first glance.

In fact, a huge chunk of an artifact's story isn't what it looks like, but what it's made of. When we don't have the full picture of where an artifact or group of pottery comes from, looking deeper into ceramic fabric (the clay and its contents) can give us some insight.

Part of the goal of an archaeological excavation is placing a site within the context of the wider world at its time. Knowing where ceramics on a shipwreck came from can help us to determine where the ship might have stopped to pick up cargo, or where passengers or crew members came from. Ceramic forms from multiple places across the Mediterranean can be similar, so the type of clay used in a ceramic vessel may provide additional clues about origin.

Visual analysis is the first step. Examining the color and components of even the smallest sherds may seem like an easy feat, but after identifying 20 fragments as "red" or "having quartz inclusions", each color begins to bleed into the next and each tiny stone under a magnifying loupe begins to look the same.

The most amazing color-matching tool in a ceramicist's arsenal is the Munsell soil color book. Imagine it as a book of paint swatches, but for identifying the color of clay. It is important for the standardization of descriptions of ceramics so that other archaeologists and researchers can read one and know exactly what the writer meant by "red". A Munsell description is more than just "red"; it might be 2.5 YR 4/6 (an orangey-terracotta red). Specificity is key!

Ceramics are made up of more than just clay from the earth. When they were made, craftspeople would toss in other bits of stone and sand to create the texture and strength that they wanted. Different types of inclusions are helpful in different kinds of ceramics—from amphoras, to commonwares and cooking pots, to finewares.

The tiny inclusions in ceramic fabric that we're interested in can't be seen very well with the naked eye, so we use a loupe (a small circular magnifying glass) to study them. With the loupe we see that what looks like plain old brown clay is actually brimming with black, red, orange, yellow, gray, and quartz inclusions! Inclusions can tell us that our ceramics come from a site where craftspeople, say, mixed yellowish brown clay with a large amount of gritty sand. With some comparative research, we may learn where this mixing happened.

The key is just to look a bit closer!



Munsell collages by artist and sound engineer Chad Yenney: