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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:

Some things never change.

Da Carletto's pistachio and wi-fi.

Nick, adapted to work in 2018.

29 July

After a two season hiatus, I’m happy to return to the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project. The things that I missed most are still here: the senior team, the crystal water, and of course Matteo’s bottomless pasta. But returning after a break also offers an opportunity to reflect on the evolution of archaeological fieldwork.

There are changes in personnel from year to year, and one of the most satisfying transitions is seeing old friends develop specialist roles on the project and gain greater teaching and logistical responsibilities.

The rhythms of the project have shifted, partially in response to the growth of the town of Marzamemi. In 2015, free, fast Wifi in central Marzamemi was scarce; we often huddled in select gelaterias and cafes for choppy Skype calls and frantic email writing in our much coveted mid-week free time. Now there is a town-wide wi-fi network, and most cafes offer at least a few bars of the good stuff. The colorful chairs of Da Carletto Gelateria aren’t quite as alluring as they once were (though their pistachio remains delicious), and people roam freely from crepe stand to cannoli shop, unswayed by the attractions of digital connectivity.

Perhaps most fundamentally, our archaeological process has also adapted, made more efficient and accurate with each passing season. The dredge manifold (which allows for multiple dredges to be powered by a single engine on the boat) and the massive water pump are a happy addition, replacing the individual small pumps that once powered each dredge.

The long gap between dives has been replaced by the arrival of Dive 2 on a second boat, and a floating relay of information. And I felt strangely less useful when Sheila informed me that in certain areas of the site, she wouldn’t need measurements for artifact flags (as in the past), relying instead on pinpointing their spatial locations using photomosaics on the computer in the comfort of air conditioning. 

It doesn’t take long to become fully adapted to the 2018 methods. But the changes are a wonderful reminder that fieldwork is not stagnant as time brings insight into optimal ways to approach the archaeological record. And this makes our research even exciting.


Original concretion x-ray.

Same concretion, different view.

Another color scheme.

27 July

When I imagined becoming an archaeologist at age 12, I never fathomed the strange skills I would learn. I pictured being buried in books while learning dead languages and thousands of years of history. Not once did I consider using medical imaging software.

After the long-awaited trip to Cefalu, Ken and I were excited to start looking at x-rays of the concretions to figure out how our ship was constructed. Using various free online DICOM (Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine) viewing software, we were able to look at a single view of each object.

X-rays measure the density of objects; concretions are the result of an iron object oxidizing in an underwater environment. An x-ray of a concretion, then, reveals the outline of where the iron nail or object once was. For many of the concretions, one image was enough to view this void.  But a single image with only one level of exposure was not enough for others and sometimes the edges of the original object could not be seen.

Fortunately, I stumbled upon the Horos Project. Free medical imaging software, Horos™ (compatable with macOS) allows viewing and manipulation of x-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and other medical images. Using Horos™ to view the concretion x-rays, we have been able to see aspects of the concretion that are unclear or obscured in certain views.

We can change colour, contrast, and other levels (which could surely be explained better by a real technician). Horos™ also allows accurate direct measurement on the x-ray. Before we had the x-rays, Ken and I had the fun of guessing where on the obscure lumps of concretion a head or tip or break might be. We would then guesstimate the length of the nail. With Horos™ we can take direct measurements of the concretion voids. More accurate measurements and hopefully more x-rays in the future may bring us closer to understanding the role played by our nails and bolts in assembling the ship. 

Although I never imagined I would learn to be a pseudo-x-ray technician, I’m always amazed by the unique skills archaeologists pick up in the hunt for knowledge. Twelve-year-old me had no clue where archaeology would lead, and I certainly never thought I’d have learned to read an x-ray!


Horos is free and open source code software (FOSS) distributed free of charge under the LGPL license at, sponsored by Nimble Co LLC d/b/a Purview in Annapolis, MD, USA.

Natalie draws chancel screen fragments.

Eroded chancel screen fragment underwater.

25 July

Last week, I had the chance to draw some of the chancel screen fragments that are particularly well preserved. The chancel screen is a barrier comprised of rectangular panels that separate the altar from the rest of the nave.

I took time to look closely at the pieces of chancel screen that we’ve raised from the site in past years. They currently live in the central aisle of the Palmento di Rudinì, lining the walls behind the ledges where the capitals sit and the large vats in which the columns lie. From afar, they just look like flat chunks of greyish rock. But up close, when I pick one up to inspect, my hands trace the ridges where a stonemason once meticulously chiseled impressively straight lines and perfect circles.

The ridges and grooves have been worn by sand and water during the millennium and a half that they’ve been submerged. Erosion has reduced the designs on some pieces to ba­­rely tangible bumps. Only by running a light hand across the surface or shining a light at a steep angle to the piece could I see the art that was once there.

The project team has already done extensive photography and 3D scanning of these chancel screen fragments. Images and scans record every detail of the object, including shape, color, erosion, and more. Drawing the artifacts, however, provides a different perspective of the same pieces, a simplified version that highlights only the most important aspects—in this case the decoration. From the drawings I hope we can begin to understand the degree to which each screen preserves identical designs or whether the work of different masons or the diverse choices of builders might be visible.


Excavated areas, now column depot.

James and Peppe cover the site in 2017. 

24 July

During the four years I’ve worked with the project, I’ve witnessed a slow, but dramatic transformation of the site. This year I have been struck by how much the landscape has changed.

In place of the columns that once marked the center of the site is a sandy bed filled with rock spoil from later excavation years. The columns now undergo conservation at the Palmento di Rudinì. Many of the boulders that were once key landmarks have been given new homes by Matteo to make way for excavation underneath. Others, like the L-datum boulder, have a deceptive permanence. That tall rock has been a key measurement point since the beginning, but it has migrated around the site; it now holds multiple datum points and provides shelter for our cameras and toolbox. These changes are a testament to our many years of hard work.         

At the same time, there are reminders that the changes we make will be gradually hidden. Units we excavated to bedrock last year are now covered with a layer of sand and rock. The green mesh we used to mark the boundaries of our work is only visible here and there, peeking out from the sand. In areas excavated two or three years earlier the sand is deeper and the physical evidence of our work is deeply buried. Winter storms and the constant force of the sea are reclaiming the site even as we excavate it.


Cage protecting ancient wreck in Croatia.

Careful excavation by RJ and Natalie.

RJ records column dimensions.

21 July

There are many challenges to working on a maritime site. One of them, though certainly not unique to sites below the sea, is the threat of looting. Our site at Marzamemi is located a kilometer from the coast at a depth of about eight meters, making it an easy target for divers. Unlike some terrestrial sites, you can’t hire guards to sit out on a boat, listening to Italian pop on the radio and patrolling the waves all night—nor can you put up a fence around the reef. Instead, we, and the people of Marzamemi, must take different measures to tackle the problem.

One of the most important components of archaeology is recording. Context is crucial to our understanding. We always document where we find objects, whether by gridded location or by “flagging” (placing a very high-tech—but effective!—bicycle spoke-plastic plate-and-duct tape flag at the spot we found an object) interesting and important artifacts to be measured and mapped into a digital site plan. Treasure hunters, as Justin frequently reminds us, don’t record this information. We must. To avoid placing exposed objects at risk, we use systems like flagging that allow us to accurately record the location of objects on the seabed without leaving visible temptations for potential looters. These procedures are particularly important right before our weekly day out of the water. The production of a detailed plan allows for a complete record of the site, providing a new type of access through publication and museum display. It also allows the possibility of recreating the site underwater.

Another countermeasure to looting is local effort, drawing on community ties to cultural heritage. The Soprintendenza del Mare, the main Sicilian authority responsible for maritime heritage, designates and manages sites. This prevents boats from accessing the site during work (a huge helping hand for dive safety) and ensures that locals in the area are aware. Legal networks of authority and permitting are in place for top-level help, but on the ground, the people of Marzamemi have their eyes and ears open. I’ve heard stories of our collaborator Matteo, calling the Italian coast guard after seeing suspicious divers on the site to let them know. “Of course it’s me calling,” was once overheard on a call (a rough translation) by one of the archaeologists on our site. “It’s always me.”

Together, our protocols and understanding and local awareness help us overcome some of the particular challenges of a maritime site. Though looting is an issue that still holds water, care and attention can help reduce the threat and avoid the loss of artifacts, data, and heritage.


Archaeology vs. popular culture.

Laughing, joking, excavating with friends.

20 July

At a young age I was encouraged to explore nonfiction media. The topic of archaeology and the practice of preserving ancient culture seemed like a perfect fit. I soon amassed a library of books that nursed my love of the ancient world, as well as a love for archaeological movies from Lara Croft to Indiana Jones.

Though it was Indy who solidified my dream of one day becoming an archaeologist, my participation in a real excavation has forced me to realize how archaeology differs from its media representation. Excavation is often presented as a simple process: move dirt and rocks and boom, there’s an artifact. In reality sand and debris are removed slowly; sketches and measurements are taken in order to preserve the site for the future. As we are frequently reminded, “the only difference between us and treasure hunters is that we write things down.”

My experience is not like any book, movie, or documentary I have seen. I am not Indiana Jones, destroying everything in my path to reach the golden treasure and steal it from its homeland. True archaeology is better. I get to master the skills needed to preserve a site for generations to come. I get to contribute to an academic conversation. I get to laugh and joke with some of the best friends I’ve ever had. For me, this is much better.


Careful excavation by Colin and James.

Finding another piece of the puzzle?

19 July

Hello my dear readers. If you are wondering what it is like to travel to far away lands in search of treasure, this story is not for you. But perhaps you are wondering what it is like to peer into the past and capture the hidden meaning of an ancient shipwreck. If so, you've found the right place. This is the Marzamemi ‘church wreck,’ a fascinating chapter of late antique maritime history, long hidden beneath the waves of the Mediterranean. 

The excavation is no treasure hunt. The primary goal is the recovery of contextual evidence from the wreck. This includes careful documentation of everything we find, where we find it, and when we find it. By taking plenty of records we hope to preserve all the information we can. Careful excavation allows us to understand the context of the objects and to learn how ancient traders exchanged goods across the seas. It's sort of like a big puzzle, and every day we uncover a few more clues. 

There are mysteries to solve above the water too. Raising artifacts that have been soaked in salty water for a millennia and a half, requires plenty of recording, cataloguing, and conservation work to document and stabilize these rocks, nails and pottery pieces. It's a long process, almost industrial in scale, but everyone pitches in: from new students to trailblazers in underwater archeology. 

Discoveries of a marble capital, an ambo piece, or a fragment of ship wood with a nail hole seem to us like treasures; as archaeologists we value objects for the answers they provide rather than their golden gleam.


Chatting about the site at Rudinì.

The daily task of registration.

Charles takes notes on the reef.

18 July

It recently occurred to me that I have been an idiot. This past semester that I learned that the word derives from Ancient Greek, meaning ‘one who does not participate (in the polis/politics)’. During my studies at Brock, I am immersed in stacks of texts on archaeology and related classical topics, but I have never personally contributed to the subjects. Worse yet, I have only recently realized that textbooks are not the gospel that students cramming at exam time might believe. Academia thrives on ideas that question and challenge established findings. 

Enter the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project.

I can comfortably say that I was ignorant of the archaeological process. On the early days of the project, my fellow students and I were trained in the activities that mark daily life at Rudinì. But registration, cataloguing, and data entry can only be made to look so sexy. Life here frequently involves holding small pebbles up in the sun to discern their colour, and counting pieces of marble that can be smaller than a pinky fingernail. Then our first ‘chat’ happened and it wasn’t arduous anymore. The daily tasks took on new meaning. How do we get rocks from the sea floor to speak? And how do we get them to say anything meaningful? The answer is simple: ask the right questions.

Now, partly through my first experience here, I’m keen to partake in every task I can get my hands on because each one prompts different questions. Why do we collect such small fragments of marble and note their quantities and positions in a database? So that we might better map where the contents of our wreck were concentrated in the hull, and how these objects were dispersed on the seabed. So that we might gain a better idea of the quantities of goods carried in the ship’s cargo. So that we might compare these quantities to the material used to produce similar buildings and identify what’s the same and what’s different.

Why do we concern ourselves with the colour of a stone? So that we might recognize its purpose in the grand design of our church. Why do we care if a stone has an unusual pattern or unnaturally smooth surface? So that we can determine its relative position in a larger object or its purpose in the structure. 

I still frequently find myself to be among the more ignorant in the room, but I’m not an idiot anymore. As we plow through the necessary tasks at Rudini every day, we smile and exchange ideas. On the best days, we catch a bit of a glimpse of the bigger picture.


Cataloguing ceramics with the mosquitoes.

Exploding donuts (not a product advertisement).

17 July

The most formidable foes involved in the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project are the local pests: mosquitoes. These are nothing like I’ve seen before; these black-and-white bloodthirsty zebras of the Aedes genus seem to prey on the weak and already-thrice-bitten. They sneak up on you when you least expect it. The Marzamemi mosquitoes have unbeatable senses, able to sniff out the one dime-sized spot on your exposed skin that lacks bug spray.

We keep our artifacts in bins and buckets of tempting still water at Rudinì, where I spend every day working. Halfway through Week 1, I realized I had morphed into a grotesque buffet for our freakish flying friends. My favorite Rudinì job happens to be ceramic cataloguing, a blissful pastime of describing and measuring diagnostic ceramics gingerly lifted from the sea floor. I hunch over a table in the back of the building surrounded by bins upon bins of watery mosquito homes (and artifacts). The only things that keep me from being fully drained of the blood in my veins are bizarre-looking mosquito defenses that get plucked from plastic packaging and dropped into each bucket at the lab. I can only describe them as crumb doughnuts (when intact). As they become soaked in tasty deionized water, they slowly split apart into thousands of what look like bacon bits. They don't harm the artifacts, whether they swirl around ceramics, marble, iron, lead, copper, or charcoal. Apparently, they make the water undesirable for mosquito breeding through release of a specific mosquito larvicide, but I would put my money on magic.


Buddy communication by Ken and Alex.

Watch out for the stadia rod poke!

15 July 

As a new member of the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project I have experienced many exciting things including the process of diving on an excavation site. Throughout, I have been struck by the difference that diving makes in the overall dynamic of the project team.

Diving necessitates a sense of understanding and level of communication that is drastically different from other team oriented projects. Underwater, communication can be difficult. Words come out as bubbles or grunts and traditional speech is impossible. But we learn to understand and to communicate in other ways. Hand gestures—some universal, and others unique to the individual—are used often and over time we come to understand them, even if the meaning is not immediately obvious. In some cases, gestures alone are not enough and we write messages on our slates instead.

Archaeologists are surely the only divers who can instantly recognize an unspoken request to collect a hammer and chisel or a mapping flag. Certain team members have adapted their own forms of communication. A poke from Xila’s stadia rod is a silent prompt to clear the way for her tape measure. My buddy Ken narrates our work with a series of exclamations, none of which I can actually understand. And Matteo’s crossed arms and piercing stare keep all of us mindful of our safety.

Despite the inherent difficulties of communicating without words, it is still possible to discern the character and mannerisms of teammates underwater.



Lauren hovers while sketching.

From hovering to hoovering.

Buddy communication, Marzamemi style.

11 July

More than two months immersed in my first underwater archaeological excavation here in Sicily, I can reflect on the similarities and differences between recreational diving and excavating underwater.

Trained as a PADI recreational diver, my main activity underwater had consisted of enjoying marine life, exploring reefs and wreck sites, and trying to stay off the bottom. Archaeological divers definitely do not stay off the bottom. The years of neutral buoyancy and hover training have been sucked up the dredge (read bad excavation pun). On site we bounce around the bottom, like Neil Armstrong on the moon, and negative buoyancy is your friend. My hovering skills still come in handy when I float over the unit each morning to document the progress.

As a recreational diver, I used to pride myself on my ability to preserve visibility without disrupting the sediment beneath me. On this site, my job is not simply to disrupt the sediment, but to use my dredge to suck sediment and seagrass up and off to another part of the site: imagine me carefully vacuuming the seafloor (the irony is not lost on me or my mother that I loathed this chore as a child).

The tools, gear, and tricks of the trade are mostly the same between recreation and excavation. Dive safety is still the number one priority. We form detailed dive plans and stick to buddy teams. We roll backwards off dive boats with the same Navy Seal flair (at least that’s what I think I look like). But we carry small artifact baskets, measuring tapes, chisels, and underwater cameras for documentation of the site instead of the beautiful marine life. The fish are more like annoying coworkers than the main attraction of the dive, but I still enjoy seeing beautiful schools of parrot fish glide around me.

Buddy communication is key in both recreational diving and underwater excavation. We have the same general hand signals: “low on air”, “are you OK”, “man, this water is cold”, “I have to pee”, “where is the boat?”, etc. As a recreational diver, you tend to signal to your buddy more often about the sea life, like “look there is a turtle”, “did you see that shark?”, “hey, look at this fish!”.

In underwater excavation, conversation tends to consist more of: “the dredge is clogged”, “should we chisel this?”, “bad rock or good rock?”, “another piece of charcoal”, “LOOK OUT bristle worm!”, “AMMMBOOO (which consists of underwater happy dancing if you are Alpha)”. Our slates help us communicate tougher issues or concepts, but by the end of the season, silent conversations with even work across the dinner table. I will never forget my project dive buddies (you know who you are) with whom I’ve spent countless hours in Darth Vader-breathing silence.

It has been a dream to finally experience underwater archaeology but my time as a recreational diver is not over. The ocean of opportunities is endless when you dive to greater depths, and I am now officially out of diving puns.


Reef People: Brooke and Alpha.

Another denizen of the reef (+ territorial fish).

Achieving optimal dredging position.

9 July

Excavation this season has branched out to include two sections of the shallow reef. The endearing name ‘Reef People’ has been thrown around to describe the lifestyle of those who call the ‘crevices’ their home. The reef regions are just 4 meters below the surface and the area where our excavation occurs is approximately 0.5 meters below that. There are a myriad of archeological objects located in the reef causing us to question why there are so many diverse objects and what the contents of the reefs can tell us about how the ship sank. This shallow environment poses many excavation challenges but the Reef People have adapted to become a species of their own.

The Reef People are a specific type of archeological diver needing the ability to shapeshift and adapt to a quite peculiar environment. While we may not have colorful scales or live in sea caves like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings, we have found a home in these narrow passageways.  

There are a few characteristics specific to the Reef People:

1.     The aptitude to wedge oneself between both walls of the reef with one’s legs in order to achieve the optimal position for dredging.

2.     The ability to spring like a cat up and down the crevice in order to achieve tasks such as dredge unclogging and rock basket removal.

3.     The talent to propel backward with the legs and hands like a jellyfish in spaces where turning around is impossible.

4.     The persistence to survive vicious bites from territorial fish who live in the reef.

The Reef People thrive on the finds of green marble beneath the rich layers of sand and enjoy much excitement when pieces of ceramic find their way into their hands. The contents of the reefs include possible sections of the ambo, ceramics, and fragments from iron nails or the impressions left in marine concretions.

I am proud to be known as one of the ‘Reef People’ and have found great comfort in the sensation of being hugged by the safe walls of my crevice. Working in the reef has given me a new perspective of how nature and artifacts can coexist in such a dynamic environment and I look forward to more work in the reef!


An interesting fragment.

Cataloguing worked marble.

6 July

A fragment of verde antico from the site features chisel marks from 1,500 years ago that provide hints about the ancient making process. It is small: less than a centimeter thick and less than three centimeters in diameter. It could easily have been overlooked and its significance could have gone unnoticed. Luckily, May noted the chisel marks while cataloguing the object this year.

These marks help interpret the object. First of all, they make it more human. They allow us to imagine a mason who worked the stone in Late Antiquity and whose voice is not otherwise present on the site or in the museum. The marks transform a silent object into a proper historical artifact, worked with skill, deliberation and perhaps a degree of personality. The marks run across the face of the stone at perfect intervals. They may have been accomplished with a standard chisel but may also have required fine, specialized tools.

Along with larger architectural elements from the so-called ‘church wreck,’ such as columns, capitals and chancel screens, the chisel marks on this small stone hint at the dissemination of skilled labor across the Mediterranean. The marks provide a window into the life of the object and the making process in Late Antiquity.


Filling the void.

Cleaning concretion with the airscribe.

24 June

After the adventure to the Institute Fondazione G. Giglio in Cefalu, Sicily in late May we now know what’s inside the concretions…well sort of. The x-rays provide a tantalizing glimpse through layers of marine encrustation, but the artifacts still have more to say. Throughout the month of June, the team has been working to analyze the x-rays to determine which concretions no longer have original metal inside them; the concretions that are void of metal are essentially a mold of the original object.

Now the team has started the messy but exciting task of filling these molds using epoxy resin. The first step in this process is to carefully cut the concretion in two or more pieces in order to access the inside of the object. Pressurized water, dental tools, and bamboo skewers are then used to gently clean out the black corrosion product left behind by the deteriorating metal.

Once the mold is clean, epoxy resin is injected into the mold using a large gauge syringe. The final step is not for those who fear getting covered in concretion dust. After the epoxy has cured for 24 hours, an air scribe is used to remove the outer layers of the concretion until all that is left is the epoxy cast of the original object.

So far we have cast several nails that have a square shaft and a round head. These fasteners are some of the most common types of concretions on the site, but we’ve also cast an artifact that looks a bit different than the others, one that is larger than most of the nails. It has a rounded shaft on one end that transitions to a roughly trapezoidal shape moving along the shaft towards the tapered end. Could it be a marble-working tool, to be used by a traveling mason at the ship’s destination? We are confident that time, additional analysis, and several more liters of epoxy will yield more information about the concretions of the ‘church wreck’.


X-ray reveals inside the iron concretions.

An unusual patient in the CT scan.

The incredible Cefalú team.

8 June 

Finally, the lowly concretion gets its turn in the limelight… or should I say, the pallid illumination of the radiography lamp.

What we call a concretion refers to the artifact now covered in a thick crust of iron corrosion product, calcareous precipitate, sand, shells, and stray rocks. This layer obscures any surface features and often makes it difficult even to determine the original shape of the object: perhaps a tool, a fastener, an iron ring or something else altogether. At first glance, these concretions hardly appear the stuff of archeologists’ dreams, but the secrets inside the concretions’ crusty shells are tantalizing.

In late May, we brought a selection of concreted iron fragments and objects from the Marzamemi “church wreck” to the Institute Fondazione G. Giglio, in Cefalu, Sicily. There, we met researcher Giorgio Russo (Institute of Molecular Bioimaging and Physiology) to begin x-raying the concretions, hoping to figure out what artifacts lurked inside.

The process itself involved placing a selection of concretions of similar size onto the x-ray table, followed by several minutes of adjusting kilovoltage peaks, milliamperage, and timing to provide the best possible crust-penetrating images. Any dense metal remaining inside appeared on the image as bright white, while spaces and gaps left by the corrosion of the iron were visible as darker shadows. The concreted shell, ideally less dense than any metal components left inside was generally a mid grey, but it was often difficult to fully determine the object’s shape due to dense rocks obstructing the image, or just particularly thick concreted layers. Tinkering with the kPv, and mAs depending on the density and size of the material being x-rayed made the interior structure and the differences in density easier to distinguish.

Clarified by the radiography, the abstract lumps took on new forms. Nail shafts and heads appeared on the screen, along with multiple iron rings. Large lumps became several nails cemented together, and perfect outlines of large tools showed clearly against the background shadows of concretion. We worked for several hours, imaging nearly 120 objects. Giorgio and Salvo, the Cefalù CT technician, were kind enough to let us attempt to CT scan some of the larger objects where the x-ray was not particularly elucidating. We are still working through the images generated through this method, but the initial results are exciting!

After saying our thanks to Giorgio and the team at the radiology unit in Cefalù, we zoomed back to Marzamemi with digital copies of all the x-rays and CT scans. Special imaging software is now enabling us to play with the grayscale and the contrast, to work back and forth with the images to get the best idea of what forms lie hidden in these hideous lumps. Our task continues as we analyze the x-rays, but we now have a much better idea of their precious contents. We are excited to continue treatment, to study the iron concretions and the artifacts locked inside.


The MMHP is grateful to Daniele Malfitana (Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche) and Paolo Romano (Laboratori Nazionali del Sud) for making this research possible.

On the road to Cefalu

The hospital on the sea.

The view of Cefalú.

Welcome to the 2018 blog. Stay tuned for tales of the new excavation season at Marzamemi.

1 June

Given the bare facts of what needed to happen, one might conclude the day would be a tough one. Six large bins of wet, fragile 6th century iron concretions needed to be loaded onto a van, kept in order, kept wet, and kept safe, and driven across the island to a city more than three hours from Marzamemi. Once there, we would have to find the hospital and our contact, maneuver the van close, and shuttle all of the artifacts in and out of the radiology department, all the while keeping them safe, wet, and orderly. And then we would have to pack them all up safe and wet again for the return trip in the evening hours. Given our intimate knowledge Sicilian roads, we knew there would be some bumps, steep terrain, narrow one-way streets, and parking challenges along the way to Cefalú. But we were up for the challenge.

With Rachel overseeing the operation, everything was measured and prepped in advance carefully. In the morning we loaded the van, and with tags, pads, shims, DI water and wet towels deployed, headed out of Marzamemi. Would we get all the way across the island in time for our appointment? Would the concretions stay wet and safe despite the bumps, hills and curves? Could we navigate successfully and park our large vehicle close enough to carry all those dripping crates into the hospital? Off we went, starting on the familiar route to Catania, before turning west, into unfamiliar territory for us.
It gradually became apparent that everything was going to work out just fine, and Sicily had a lot to contribute to melting away the tension. The landscape as we crossed the center of the island was lovely: lush, green hills with hay bales and livestock and dramatic stone structures perched on rocky pinnacles. The beauty around us tempered our anxiety, though we still shuddered as we bumped over every expansion joint. As we approached Cefalú, the stunning views of the city with its cathedral overlooking the blue Tyrrhenian waters and the massive rock cliff behind it stunned us even more. The place is gorgeous. Expecting to obtain our x-rays in some aesthetically sterile medical park, we landed in a Sicilian coastal paradise.
Then, most importantly for the success of our mission, we met our contact, Giorgio Russo, outside the hospital. He directed us to the parking area, ushered us into the radiology labs, and painstakingly helped us to capture the best images we could get with fluoroscopy and x-rays imaging, on set after set of our lovely little blobs. The images we saw onscreen were exciting, and we have already learned much more than we knew before about the contents of the concretions. Several members of his department helped us to get started, and later fortified us with gelato, as happens in Sicily. The CT scan tech Salvatore even allowed us to scan a few of the objects with his machine downstairs. Giorgio and Salvo were wonderful to us, and spent several hours of their Saturday helping us process scores of concretions through the various scanning technologies they generously shared. I trust the results will prove valuable for our understanding of the shipwreck.
After several hours, we loaded back up and headed back to Marzamemi. The lesson I took away from the day: the land, the ocean, and especially the people of Sicily transform even a seemingly arduous task into a wonderful experience.

Central "nave" of Rudinì, Marzamemi, 19th c.

Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, ca. 500 CE.

(Guest post by Kaelin Jewell, Ph.D. Candidate, Art History, Temple University)

28 July

Recently, I had the pleasure of joining the army of maritime archaeologists and conservators at the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project as a consulting art historian. My own work focuses on the ecclesiastical architecture of Rome, Ravenna, and Constantinople during the 4th-6th c. CE, and I was beyond excited to get a look at the marble architectural sculpture found by the team over the course of the excavation.

After a whirlwind trip to Marzamemi from Rome, I settled into my new temporary office among the tubs of desalinating artifacts at the Palmento di Rudinì. On my first morning at Rudinì, while I was doing some reading about late antique ambos (pulpits), conservator Andrea Gobbi chatted with a visitor about some of the architectural elements that were awaiting 3D scanning. Noticing that I was on a computer, Andrea asked if I would bring up an image of a late antique church to give a sense of how the wreck's cargo of columns and Corinthian-style capitals could have been used. I ran through a list of relevant comparative examples in my head, then looked directly in front of me, down Rudinì's central hall, and said, “There! It most likely was a basilica, very similar to Rudinì!” Eventually, I brought up some images of basilica-style churches from Ravenna including Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (ca. 500 CE) to clarify. 

Throughout the rest of my week in Marzamemi, as I began to formulate some ideas about the architectural sculpture, I kept the grey-striped Proconnessian marble and the beautiful dappled green verde antico fragments in mind, all of which are housed inside a remarkably ancient architectural structure. I also continued to remind the students excavating all that gray and green marble from the seafloor that those seemingly insignificant bits were destined for a large building: one strikingly similar to the place in which they spent their afternoons registering newly discovered finds from the site.

In my research, I spend a great deal of time walking through standing buildings, looking at their architectural fabric, and trying to reconstruct their original appearances and historical contexts. Having the chance to consult the architectural fabric from the Marzamemi site, (columns, capitals, and liturgical furnishings) before it was able to become part of a standing building, allowed me to have an even greater understanding of the issues present in the scale and massive weight of these objects. As the team continues to uncover more pieces from the site, we would be smart to continue looking to the form of Rudinì, with its narthex, nave, and side-aisles, for a glimpse of what could have become of the Marzamemi cargo.   

Siva and Matteo's delicious food!

Matt thanks Siva for accommodating his vegan diet. 

27 July

As a new student on the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project, my favorite part of the project so far has been the people. I arrived in Marzamemi (from the Brock excavation at Pantelleria) exhausted and ill and was bedridden for the first few days. Anna Maria, whose houses the project rents, could not have been more kind. She came over daily to check on me, even making me sweet and delightful lemon ginger tea. Andrea, one of our conservators, brought me to the clinic to get checked out, then to the pharmacist to pick up medicine. The generous care of the locals and our Italian coworkers does not go unnoticed.

Our chef, Siva makes delicious vegan and vegetarian meals for me and the two other vegetarians on the project. Siva took me aside and asked what he could to accommodate – as someone who usually cooks for myself, I was touched by this caring gesture. Once, he even brought me a vegan Indian dish from his sister’s wedding in Catania. The level of consideration is beyond expectation.

In the water, the El Cachalote team: Matteo, Peppe, Corrado, and Dario, oversee the diving to keep us safe from our first checkout dives to the routine activities of daily excavation. They make moving giant boulders look easy. Denis, on Syria, keeps the dredges running smoothly.

Rachel and Andrea oversee work at Rudinì. Here, we have been working in specialty areas, studying metal finds, marble architectural elements, and ceramics. I joined the ceramics team (the “Pottery Barn”), learning methods of identification, drawing, cataloguing, handling and safe storage of our amphora and commonware sherds. Sarah and Andrew, who lead us in our study of ceramics, are great teachers. Their enthusiasm for the subject has made the study of sherds very meaningful. Ceramics have become an important component of my understanding of the site and I am excited to continue learning with the guidance of people like Sarah, Andrew and Andrea, the care of Anna Maria and Siva, the oversight of the El Cachalote team, and all of the new students who have embarked on this journey with me.


Chalky white bedrock marks completed areas. 

Some days the chalky cloud obscures all.

26 July

Every day, while excavating in Marzamemi, we suck up quantities of loose sand with our dredges. Beneath the sand lies a bedrock made of limestone and marlstone. Marlstone, made mostly of calcium carbonate and clay, is the result of sediments formed by the shells and skeletons of marine organisms millions of years ago. Thanks to this mixed composition, the resulting cream-colored marlstone is soft enough to be easily broken with bare hands. Once the sand is removed, the resulting bedrock becomes very slippery. Since calcium carbonate is highly soluble in water, the stone we uncover is eroded, very irregular, and grooved.

Species of coral, worms, and shellfish use the dissolved calcium carbonate in the water to build their shells. When they die, these fragile constructions slowly break down into coarse sand before dissolving completely. We find these empty shells in the sand, attached to rocks, and even to artifacts. These shells are often initially shiny and colorful, but turn white and translucent when the organic material begins to degrade and the carbonate dissolves. The resulting dissolved calcium carbonate tends to build up on stones and artifacts, imprisoning them into a hard coating. This process forms twisted concretions.

The Proconnesian marble we are excavating was not spared from this phenomenon. Marble is a metamorphic rock formed from limestone, meaning it is mainly made of calcium carbonate too. When concretions accumulate on a marble fragment or its original surface erodes underwater, these fragments quickly come to resemble other concreted material that forms naturally underwater. Through the process of accretion and degradation, the beautiful translucent marble stone becomes encapsulated inside a white gritty coating, creating quite a challenge in distinguishing marble artifacts from local stones.

BP (with editorial thanks to JLG)

Heading out to the site.

Alpha and May dredging in the silt.

Back to the boat at the end of the dive.

23 July

When getting to and working on site, your senses can sometimes be overwhelmed by everything going on. Thankfully, there is some consistency to the confusion, and you can always count on at least one satisfying sight or sound to occur. Below are my personal top five sights and sounds, in the daily order that I encounter them.

1.     The satisfying feeling of singing along in my head to “How Far I’ll Go” from the Disney movie Moana as we ride the boat to the site. Being able to look out on one side of the boat and see the Sicilian coast, then looking to the opposite side and seeing “the line where the sky meets the sea” gives me an indescribable euphoria. The wind rushing through my hair while the rays of sunlight envelop me in their warmth helps me prepare mentally to dive into the glittering Mediterranean.

2.     The comforting relief of equalizing your ears on the descent from the surface to the seafloor. As all divers know, not being able to equalize your ears is a pain (both physically and mentally), and being able to equalize means that you can continue down to the wondrous world of underwater excavating.

3.     The clicking and clanking sound rocks make when they go up the dredge. When working on site, we use dredges to clear away the silt, sand, rocks, and whatever else may be in our way on our quest to excavate the shipwreck. Sound travels differently underwater, and the noise small rocks make when they go up the dredge is similar to that of popping popcorn. On the flip side, the sound of a piece of green marble or charcoal accidentally going up the dredge because you didn’t catch it in time is rather horrifying. Avoid it at ALL costs.

4.     The beauty of seeing an artifact once all the silt and sand have cleared is similar to that of finding a fifty-dollar bill in your jeans pocket. Sometimes, the water on site can get cloudy from the silty seabed, which makes it extremely hard to see whether the rock you’re holding is a good rock or a bad one. Once the cloudiness finally dissipates and you see a gleaming piece of grey marble or an amphora lid on the seafloor, the feeling of intense joy that sweeps through your body is alarming, but in a good way.

5.     Finally, the ascent to the surface at the end of the second dive is like entering another world. You leave behind the world of underwater curiosities and rise through aquamarine blue water into a world that (unfortunately) contains gravity. But this gravity-filled world contains some of the best pasta I have ever had the privilege to consume.


Kyle and Tiziana record a marble column.

An LR2 amphora on the ship.

Artifacts and archaeologists beneath the reef.

Can they solve the mystery?

...of past and present Marzamemi.

On the land or under the sea

At El Cachalote or Rudinì

I ponder a mystery 

Off the shore of Marzamemi


Hidden beneath a reef

Lies a shipwreck beyond belief

Woe to the poor merchant’s grief 

yet an archeologist’s relief


Marbles of every kind

Verde Antico, our peace of mind

Proconnesian and more we find

Lost in the deep, left behind


Where were you headed

Before your cargo descended?

For whose design were you intended?

So close to shore, journey unended.


You carried amphorae too 

But not just for you

Or were they for your crew?

Either mystery or clue, nothing new


We know a few things are true

You came from the eastern blue

You carried LR1 and LR2

Some fine-ware and metals too


An ambo of green

Columns and capitals still unseen

A majestic altar that’ll never gleam

What does this all mean?


One can only guess

with such a crazy mess

A mystery to readdress 

with an archeologist’s finesse


Though you never made the distance

This town has persistence 

To ensure your existence

In their identity and subsistence 


Even if we never know your true story

I will not fear, I will never worry

And I will heed your allegory

And remember why I worked in Marzamemi.



Jonathan and James in N7.

Finless moonwalking by Esther and Carrie.

Collecting tiny pieces of the puzzle.

16 July

Every time I go underwater it feels like I’m entering an entirely new world. On the surface the ocean just seems like a large and flat expanse of glassy blue, but the second I descend below the surface I meet an emerald playground of rocks, sand, sea grass, and fish. The site is surreal with its twisted blue and yellow tubes that extend down like octopuses’ tentacles. With all the hoses, rope, and divers, swimming around can feel like an obstacle course.

Once we remove our fins on the seafloor to prevent kicking up sand, we begin to walk along the seafloor in our dive booties. Diving with no fins is what I imagine it feels like to walk on the moon – it mandates finesse rather than strength to not fall over backwards, landing like a turtle on my tank. However, the freedom of being finless also gives me the ability to push off rocks high into the water column then glide over the seafloor like a subaquatic bird. Rocks that would be heavy on land feel like a fraction of their weight in this new world.

When we arrive at our unit, it is time to begin archaeology. As we start dredging, I slowly begin to hand-fan sand into the dredge, which sucks up unwanted sand, rocks, and water, transporting them off the site like a vacuum cleaner. It’s amazing to watch how the slightest hand motion raises a small whirlpool of sand. Once suspended in the water, the sand and silt fly through the air in a flurry and do a little spin before funneling into the dredge.

While I love all these unfamiliar underwater sensations, my favorite part of these dives will always be the anticipation of discovery. Each time I fan the seafloor with my hand, I feel like I’m opening a small present that could contain anything. Much of the time there’s nothing but sand, but when I find an artifact it’s an indescribable thrill. I feel like I’m collecting small puzzle pieces that come together to form a mystery that has remained unsolved for 1500 years.

As I collect small sherds of ceramic, nail concretions, and bits of wood I begin to think about the last person who might have touched them, or imagine what the artifacts looked like when they were used 1500 years ago. The excavation process entails the seemingly endless recording and collection of stone and ceramic from the sea floor, but in doing so we create a similarly boundless connection to the past in a surreal underwater environment where neither the ship nor I ever expected to be.


Lina and Megan in their shared 4x4 cubicle.

Same office, second shift.

Another day, another sketch. 

12 July

My summer plans may be a little unorthodox this year, but I still have an office. It just happens to be a 4x4 meter excavation unit on the Mediterranean seabed. The Marzamemi II shipwreck site is divided into these uniform subsections. Every dive buddy team has their own square, and they generally stay with that same square until it has been completely excavated.

Although all squares have the same dimensions, each has its own personality. For example, my home base is N10 (although I have worked in N7 and N8 on occasion). We have found many a ceramic sherds in N10, but I was surprised to hear that other dive teams rarely or never find amphora pieces in their area. Some squares are rocky, others sandy, some are even completely shadowed by the reef. 

But even within the same square, there is an incredible amount of variety. I firmly believe that my beloved N10 will be the most dynamic office I will ever work in. Before beginning the day's excavation, my dive buddy Megan always asks me and our other buddy Matt to sketch our square. At first I didn't understand the point of drawing the square every single day. After all, how much can a square change? The answer: quite a lot.

The beginning of a square's life is a very exciting time. When I first arrived to N10, it was covered with large rocks and partially filled with reef. Because of this, it took me a long time to draw the square. Looking down at my slate, I noted that there were hardly any places that weren't covered by something. Tucked into all the nooks and crannies was an abundance of artifacts. I felt like I had something to bag every five minutes. As the days went on, every morning I would arrive to the same square, but a different view. Matteo and his crew removed more and more rocks, revealing the sand beneath. As we (and the team in N10 on the other dive) found larger or more interesting artifacts, we placed yellow and black mapping flags to be measured in and then removed.

After more than 2 weeks, N10 is nearing the end of its life cycle. For the past couple of days, we have basically been cleaning the square. This entails clearing all the sand until we reach bedrock, composed of a chalky substance that sends up a cloud of dust whenever we touch it. The silt engulfs the entire square as soon as we start dredging, resulting in rather unappealing images as our photographers complain. When this happens, I can barely see the divers in the square next to us. Artifacts in N10 have become fewer and farther between. The last flag measurements have been taken, and once those are confirmed to be accurate, it will be time to wave a fond farewell to my first square. I'll be moving to the cubicle next door, N11. And in that fresh, new office, the cycle will begin again.


Brock buddies at Marzamemi.

Brock students at Pantelleria in 2017.

Sketching underwater; not like on land...

9 July

The Marzamemi shipwreck is my second experience with archaeology, but it’s still a very new experience. Last summer, I took part in a land excavation on the island of Pantelleria; one of the many differences between the two sites is Marzamemi's underwater location. While both projects start the workday around 7am, not much else is the same. On land, we would excavate for 8 hours daily, but here, each group only spends 2.5-3 hours on the site. This doesn't mean that our days are any shorter: setting up the gear, moving the tanks, and going to the site take a large portion of our day, as do registering and studying artifacts at Rudinì when we're not diving. At Pantelleria, by contrast, it only took about 5-10 minutes to set up our equipment—maybe a little more if we were preparing to take measurements. 

Aside from timing, underwater archaeology differs from its terrestrial counterpart in everything from the tools we use to the way we interpret stratigraphy. On land, we used trowels to scrape layer after layer of dirt, while working around architectural features. We took notice of changes in dirt colour and consistency in order to date periods of occupation based on our finds. The Marzamemi site, on the other hand, has more limited stratigraphy: we excavate through loose sandy overburden into which occasional artifacts have floated, a rocky wreck layer of more compact sand, and then chalky bedrock. To make our way through these layers, we use dredges instead of trowels. Dredges are attached to a water pump to suck up water, so we can send sand and small rocks to a spoil heap just off site. Because we excavate carefully fanning only sand and small rocks into the dredge, we don't raise the sand up for later sifting; instead, we keep it in the water. We do, however, occasionally raise chunks of reef with pottery still attached for chiseling back at Rudinì. Moving rock baskets and artifacts with lift balloons seems much easier than having to push a full wheelbarrow up a dirt mound every 20 minutes!

Another major difference between Pantelleria and Marzamemi is the “wildlife” we come across when excavating. On land we periodically find grub worms in the dirt—and on ourselves, thrown at us unexpectedly by both students and senior archaeologists. There were also bees, the odd lizard, and the designated archaeological dog that belonged to one of our neighbours. Here at Marzamemi, we get to deal with an entire new set of creatures. The fish love it when we move rocks, and swarm any new area that we uncover. The catfish stir up silty sand, creating clouds that ruin what little visibility we have left when we expose the friable seabed. We also come across rockfish and bristle worms, so we always need to watch our surroundings. So far, I've enjoyed the exciting quirks of underwater excavation. And besides, daily diving has definitely made it easier to deal with the Italian heat!


Jenny dredges in the reef's crevices.

Finding a large ABS.

9 July

About half of our excavation unit is covered by a reef several meters tall, colored in shades of orange-brown. Having excavated the rest of the square down to the limestone bedrock, leaving only a smattering of sand, silt, and stray rocks for a later cleanup operation, we find ourselves foraying into the crevices of the reef.

The process of working in the reef is basically the same as normal dredging in non-reef areas. We shimmy the dredge hose into position and then begin gently sweeping non-artifact material toward the mouth of the hose to be whooshed away to an offsite spoil heap, watching carefully for artifacts, which we pick up, bag, and tag.

Conditions seem to have gotten siltier as we have approached the reef, although this may also be a result of the exposed bedrock throughout our square. At any rate, it is now fairly typical to be totally engulfed in particles allowing for what feels like zero visibility. It is often necessary to blindly reach into the cloud and slowly feel around for defined edges of rocks and artifacts. My big fear is that I will remove a chunk of rock and a bristle worm will tumble, unnoticed, into the shallow cave we have been digging – right where I am about to put my hand. Fortunately, the only animals interrupting my archeological endeavors so far have been the big, colorful fish that have a penchant for appearing suddenly out of the dust and darting straight toward my eyes. I think they might be attracted by the nutrients we send up in our sediment cloud, so I can’t blame them, but they do often make me flinch.

The reef itself seems to largely be composed of natural rocks, but it’s unclear whether these tumbled down onto the site or have been there for millennia. Artifacts of al sorts have made their way into this matrix over the millennium-and-a-half since the wreck. A few days ago, there was a wonderful moment when I felt the edge of a flat object, and after several minutes of slowly fanning away debris above and below the object, I was able to lift out a sizable amphora body sherd. Since then, we have found a lot more ceramics, as well as marble, charcoal, and metal concretions. Sometimes I wish we could just pick up the whole reef and put it somewhere else, because there may be even more exciting finds underneath!


Catherine scans a capital.

The capital on its custom-built platform.

7 July

One of the best parts of archaeology is the freedom to study any and every aspect of life that has produced material remains. We frequently look across a range of themes, places, and questions, using a variety of methods to reach our conclusions. While working in the field, however, we have to further expand our definition of archaeology, as a hugely diverse range of skills is necessary to keep a project running. At Marzamemi, diving and conservation are of course critical, but I’ve spent the first few weeks of the project focusing on the design and carpentry used behind the scenes at Rudini.

Initially, the projects were simple: constructing covers for the holes in the floor once necessary for wine processing but now a threat to ankles. As the season has progressed and we’ve begun 3D recording of large marble finds, I’ve turned to designing the scanning space and display supports for our marble capitals. We needed to cover the uneven floor of Rudini’s main hall in plywood to move the crane, have a platform strong enough to hold 150kg capitals for scanning, and create wooden pads to seat the capitals where they are displayed.

The challenge here for any US-based carpenter is the switch to the metric system. Buying wood for immediate projects in Sicily depends on what the supplier has on hand that day, so the drawings I’d made had to be adjusted for boards of rather different dimensions than planned. Shopping for materials involves long discussions at several stores, each providing different components for the process—no one-stop big box shops here. While this challenges efficiency, it’s a wonderful opportunity to meet local business people and practice some Italian.

The best technical term I learned is that duct tape is known as “American Tape” here, which seems fitting since we Americans (and Canadians) use it for solving every problem on the project from labeling bins to affixing padding to the corners of the crane. After finding materials close to my intended specs, we assembled the supports necessary for capital scanning and the process is now underway.


Waiting for the bus in Pachino.

Fountain of Artemis/Diana.

You’d think that after six days of working underwater and on land the Marzamembers would be too tired to do much more than sleep and tan under the Sicilian sun. But in our own way, here in Marzamemi each one of us is an overachiever. Many of us spend our free weekend day travelling to other notable towns of Southern Sicily. In the mornings we rise just as early as the workweek to hitch a ride to Pachino and catch the first bus out of our little corner of Sicily to tourist destinations across the island.

Outside Marzamemi, our group of students became pretty unwieldy, each of us with our own values and interests. Nine of us journeyed to Siracusa – Syracuse – home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site (island, really) of Ortigia – Ortygia.  We walked as a group from the bus station straight to the island to have breakfast together. I couldn’t help but feel like we were a gaggle of North American tourists rampaging down the streets of a calm and quiet town (though I know Siracusa is quite a large city). It was exciting to travel with such an enthusiastic group, walking together and chatting, pointing out stores, churches, ATMs, and beautiful rows of balconies. We struggled to figure out splitting breakfast, the right direction to go without GPS, and the most efficient path between all the sights to see. In the end, we split up into much smaller groups, only to miraculously meet up again in el Teatro Greco – the Greek Theatre – on the opposite side of the city from Ortigia.

As someone who hasn’t always been interested in Classics and Archaeology, it was quite a unique experience to travel through a place with layers of history, alongside other people my age who have so much more knowledge about the worlds that came before us. As we walked from place to place, I listened to and absorbed the stories my friends told about this myth or that statue. I had a favorite moment when we came to a fountain depicting Artemis. To me, it just seemed like a particularly beautiful fountain. But to my friends every detail had meaning.

As we walked and chatted they debated back and forth the name of the man cowering beneath Artemis in the central statue. They settled very quickly on Actaeon. For me, it was equally bewildering (I thought they were speaking in tongues!) and amazing that these friends of mine could wrack their brains, sorting through thousands of pages of books and articles, and years of studying Greek and Roman history, to come up with answers that to me seemed totally out of the blue. I am in awe of their dedication to and passion for understanding the past. Their perspectives give so much more life to a city that, if I were traveling alone, I would have seen as only one kind of beautiful.


Esther and Ken, terrific buddies.

Working around an artifact flag.

Buddy team good rock/bad rock.

5 July 2017

Maritime archaeology, like all fieldwork, requires teamwork, and—for the underwater components—working together in pairs. This means that along with excavation skills we all learn to be a good dive buddy. Prior to my first year of my master’s research at Brock University I had never participated in an archaeological excavation. I had learned techniques, theories, and methodologies in courses, but had yet to gain first-hand experience in fieldwork on land or underwater.

Once I started SCUBA lessons I immediately realized that a good dive partner is essential. This is especially true at Marzamemi, where we have to be efficient and communicative underwater. In my first three weeks of the project, I have been learning how to be a useful dive partner.

Before the dive there are a few things you must do. It is always good to talk to your buddy first and get acquainted with how each other dives. Each person on this dive has a different background, and small quirks in communication and training are good to figure out before you descend. Apart from setting up your standard gear properly, this excavation requires dive baskets with tools for excavating underwater: bags and tags for artifacts, mapping flags, and slates with pencils. It’s crucial not to forget any of this on land, so you can get right to work in the water.

Once we get to the site on the boat, it’s time to get ready to descend. First, make sure your buddy has all their equipment in order—don’t jump in and forget about them. Descend together, not leaving the other behind to catch up. Talk about your dive plan before you descend or you might end up writing novels on your slate board. Underwater excavation is a team effort so you and your buddy should work together and stay focused.  Finally, make sure your buddy isn’t doing all the work when you are underwater.

After your dive, once all your gear and artifacts are properly put away and organized, the final step to being a good dive buddy is the debrief. Talk about your dive and fill out your dive logs over some pasta and cold drinks. Underwater archaeology will be a good experience if you enjoy diving with your buddy, and interacting on land is a sure way of creating this relationship underwater.  I have been extremely fortunate to have an experienced archaeologist and dive buddy in Ken, who has made these first few weeks at Marzamemi an amazing experience!


3 July 2017

As our boat departs from the harbor and plows through the glassy water, heading northwards along the coast, we pass Marzamemi’s historic city center – a cluster of sand-colored buildings with tiled roofs that peers out over the glistening sea.  Marzamemi’s main piazza, home to the town’s oldest buildings, is a testimony to its legacy as an early fishing community and its longstanding maritime heritage. It’s my second summer at the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project, and passing by the town on the way to my first dive of the season, I’m reminded of this legacy.

Marzamemi dates back to the eleventh century with the emergence of small Arab fishing villages along the southern Sicilian coast.  The Arabs took advantage of the close proximity to the sea, which was replete with fish (in particular, tuna), and decided to settle in the Marzamemi landing.  The origin of its name probably stems from the Arab phrase marsà al hamem, which translates to the “bay of the turtle doves,” though we cannot say for sure.  In fact, the earliest extant textual records of Marzamemi are the 1630 transactions from when the town was sold to the Prince of Villadorata Nicolaci.  The Nicolaci family restored buildings to accommodate tuna fishermen and their families, and assembled a palace in what is now the main piazza with the aid of local carpenters from the nearby towns of Avola and Siracusa.  Later on, the residents of Marzamemi constructed a church dedicated to San Francesco di Paola (whom many Italians continue to celebrate today) and an official tuna-processing facility, which fed the tonnara (“tuna”) industry well into the nineteenth century.

Today, the historic buildings bear few indications of their original functions. Most of the structures have been converted into restaurants or clothing boutiques, the Nicolaci palace now sells books and locally-made jewelry, and the tuna-processing facility is rented out for Sicilian weddings.  While modern Sicilians may be more inclined to enjoy an Italian espresso or a cup of gelato in place of hauling up their daily catch, the history of the town is still very much alive.  For hundreds of years, Marzamemi has celebrated its strong ties to the sea through its fishing industry, its alluring beaches, its active harbor, and of course, its historic city center.  Travel guides and reviews point tourists to the piazza to witness for themselves the town’s cultural heritage.

The Marzamemi shipwreck further contributes to the town’s maritime patrimony.  Whether or not Marzamemi’s coast was the intended landing place for the ship, the wreck’s presence sheds light on the history of wide-ranging maritime connectivity in this region.  The Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project aims to not only excavate and study the ship’s materials themselves, but also to explore how the archaeology relates back to the history of Marzamemi – for the sake of its residents and visitors alike.  From the edge of the piazza, one may gaze out into the Mediterranean and watch modern sailboats while imagining the historic tonnara boats or perhaps even ancient marble-bearing ships.


Excavation training with Justin.

Sketching N9 from the reef.

Sarah uncovers an amphora rim.

25 June 2017

It is officially the end of my first week with the 2017 Marzamemi II team. Although a few more people will trickle in over the next few weeks, some straggling luggage is still arriving, and some visitors will come to site throughout the season, the vast majority of excavators and conservators have successfully arrived and begun work. Thanks to a handful of people who arrived early to the site, Marzamemi II is now ready for excavation. The netting that marked excavated areas from 2016 has been pulled away and rocks are being moved to expose new areas for excavation. Two more amphora lids have already been found along with worked and non-worked marble, nail concretions, pottery, and charcoal. The new and improved multi-dredge manifold system is up and running smoothly and new datums are being measured in to add to the site’s already impressive number of reference points.

All the new excavators have experienced their check out dives with Matteo. On the first day of student diving, the ocean decided to welcome us with a washing machine cycle of swells. Since that first day the water has been extremely calm and overall visibility has been great. As the new divers get used to the water and adjust their weights, the elegance of putting on and taking off fins underwater with minimal sand disturbance will require a little less concentration and turtling backwards onto tanks will become a thing of the past. We’re all making progress on these goals. So far everyone has been keeping up with their dive logs in a timely manner but only time will tell if this will continue throughout the season.

With excavation underway, our conservation at Rudinì has been prepared for the arrival of new artifacts. This past week at Rudinì has involved a lot of marble labeling, or “larbeling” as it has now been nicknamed, with durable Dymo labels. Cross-checking the databases, sketching the layout of marble elements in the tanks, preparing bags and tags for underwater finds, and punching holes in bags for conservation, have helped to prepare for the onslaught of new finds. A lot of work is also being done with PhotoScan to model some of the amphora lids excavated in previous seasons, and we students were fortunate to receive a tutorial in underwater mapping while standing (and measuring) on firm ground.

As the excavation process is getting ready the town of Marzamemi is slowly starting to enter tourist season; street carts begin to fill streets that were nearly empty a week ago. By wheelbarrow and hard labor the beaches are being cleared of mountains of sea grass that have formed on the shore. Restaurants and gelato shops have been expanding their outdoor seating. All this is being completed in the hot Sicilian sun. It already feels like the population of Marzamemi has tripled since our arrival last week.

We have a great team this year and everyone is getting to know each other not only through excavation but through the amazing meals we have been sharing together at the houses and at El Cachalote where we eat lunch and dinner at our giant L-shaped table. The excavation season is looking very promising and everyone is excited to work and learn.


Erin and Calantha at Rudinì

Party night food at El Cachalote

Erin as archaeologist

Since my departure from Marzamemi, I have been reflecting on my first archaeological excavation and all the people who contributed to it.

To begin, I am abundantly grateful for the entire Sicilian population who did not deport me as punishment for my pitiable Italian language skills. Truthfully, I have not met kinder people. They smiled encouragingly at my fumbling effort to speak Italian and were never once impatient when I asked for the 500th time: “how do you say scuba tank?” Note: it’s bombola. But an important distinction – Barbie doll is bambola. Trust me; you do not want to mix those up.)

I am even more grateful to the staff of El Cachalote and how hard they worked every day to help us dive. If I had to give a dollar for every time someone carried my tank, well, I would have even more student debt than I do now.

I am supremely grateful for my closest friend – sunscreen. And my second closest friend – my roommate. I met her on this excavation and we bonded immediately. She put up with my messiness (she never once complained about the inability to see our bedroom floor) and answered every inane question I had about Canada (“Do Canadians really eat a lot of bacon?” “Why does your milk come in bags?” “Can you say about again?”). How she didn’t kill me, I will never know. It must not have been all bad, because we made plans for me to visit her in Canada at some point (mostly I am going to drink bagged milk; seeing Calantha is just a plus.)

I am grateful for Band-aids and Neosporin, and for every team member who bandaged the sea urchin wounds on my hands. On that note – I am not grateful for sea urchins.

But I want to give a shout out to my amazing dive buddy, James. He was also our Dive Safety Officer and a past participant on the project, and thus far more experienced than I. He stuck with me no matter how many times I accidentally kicked him in the face with my fin, and never once got impatient playing “good rock or bad rock” with me. Having a good buddy watching my back made all the difference in the water, and I feel pretty confident in attributing my alive-ness to him.

Equally important to my survival was the food here in Marzamemi. I cannot put into words how happy I was with El Locanda del Porte at El Cachalote where we ate every day. The chef put so much work into each meal and never once complained about having to make separate vegetarian food. Every lunch was a new kind of pasta and because of the amazing variety, I never once got tired of it. Although who ever gets tired of pasta? As my dive buddy put it: “When I get home, the first thing I am eating is takeout Chinese, then pasta again.”

I am especially grateful to the directors of this project who allowed me to come and have the best summer of my life. They gave me this once in a lifetime opportunity despite not having any experience in the field. I learned so much from them and was very inspired by the passion they have for their work.

Finally, I want to thank the most important part of my life here in Marzamemi –  gelato. I am abundantly grateful for Italian gelato, the real MVP in shaping my memorable summer.

EEE (a belated post from the end of the 2016 season)


Matteo's bootcamp on land

James and Erin on a training dive

All new students on our team begin with a checkout dive. This dive consists of a series of exercises and tests designed to ensure that everyone is comfortable and safe with the basic principles of diving, before joining the team in the work of underwater excavation. Just about a year ago I went through the same initiation, but in 2016 year I had the pleasure of being on the other side, working with El Cachalote’s Matteo Azzaro, dive instructor and underwater technician extraordinaire.

After participating in nearly a dozen of these checkout dives I can say without a doubt that every student here is a capable and confident diver because each one has thrived in the face of challenges. The standard checkout dives for recreational certification are relatively simple. You’re tested on buoyancy control, your ability to remove and replace your mask, recover your regulator, and a few other essential but straightforward tasks.

Since maritime archaeology requires working underwater, diving needs to be second nature to all of us. We take safety seriously and in our training dives aim to simulate some of the worst possible circumstances a diver could encounter. The basic idea of the drill was an out of air situation (one we expect never to encounter on site with our requirement that all divers be back on the boat with at least 35 BAR). In most cases this is a problem, but easily solved with the help of one’s buddy. Every regulator set has a second mouthpiece, or octopus, for just this reason. But what happens if this also also fails?

To simulate this admittedly unusual situation we worked in very shallow water and paired each trainee diver with Matteo or me for safety’s sake. Then we passed our regulators back and forth taking two breaths each. It’s a simple idea, but a little nerve-wracking in practice. It takes quite a bit of courage to surrender your only source of air, relying solely on your buddy’s good will to return it. The scenario makes for a great trust building exercise. Despite the difficulty of the task, all of the students performed admirably and after ten or fifteen minutes of sharing reached a comfortable rhythm.

Unfortunately for them, there was one more surprise challenge ahead. To simulate the potential panic in an out of air situation, Matteo or I would remove our buddy’s mask, and have them replace it while continuing to share one regulator and to swim. Before you start thinking I’m a sadist, it was only very reluctantly that I agreed to do this. Not least of all because this meant that I had to hand my buddy my only source of air, take off his mask, and then trust that he would still return my regulator. It is a very strange sensation to be wholly at the mercy of someone whose day you just made much worse, but my various buddies were kinder than I. All of the students proved that they could handle themselves in the worst of situations as well as the best. With the completion of this training we shift our focus to excavation, confident in our new archaeologists’ skills and comfort in the water.


A column trapped under a large boulder

Carol helps move an eroded column

Water. We drink it, we dive in it, and occasionally we find ourselves in situations where we fear its power. Water is one of the most powerful elements of nature: with floods causing massive chaos on land, with waves and storms crashing down on ships and leaving behind wrecks, and with currents and surge bringing further destruction to these wrecks – which archaeologists study.

Such is the case with the Marzamemi “church wreck.” Many of the rocks and boulders that we move on a daily basis have been deposited on the site after the ship sank, preserving parts of the wreck well while causing damage to other objects strewn across the seabed. The winter storms in Marzamemi are powerful enough to move anything from tiny stones to massive boulders. Whether every large rock came to be on the site because of these storms is unclear, but some must have. For example, a large boulder in K5 very clearly fell onto the site after the ship sank, as we can see columns and other artifacts poking out from beneath it. Did waves cause the boulder fall 10 years after the wreck? 100 years? Or 1,000 years? The simple answer is that it’s hard to tell. And what about the large rocks to the south of the site? Will we find artefacts and architectural elements beneath them too or did their ancient presence provide a cradle for the ship as it landed on the seabed?

The force of water is strong enough to make its mark on the artefacts we find on the seabed. As you may recall from high school science, the movement of water can erode dirt and rocks and whatever is in its way – this is how creeks turn into a rivers over time, or ponds transform into lakes. It makes good sense that water changes the objects we find under water too. This phenomenon causes difficulty in the registration, cataloguing, and study of marble elements from the site, particularly in deciding which pieces present signs of decoration, finishing, or worked surfaces, when the original surfaces are almost always transformed in various ways: by erosion or, on the other end of the spectrum, the addition of marine concretion. The typical pieces we find are columns, whose rough surfaces make us wonder how much of the marble’s color and quality was visible to ancient consumers of these unfinished objects, and how much has been obscured by the sea. Flat slabs of chancel screen panels occasionally reveal carved decoration, but this too seems unfinished or worn down by the sea; the marble’s shine is visible only under layers of marine concretion.

Perhaps one of the hardest things to understand about the turbulence of water is how and why certain objects are more broken or eroded than others. Fortunate objects were swiftly buried in the sand and protected, nearly intact, from centuries of marine growth and the force of the waves. Others lay exposed to the elements to tumble about, to be eroded by marine growth, or to get eaten by the sea’s many organisms. The same force that caused our ship to sink also acts as a powerful creature that simultaneously preserves and destroys its remains.


Erin demonstrates the excavation process

Frrom this space to a museum display?

I have always considered myself someone who appreciates museums, history and artifacts somewhat more so than the average person. But after my time on this excavation, I have a completely different view of my ability to understand the past and to value artifacts. The Marzamemi project asks questions about the intersection of archaeology and museums, a topic about which I have a lot of questions and unfortunately very few answers.

Archaeology has exposed me to the first step in a long process that results in the display and dissemination of information to the public through a museum. Working to discover the past and unearth these previously untold stories has given me a true appreciation for what can be understood from an artifact, and I’ve realized that I previously had no inkling of the magnitude of meaning that can be derived from small pottery sherds or chunks of marble. In the past, these objects would be things in a museum that I would glide past, giving them only a disdainful glance before moving on to “better” things that I found more visually appealing.

Now after participating in an excavation, I realize the significance of every find. Each artifact plays a part in shedding light on the history of the wreck. When I see artifacts from the site, I have a multitude of questions and theories about where they came from and what they mean.

Questions then arise in my mind: how do you get the average museum-goer – the person who doesn’t have experience in archaeology or extensive background knowledge on the contents of the exhibit – to fully appreciate what an artifact has to offer? Should it be the responsibility of the archaeologists or the museum curators? Or both? How do you make an exhibit more appealing for visitors without turning it into a gimmick or compromising the science?

I don’t have all the answers, but after my experiences this summer I can say for certain that the archaeological process should play a larger part in the museum space. Exhibiting how a team excavates a site and draws conclusions from artifacts would be an amazing viewpoint for people to see. This aspect is largely absent from museums I have visited and would truly bring the past into the present and connect the ancient artifacts to their presence in our lives today.

Working as part of an excavation team has taught me that this shipwreck does not have one narrative: its story continues and its current status deserves to be documented and shown to the public. Uncovering a wreck that has laid dormant for over a thousand years is a once in a lifetime experience for me that has made a significant impact on how I view the journey of objects from history into modernity.


For local products, don't miss Campisi

Best gelato in Marzamemi?

Cassatine siciliane

Horse meat panini are a Sicilian specialty

From wine and pasta to coffee and gelato, Italy is renowned for its regional cuisine. Luckily I had six weeks to enjoy a taste of what Sicily has to offer. Marzamemi, on the southern tip of Sicily, is well known for its tuna industry. Once the heart of the city's economy, the tuna industry has now been surpassed by tourism, beaches, and eating. Various shops and restaurants decorate the coast, presenting treasures for all taste buds.

My favourite shops for sampling and buying local food-related gifts are Campisi and Adelfio. The two stores carry a wide variety of local products, from pesto and tuna to wine and honey. They are the places to go if you are craving local products and want to taste-test everything before committing to buying. All around the stores they have little pieces of bread to couple with pesto, pistachio spread, tuna paste, and much more. A few that I tried are:

Pate di tonno: Tuna paste. Absolutely delicious. It's mild in fishy taste and not too salty. Definitely good for tuna lovers.

Pistacchio pestoand pesto Pachino: While some love it, particularly with the local specialty linguini gattopardo, pistachio pesto was not my favourite; I found the taste too mild, especially compared to the local Pachino pesto, a tomato base with almonds, abundant in flavour and spices. It is mildly spicy and I think it would taste delicious in a pasta dish with sausage. I couldn't resist buying some to take home.

Rudinì Nero d'Avolo: Unfortunately there were no free samples of this when I passed by, but I have had the local and popular grape several times in southern Sicily; it has a big history and bold flavor. Even without tasting, I couldn’t resist wine from by the company that once processed its grapes in the same tanks we now store artifacts. This wine has paired well with all of my dinner options thus far.

Crema di Pistacchio: Don't hesitate; just buy it. It's like Nutella (minus the hazelnuts and chocolate) but 1000% better and probably impossible to find in Canada. Some days I go to Campisi just to eat this. If you have a sweet tooth, this is one item not to miss.

But nothing can beat casual snacks in Marzamemi, with infinite options from sweet to savory. 

Gelato: Gelato is always delicious any time of the day, but my favourite place to get it in Marzememi is at Caffe al Ciclope 2. What’s the best time to get gelato? 10 pm, which also happens to usually be when our dinner ends. After dinner everyone comes out; parents bring their kids and storekeepers bring more – and often better – flavours to choose from. But don't fret if you were too tired for gelato the night before because you can eat brioche con gelato for breakfast. This is something you will definitely not want to miss. The sweet bread is delicious wrapped around your favourite kind of gelato or even granite (a delicious lactose-free alternative).

Carne di cavallo: But the best thing to have your bread wrapped around is carne di cavallo, or horse meat. Hear me out: horse meat smothered in sauces and onions topped with fries and ketchup, it is both delicious and filling and hard to find anywhere else. Located right beside the crepe stand, Il Panino da Sebastiano has the best horse meat sandwiches in town. They're perfect after a day at the beach with a nice cold Moretti beer.

Cassatini: If you still have room the traditional sweet of the region—cassatini or cassatelle—are absolutely delicious. They are little round cakes filled with ricotta cream and pistachio marzipan for icing with a maraschino cherry on top. Also known as St Agatha’s breasts, the cakes are named for Catania’s patron saint.

Caffe: There are many ways to enjoy coffee throughout the region, but here are a couple do’s and don'ts. If you want to act Sicilian, avoid ordering caffe americano (Matteo scoffed at me for watering down my coffee). Cappuccinos are only for breakfast; if you want something creamy in the afternoon have a cafe macchiato, essentially espresso and milk. Xila reports that caffe con crema di pistacchio is a regional specialty, and espresso with cream and fruit is a delicious idea in the afternoon.

I have only had a small sample of what southern Sicily has to offer from Modica chocolate and cakes to horse panini and Nero d'Avola, But I can definitely state that Marzamemi is a place where you can enjoy many different and exciting things.


Justin "quacks" at Elle and May

Chiseling is a frequent background noise

During my first dive at Marzamemi, right at the beginning of the project, I remember being incredibly excited, attentively watching my buddy as she sifted through the sand in search of tiny pieces of green and grey marble to collect in our artifact bag. I loved the way the blue dredge hoses intertwined and made arches above the site, silhouetted against the light glinting through the waves. Most of all, however, I remember feeling slightly confused.  Not because I wasn't sure what kind of rock to collect or where we were meant to point the dredge, but because I kept hearing a tapping sound on and off, and I was convinced I was hearing things. Every now and then, when the tapping restarted, I would peek my head up and look around, desperate to spot its source. My attempts were futile, and I was left puzzled for 97 minutes as we worked our way around the southeastern corner of the large boulder in K6.

On the surface I asked my buddy and learned that the tapping was from Liz, hidden behind a huge boulder in K5, chiseling discarded rocks to make sure they did not conceal marble inside. This was my first introduction to the many sounds of the Church Wreck seafloor, and I quickly came to realise that as in the case of Liz behind the boulder, if I could not see the source of the sound, it became incredibly difficult to figure out where the sound was coming from, let alone what it is. This is a common problem for divers, since sound travels more swiftly through water than through air.

After five weeks of daily diving, I've grown accustomed to the regular sounds of the site, as well as the weirder ones. Apart from the typical sound of my buddy breathing from his regulator next to me or the rattle of rocks and shells being sucked up the dredge, I have learned that the sound of a lift bag being filled up nearby means that I should quickly look out for something large - a boulder or a column - being moved from its square.

One of the stranger sounds underwater is Justin's ‘quacker’, an underwater signaling device that uses air from the BCD inflator hose to make quacking sounds, getting people's attention in an environment where shouts sound simply like quiet grunts. It's impossible to know at whom the quacker is being directed, so when I hear it while dredging deep in my square I often look up to see four or five other bewildered heads peeking out of units nearby, wondering what is going on. It usually has nothing to do with us.

Although we have no way of talking clearly underwater, our lack of speech is made up for by the myriad alien underwater sounds that seem to come from every direction. If I don't catch the sound of a lift bag being filled on my next dive, no one is going to shout at me to get out of the way – instead I just might get quacked at.


Sofia and Talbot draw on their slates

Making mylar tags for registration

At the end of a six-week season, working underwater becomes almost second nature - we may as well have grown gills by this point! Although it does not require much thought now, excavating underwater wasn't always so easy and it took a lot of training to get used to a completely different environment. There are many elements of working underwater that we all had to learn, from using different tools to being more aware of our bodies, our buddies, and our surroundings.

One of the first things we had to take in were the materials and tools that we use for basic tasks. Unfortunately, we cannot take notes with paper underwater, or they would disintegrate before we even ascended. Instead, we use different materials, depending upon the situation at hand. When recording measurements or communicating detailed information with our buddies, we use plastic slates. These are common for divers, who use the white plastic boards for communication, but they are unusual tools for archaeologists, who can usually communicate verbally. Slates are useful because not only do they withstand water, they are also erasable and reusable. They also make for a handy space for a drawing of your grid square, which can easily be referenced and changed as excavation continues. 

For labeling artifacts (both on site and in wet desalination buckets at Rudinì), we use small pieces of mylar. They fit well in the artifact bags and don’t smudge underwater. These are also reusable. Fortunately, pencils work just as well underwater as they do on land. Not all pencils are created equally and Paper Mate Sharp Writers are a preferred choice.

Another handy underwater tool is a pair of dive scissors (or a dive knife for the particularly bold). Though not usually part of an archaeologist’s tool kit, scissors are a staple for divers. They can be used for cutting string to fasten a flag or tag onto an artifact. They can help with “underwater gardening” and the removal of seagrass. Or in a particularly dire situation, they could be used to help free yourself or a buddy from entanglement. Scissors are an important tool and safety precaution.

In addition to learning how to use new materials and tools, underwater archaeologists have to learn to adapt to an entirely new environment. Rather than working in a flat grid and excavating in one direction (down), we also have to be aware of things that could be above or under us at all times. Divers, sometimes accompanied by large moving rocks or objects, are always on the move. There are also sea creatures, such as sea urchins or bristleworms to watch out for, so we must always keep track of our limbs in case a stray hand or leg accidentally comes in contact with a pointy spine. We also need to be careful not to kick a flag marking artifacts or a datum that we use for mapping.

Moving rocks, the lack of paper, and handy dive scissors are all important adaptations that we have had to make both as divers and archaeologists. But the most important part of underwater archaeology is your buddy. Not only are you and your buddy responsible for each other's safety, you are also responsible for your square and discussing its importance for the site. We work with the same buddy for most of the season, from beginning excavation to final interpretation of our respective grid squares.

The project taught lots of new skills and helped us to make many new buddies.


Sydney at theValley of the Temples 

Column drums: scattered and reconstructed

During our final day off, a group of us decided to go to Ragusa and Gela. We thought it might be nice to see more of Sicily before we left and decided to plan a trip that centered on museums and gelato (specifically, wine gelato from Gelati DiVini in Ragusa). We were especially excited to see the museum in Gela because of its focus on underwater archaeology. Unfortunately the museum in Gela was not open when we tried to visit. Rather than abort our expedition, we decided to continue driving to Agrigento in order to see the Valley of the Temples. This destination is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and contains some of the most well preserved Greek temples from the 6th century BC. Strikingly, although these temples are Greek they were associated with Roman deities later in their history.

A visit to the Valley of the Temples has held a place on my bucket list for many years. I adore the way it sits on the top of a hill with the city spread out below it, almost like the Acropolis of Athens. The differing amounts of preservation and reconstruction were fascinating to me. On one side of the site, the temple of Zeus lay in disarray with almost no reconstruction. On the other side of the site, the temple of Concordia was completed reconstructed. This allowed me to visualize what it might have looked like in antiquity. The role of restoration in archaeology lies as a backdrop to our work at Rudinì. I spent my days on the excavation helping to process finds as they come out of the water and conserve them. At Rudinì we decide daily how much conservation or intervention an object needs to be stored safely, drawn or photographed well, and potentially prepared for exhibit. We have had numerous discussions as a team about the role of objects in museum displays, and the difference between conserved objects and digital reconstructions to convey messages in museums. Seeing the temple completely restored helped me to understand the role of conservation and reconstruction in telling the story of an object, building, site, or period of history.

As amazing as it is to reconstruct artifacts and architecture, these reconstructions do not necessarily give the “true” history of the object. One topic of conversation during the field season was the notion of multiple histories or truths associated with an object or site and whether these histories are singular or numerous. A complete reconstruction offers one person or team’s projection of the past upon the present. As much as I love to be able to stand in awe of these structures, I also see their destruction as an important part of their history. It may make me a bit sad that they have fallen into disarray, but at the same time it is a reminder the need to study and preserve their history. This impromptu visit to Agrigento complemented my time on the excavation so well, and I look forward to considering these themes more in the future!


Ken excavates the ship's eye at Tektaş Burnu

(Photo courtesy INA)

Ken and Sheri work together in M6

1. Ken has had some incredible diving experiences, which have made him the most calm and sturdy buddy imaginable. He makes everyone around him feel secure in and out of the water.

2. Ken is an associate director of INA.

3. Ken is a cinephile and quotes movies all the time.

4. Ken has been involved with six INA excavations including the wrecks at Tektaş Burnu and Bozburun. 

5. Everyone's favourite fact is that Ken earned a Ph.D. in Classics but never went into a career in academia. He works on excavations as a volunteer during vacation from his ‘real job.’

6. Ken's favourite excavation was at Tektaş Burnu (Turkey) where the team set up camp on a remote cliff and dived to over 40 metres every day. He participated in 3 seasons of excavation there. 

7. Ken became friends with one of his dive instructor and they dived together in a lake in Texas almost every day. During their dives at this lake they found two bodies that the police had failed to locate and were able to put a few minds to rest. 

8. Ken has logged over 3000 dives, which we've calculated to probably about a third of a year that he has spent breathing underwater.

9. Ken says that he enjoys the feeling of nitrogen narcosis, "like having just had a really good cocktail."

10. I was told that whoever was lucky enough to land Ken as a dive buddy and excavation partner would be guaranteed an amazing experience. I'm very happy to have been that fortunate person. 

Thanks for being a terrific buddy.


26 July 2016

              Sarah recording sherd fabrics

     Sarah excavating in pottery dense area 

Since the excavation of the “church wreck” began in 2013, every piece of pottery discovered on the seabed has been recorded and saved. This corpus of ceramics includes amphora sherds, cooking ware, tableware, fine ware, and several other categories. My time on the excavation is predominantly spent at Rudinì looking at the collection of amphora fragments. An amphora (plural: amphorae/amphoras) is a specific type of storage container that was mostly used to transport wine, olive oil, water, and some types of food. There are many types of amphora shapes and sizes that evolved and changed during the Greco-Roman period. These shapes and types varied depending on the region in which they were produced, the time period in which they were made, and the stylistic preferences of the producer and the consumer. Amphoras were ideal for transporting liquid on ships, as they could be stacked neatly and were easily moved.

My particular focus centers on amphora body sherds (ABS) fragments of an amphora that do not include the rim, base, handle, or any feature that could be considered “diagnostic” or helpful, for discerning the specific form of the amphora. I look at the surfaces of these sherds for any signs of decoration, as well as the clay used to make them, known as the fabric. In order to do this I use a small magnifying glass to look closely at the fabric and seek patterns among them. I try to find recent breaks or surfaces free of marine concretion, as those places provide the most accurate window into the original look of the fabric. This work is complicated because of the pottery’s exposure to seawater, salt, decayed organics, and corrosive processes that change the color or texture of the pottery. Because of the impact of these elements, I focus less on the color of the fabric itself and more on the inclusions within the fabric. Inclusions refer to any additions to the clay itself—natural or purposeful—including sand or rocks. Different regions and different producers would utilize different clay and different types of temper. Inclusions can be used to link one ABS fabric to another, to recognize larger trends in the fabric, and even to try to determine where a piece of pottery was made by matching our fabric to others with known provenance.

After looking at a larger percentage of the ABS from the “church wreck,” I can discern certain trends. Many of the sherds have a ridged pattern on their surface (as though someone ran a fine toothed comb over the surface of the vessel), characteristic of a specific type of amphora known as Late Roman 2 (LR2). Many of these LR2 sherds seem to be made of a similar fabric, which may suggest that a group of amphoras on the ship were made in the same place. Another significant sub-group of the ABS can be identified as Late Roman 1 (LR1) from their fabric and pattern on the surface of the sherds. The presence of different kinds of amphoras on the ship allows us to think about the purpose of the ship’s cargo. While we know that the ship was transporting a shipment of stone—arguably en route to a known destination—it may also have carried amphoras for the sailors to sell for additional profit. On the other hand, it is also possible that the amphoras on board were used only to hold the provisions of the crew. It is vital that we continue to think about these larger questions as we examine more and more of the amphora fragments in order to understand the overall cargo and purpose of the ship.



25 July 2016

Kapitän’s crew sieves the sand brought up by the airlift onto the boat

              Sofia and Justin excavating in 'pottery alley'


As we carefully filter through the sand, sucking up clouds of dust and pebbles into our dredges, we find a huge range of artifacts, deposited onto the seabed hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Every now and then, we find something that doesn’t seem to fit – a spoon handle more likely from the twentieth century than the sixth, fruit pits that show minimal signs of degradation despite perhaps having sat in the sand since our wreck went down, and various metal bits (nuts, bolts, and even a bullet) that simply cannot be ancient. It may be more likely that these anomalies and several other modern-looking items we uncover are remnants of earlier work at the site, conducted more than fifty years ago. On a shelf in our lab at Rudinì sits a small glass bottle brought up last year, dotted with small white concretions, and we joke that this is the Chinotto bottle of Gerhard Kapitän, the German archaeologist who undertook preliminary survey and excavations here in the 1960s. Now in 2016 we are uncovering not just the remnants of a late antique church cargo, but also of our archaeological predecessors. 

Kapitan utilized airlifts and suction pipes to remove material efficiently from the seabed, sorting it on the surface in metal baskets. Between 1965 and 1967 the German team raised about 1000 objects, including a significant quantity of intact ceramics and large architectural elements. Kapitän produced an overall sketch of the site, but the precise location of each raised object is somewhat difficult to pinpoint. The early research highlighted the importance of our site, and Kapitän’s conclusions about the cargo have been influential to studies of late antique church architecture. Today we work with water dredges rather than airlifts, and modern techniques of mapping, recording, and analysis, hoping to add to the picture Kapitän imagined. Simultaneously, we are bagging and tagging remnants of his legacy on the seabed.



24 July 2016

                            Erin and James excavating 

                               Pottery sherds in situ

I have always considered myself someone who appreciates museums and enjoys learning about history and looking at artifacts more so than the average person. But after my time on this excavation, I have a completely different view of my ability to understand the past and truly value artifacts. Our team has discussed the intersection of archaeology and museums, a fascinating topic, on which I have a lot of questions and unfortunately very few answers.

Archaeology has exposed me to the first step in a long process that ultimately results in the display and dissemination of information to the public through a museum. Working to discover the past and unearth these previously untold stories has given me a true appreciation for what can be understood from an artifact, and I’ve realized that I previously had no inkling of the magnitude of meaning that can be derived from small amphora sherds or chunks of worked green marble. In the past, these objects would be things in a museum that I would glide by, deigning to give them only a glance before moving on to “better” things that I found more visually appealing. 

Now after participating in an excavation, I realize the significance of every find; each artifact has a part in shedding light on the history of the wreck. When I see artifacts raised from the site, I have a multitude of questions and theories about where they came from and what they mean. 

Questions then arise in my mind: how do you get the average museum-goer – the person who doesn’t have experience in archaeology or extensive background knowledge on the contents of the exhibit – to fully understand what an artifact has to offer? Is there a way to instill this appreciation? Should it be the responsibility of the archaeologists or the museum curators? Or both? How do you make an exhibit more appealing for visitors without turning it into a gimmick and compromising the science? 

I don’t have all the answers, but after my experiences this summer I can say for certain that the archaeological process should have a larger part in the museum space. Exhibiting how a team excavates a site and draws conclusions from artifacts would be an amazing viewpoint for people to be exposed to. This aspect is largely absent from museums I have visited and would truly bring the past into the present and connect the ancient artifacts to their presence in our lives today.

For our site, I think a powerful way to display an artifact would be a virtual timeline of its lifespan. For example, we might display a marble column to show its journey from the marble quarry of origin, its carving, transport on the ship, the wreck, its discovery in the excavation process, what the column tells us about the wreck, and finally its real-life display at the museum. For the excavation process, an interactive underwater map could show the location of the marble column alongside other objects found in the area. A representation of what that column would have looked like in a Byzantine church could be displayed as well. 

Working as part of an excavation team has taught me that this shipwreck does not have one narrative: its story continues and its current status deserves to be documented and shown to the public. Uncovering this wreck that has laid dormant for over a thousand years is a once in a lifetime experience for me that has made a significant impact on how I view the journey of objects from history into modernity.



23 July 2016

                                        Justin and Alanna excavating 

                          XILA and LIZ slowly extracting pottery from the reef 

                                     James bagging a piece of pottery 

Next to our scuba gear and excavation tools, an archaeologist’s most important piece of equipment is a wetsuit. Without one, two hours underwater can become quite uncomfortable or even dangerously cold. In order to function properly, wetsuits need to be incredibly tight, which makes them difficult to put on. Over the past weeks, all of the divers have developed their own interesting and sometimes entertaining methods of putting on their wetsuits. Here are some of our favorites (for obvious reasons, nobody wanted photos of the process):

The Inchworm

This classic method of wetsuit donning is best for those who have particularly tight wetsuits and/or exceptional patience. First begin by slipping your legs into the wetsuit as far as they will go. Next, bunch up the neoprene near your ankles and grip with your hand. Pull upward firmly. Continue to work that bunch of fabric up your leg until the suit is properly in place. Repeat with the other leg. A similar method can be applied to the arms.

The Big Stretch

Like the Inchworm, begin by putting your leg in as far as it will go. Then pull the fabric up your leg as you stretch your leg forward. This can be done sitting or standing, depending on your ability to balance.

The Plastic Bag Method

If you have extreme difficulty putting on your wetsuit any other way, this may be the method for you. Take a plastic bag (empty artifact bags work extremely well) and place it over the desired appendage. Slip the bag-covered limb into the proper hole. It should slide through fairly easily. Repeat with both arms and legs until your entire body is properly encased in a neoprene python hug. A similar method (though not employed by anyone on our team) involves the use of nylon pantyhose

The Step and Hop

This method is fairly straightforward, as the name suggests. Simply step into the leg holes until your feet are all the way through. Next, with one well-executed hop, pull the rest of your wetsuit up, using your body weight to pull your body through the wetsuit. Then simply slip in your arms.

The Shimmy

Slide on your wetsuit over your feet. Bunch up the fabric near your ankles. Grabbing as much of the fabric as you can, wiggle your body from side to side, working the wetsuit upward until it is properly in place.

The Water Slide

Much less fun than it sounds, the Water Slide method is usually employed only in particularly dire (or hot) circumstances. In order to employ the Water Slide, you must soak your entire wetsuit (with our without your body in it). The properly hydrated wetsuit is often easier to stretch and maneuver onto your body. If there is particularly difficulty, soap may also be used.

Feel free to mix and match any of the above methods as you see fit. 



22 July 2016

         Justin and James inspecting newly found lead sheathing


       May and Elle excavating in the area they found the wood


This year on site, we have been moving south into areas that are filled with boulders. In this area of the site (the Ms), we have been finding significantly more iron concretions and more ancient wood than in past years. Depending on where we work, sizable concretions (and sometimes even a nail itself) are regular finds for a day on the site.

As a result of this new body of evidence for our ship’s hull, shipbuilding (past and present) has been a topic of discussion in recent weeks. One of the concerns that would have come up on the shipyard was keeping the wood protected – not only from wear as the vessel was used for many long voyages, but also from the notorious shipworm.

Shipworm, or Teredo navalis, is not actually a worm, but “a highly specialized bivalve mollusc adapted for boring into and living in submerged wood…Historical presence of Teredo navalis in many harbors was so great that this animal was a key factor limiting the life expectancy of wooden ships.” (Smithsonian Marine Station,

So what did sailors do to combat this problem? Ships in antiquity were regularly coated with pitch (a pine resin), which filled in gaps in the hull to stop water from passing through it, and may also have helped to keep out shipworm. There is also evidence of hulls being covered with lead sheathing to protect them – for example, the entire hull of the Kyrenia wreck off the coast of Cyprus seems to have been covered by lead sheathing as well as pitch (Steffy, 1985. “The Kyrenia Ship,” 77). Metal sheathing – though expensive! – would do much to protect a ship’s hull from wear and worm alike.

We have evidence of shipworm plaguing the planks of the “church wreck” – but whether this occurred before or after the ship sank is difficult to say. This week in our excavation area, Elle and I found two side-by-side instances of ancient wood – one sizable and quite intact fragment, and a crumbling pile of mush that we thought was some kind of sea grass. We learned that this pile was in fact ancient wood, after the notorious Teredo had eaten nearly all of it. It was found near the intact piece of wood but in a more exposed area – did the rocks covering that intact piece protect it over the centuries from Teredo navalis?

As we move further south to areas protected by large boulders, we hope to find more and more wood – which, if it survived those hungry mollusks, may give us important information about shipbuilding in the sixth century. Were there ships designed specifically for carrying large shipments of stone – the elusive navis lapidarium? Whatever type of ship it was, the Marzamemi II wreck is as vulnerable as any other wood to the appetite of the Teredo.


21 July 2016

                         Sheri contemplating the daily finds

                      Cleaning out our marble storage containers

When I began as a first-year Classics student at Carleton University I knew I wanted to do a dig in the summer of my third year. As the semesters went by I was around many people who had been on excavations, but nobody really spoke thoroughly about their experience. This now makes sense to me because I think it would take hours to explain everything we've been doing here, and do the experience justice. As a result, I had very limited expectations of what excavation life would be like and this project has been better than anything I ever could have expected. 

I had been interested in doing underwater archaeology for a while. When my professor Laura Banducci mentioned this project to me, I was incredibly interested but also hesitant because I had been thinking of digs in South America or Greece where my interests are mainly based. A Late Roman shipwreck seemed really interesting, but I feared that joining the third year of excavation meant that the remaining finds would be small and insignificant. The reality is that there is always a lot of work to be done and all of us find many different and exciting artifacts every week. 

Even small finds are exciting. Huge fragments of marble emerge from the sand next to heavily concreted nails, tiny pieces of charcoal, and chips of metal. In all truth, it’s often the little, out of place, strange artifacts that we've been collecting that are most interesting to think about. A large fragment of green stone with large ridges carved into it is gorgeous, but we know it’s from the ambo. Artifacts like the fragments of charcoal we find seemingly everywhere on the site are much more interesting to muse upon. Why are we finding so much charcoal? If it comes from our wreck, what use did it serve? The same goes for the copper sheeting, metal chips and larger iron concretions we've been finding recently? Does it all come from the ship? Why have we found more concretions this season than in all other years combined? Does this area offer the best clues about the ship’s hull? 

Before I arrived in Marzamemi I didn’t know much about the later periods of antiquity, but I have been fascinated by everything from Roman economy and trade to Byzantine architecture and shipbuilding and I feel compelled to continue learning about this period. I also didn't expect to be involved in handling and studying artifacts, but at the museum every day there are multiple groups of people working on various tasks. We have all learned to register, catalogue and photograph artifacts, work on the database, draw amphora rims, 3D scan artifacts, and analyze ceramic fabrics. We've heard lectures about the marble we are finding and ideas about museum displays. There are always people studying concretions, lids, working on conservation tasks, and everyone has a chance to be involved. It's a magnificent environment of people who have specialized knowledge and are willing to share it. 

On the underwater front I never expected to be diving every day. I simply didn't believe it could be possible to get 25 people in the water every morning, and I’m still amazed that things come together so smoothly. The days have flown by. All in all, this has been one of my favourite months and I am shocked and pleased by how much I've learned, the people I've met, and the opportunity to be a part of this project. 


20 July 2016

            Bearrid, the Berkeley bear, supervising flag making 

If you were a fan of late 80s/early 90s television action adventure dramas, you probably have seen an episode of the show MacGyver. Maybe you used to watch reruns with your grandmother. At the very least you’ve probably heard the term ‘MacGyver’ employed as a noun or verb to denote the act of creative repurposing. In brief, the show’s star, agent Angus MacGyver, escapes certain death every episode by fashioning from ordinary, every-day objects a solution to his immediate problem: e.g. defusing a bomb with three paperclips, a banana, a quarter, and a pack of gum. 

Though certainly less dramatic, underwater archaeology requires ingenuity, adaptability, and problem solving with materials available on location. I have been amazed at the resourcefulness of our directors, mapping specialists, conservators, and fellow students, who consistently design new schemes with the most mundane of objects. For example, our mapping flags, which we place on the seabed to mark the find spot of diagnostic objects, are fashioned from two plastic plates, duct tape, Sharpie, super-glue, two rubber bands, and a bicycle spoke. 

Underwater, simple laundry baskets become rock-moving crates, and small slotted plastic trashcans become briefcases for carrying tools and artifacts back and forth from the site each day. Rebar stakes hammered into the surrounding reef become datum points for mapping. Green shade-cloth covers and mark completed excavation units or the full site at the end of the season; more obviously, this cloth shades our outdoor registration area from the afternoon sun. Our underwater MacGyver extraordinaire, Raffaele Amore, can fix dredge pumps with little more than a roll of duct tape and regularly transforms a single length of rope into a cradle for rocks and columns of all sizes. 

Ten-liter blue buckets have perhaps the greatest number of uses in and out of the water. They serve as lift balloons for our dredges underwater; on land they transport artifacts from the sea to the conservation laboratory. Here, these and larger buckets become a temporary home for artifacts, as they go through the process of registration, photography, cataloguing, and desalination. 

Plastic bags, with and without punched holes, hold each lot of small to medium-sized artifacts from the time of their discovery on the seabed until they are desalinated, dried, and labeled. Mylar (polyester film used for architectural drawing) is used for artifact tags to be written underwater and on land. Plastic binder dividers are cut into tags to name larger artifacts on the seabed like columns and capitals. To write on these tags and on our slates, all divers carry at least one pencil, the simple mechanical yellow screw-to-open variety that can be purchased by the hundreds (and we have hundreds because they frequently get misplaced both under and above water). 

In short, underwater archaeology requires intellectual thought alongside some sizable commitment to arts and crafts, repurposing, retooling, and reimagining common materials. As such, we have a great deal in common with a certain late 80s TV hero.  


20 July 2016 

                  Talbot and Sofia among the dredges 

                                 May and Elle working

           Jarrid and Sofia excavating around a column

                 Calantha investigating some new finds 


As one of the few non-archeologists on this dig, I’ve noticed that that most descriptions of our work focus on the artifacts and site, and neglect the people excavating. Today I have chosen to highlight the people on the excavation by describing each person’s favorite moment of the day (or at least each person I was able to track down for an answer).

Sheri – On the morning dive, when we go out on the boat, the water is calm and still, it looks just like a mirror.

Erin – My favorite part of the day is the morning swim from the boat to the wreck, and knowing that I have a whole day of diving ahead of me, with lots of potential artifacts to be uncovered.  My second favorite is when I first put on my BCD. I lie back and look at the clear blue sky. I know that I will be at training in a couple of weeks and I will be miserable, so I want to be able to remember this moment.

Alanna – I like riding in the boat; it’s a fun way to get a unique view of the area. Also, it makes me feel like a pirate.

Tiziana – I like the work at Rudinì, but I prefer excavating and swimming with everyone down to the site.

Laura – I love the silence underwater.

Liz – Mine is the moment when I first arrive above my square in the beginning of the day. The light is sparkly, all of the silt has settled over night, I can see everything clearly, and I wonder what new finds the day will bring. 

Megan – I enjoy using the dredge, and knowing that I am discovering things that nobody has seen for thousands of years.  

Calantha – I like moving rocks. I want to be able to chip rocks really badly. I like watching people chip rocks. Now that I am able to put my fins back on, I really like putting my fins on, and having two to put on.

Ken – I guess my favorite part is being underwater. I love the zero-gravity environment and being able to move in three dimensions.  I feel chained to the earth when I am on terra firma.

Leila – My favorite thing is when Tiziana, my dive buddy, gives me the end of dive signal and we can come to the surface to talk about our finds. 

Elle – At the end of the dive, after I take off my weights and BCD, I dive back underwater with just my fins before getting on the boat. Raffaele gets mad sometimes because I dive too deep, but I feel so free.

Talbot – I like taking off my wetsuit when I am back on dry land. My stomach settles and lunch begins as soon as I am dry. 

James – Pasta.

Jarrid – I don’t know that I am happier than when that pasta comes. You can tell the internet world that I am a glutton.

Sydney – I enjoy registering the artifacts brought up each day. I don’t dive, so that is the best way for me to see what is happening on the site.

Justin – I like afternoon registration, when everyone is at Rudinì. I always have a plan that I am going to do X, Y, and Z, and then I do none of it, because I spend the whole time answering questions about artifacts in the “Ask Justin and Liz” bucket.

Sarah – My favorite moments are when people ask me about fabrics or ceramics. I love being able to teach someone else about what I do.

Carol – Second break. I often get internet at the gelato shop to call my mom.

Sofia – For me, the best part of the day is the second break. I walk to dinner on my own to collect my thoughts and enjoy the weather.

Peppe – I like taking walks at sunset, just before dinner.

Jessica – Sitting on the dock and feeding the fish with Max while watching the sunset. Then I love hearing a recap of the evening meeting to learn how everyone spent their day. 

Aileen – I like dinner, because it is a surprise every time. It’s true! Lunch is always pasta, but dinner is a mystery. I also really like drawing ceramics at Rudini.

Xila – I love chatting with the Italian friends that I met working here in the past.

Rachel – My favorite part of the day is bedtime, when I get to snuggle under the covers, close my eyes and fade into oblivion.  




19 July 2016

                             Xila taking a measurement

                   Calantha dredging around some columns 

                      Caz (above) and Kharma (below) 

There are many experienced maritime archaeologists here at Marzamemi, as well as many new students eager to learn. Out of this mixed lot Xila Matthews stands out in winning adoration from everyone. Xila sits on the Board of Directors of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA), which, according to its mission statement, “conducts archaeological research to increase knowledge of the evolution of civilization through the location and excavation of underwater sites.” She has been described as an institution herself. 

This is the first time I’ve met Xila and after being at Marzamemi for a month now, I’ve been able to piece together many details of her abnormally interesting life. Before becoming an INA Director, Xila worked full time at INA’s Bodrum Research Center while living in Turkey with her horses and participating in many underwater excavations (about 15, according to one count).  After “a decade or so” of this work, she has become not only an indispensible asset to any archaeological project, but also an “an underwater ninja,” a “scuba genius,” and “an idol” for co-divers. I have had the pleasure of diving with Xila, which confirmed, upheld, and surpassed these titles. Her experiences have generated more than a few captivating stories. 

Ken, a long-time friend and fellow diver of Xila’s, as well as of the many old hands that new divers here look up to, is an Associate Director of INA. He told me that Xila has always been an idol of his because of the way she can manipulate the water to her advantage. Ken and Xila first met on INA’s excavation at Bozburun, Turkey. While others wore weight belts holding four to six kilos, Xila descended with only one, which she quickly disposed of at the bottom along with her fins. The single kilo was simply a precaution for the decompression stop. 

Her buoyancy control is remarkable, and, as another experienced member of the team quite nicely stated, Xila seems to be able to communicate even better underwater than most people do above it. Challenging diving conditions such as poor visibility, strong current—as at INA’s recent excavation in of the Godavaya shipwreck in Sri Lanka —leave Xila unfazed. On the way down to the site, most divers clung to the shot line with both hands (fearing the current might drag them to Africa if they let go), but Xila descended with only one, holding her camera in the other hand, in a current so strong it caused her regulator to free flow. Despite all of this, she remains perplexed to this day as to why she was the only one who enjoyed diving there. 

I’ve learned all of these things without a direct interview with Xila, but from others on the project who have a seemingly endless supply of tales. I know that she now lives in Mexico in a beautiful home which she renovated single-handedly with two cats that she rescued (one has one eye and one is named Caz, but I’m unsure whether these two features are connected to the same cat). Most importantly she always drinks white wine, not red. Cheers to an amazing woman who I admire from a distance and had the very fortunate opportunity to dive with on more than one occasion. I’m sure she never realized the impact she had on me during those brief hours. After all of these stories, I’m feeling a little embarrassed that she had to help me swim back to the boat one day with a single fin—something I’m sure she could have done blindfolded, asleep, and holding two cameras.



18 July 2016

              Sarah inspecting a ceramic sherd with Giuseppe 

               James photographing some green breccia


Because I came to work on the ceramics from the shipwreck, my time at Marzamemi has been spent primarily at Rudinì, the headquarters for conservation, storage, and analysis of the excavated material from the shipwreck. Rudinì is a beautifully conserved former winery that has been turned into a general museum of Marzamemi and will one day become a Museum of the Sea. 

During my first few days at Rudinì I saw not only the ceramics, but also the different types of stone being excavated from the wreck. Recently I had the opportunity to listen to Professor Scott Pike, an expert in ancient stone and its use in antiquity. While I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about the way that ceramics moved through the ancient world, I had never really considered that stone could undergo the same type of migration. Scott talked mostly about the types of stone found on the wreck and the ways that he might determine their points of origin. 

He explained that while the color of a stone can provide some useful hints about its quarry of origin, other factors are equally worthy of consideration. The grain size of marble refers to the size of the individual “faces” or small pieces that make up the marble’s composition. A coarser or larger grained marble will look less smooth on its surface, while a finer or smaller grained marble should appear more uniform in section. Additionally, the banding, striation, or visible layers that comprise the marble composition can give clues to the point of origin. As with ceramics, visual analysis with the naked eye or a hand lens yields a first level of data about even fragmentary pieces of marble. 

On the microscopic or elemental level, I was interested to hear Scott’s discussion of the use of a portable x-ray fluouescence (p-XRF) analyzer for looking at the composition of stone. The technique can be used to compare excavated samples with examples sourced to known quarries.

Along with scientific analysis Scott uses primary sources to guide his research, such as the descriptions by ancient authors of the decorative or utilitarian functions of different types of stone. Such an approach was far more holistic than I would have ever assumed to be a part of “scientific” analyses. As archaeology students, we are warned about the problems of using primary source material as a “treasure map” or data source for where to excavate and how to interpret material culture of the ancient world. Yet for Scott, ancient sources provide valuable information about which quarries were in use and where certain stones might have originated and moved. While the elemental composition might help to pinpoint a certain origin, historical sources might confirm whether the quarry in question was even operational during the specific time period of study.

This interdisciplinary approach to the study of geoarchaeological material is a great reminder of the many facets of classical archaeology. I have been told throughout my student career that the future of archaeology lies not in the field but in the lab, unlocking secrets of excavated material. It would be foolish to say that all the archaeological wonders of the world have already been discovered, but scientific applications for archaeological research are increasing by leaps and bounds, and it is probable that new generation of archaeologists will focus more on the scientific side of archaeology than past generations. Yet Scott’s astounding research reminds us that classical archaeology must be looked at through a combination of practices, including the study of classical texts, elemental analysis, and visual observation. I look forward to learning more at Rudini! 


17 July 2016 


                                              Wind compass

                                      Elle working at the museum

“Suddenly all the winds leapt forth, and swiftly the storm-wind seized [the sailors] and bore them, weeping, out to sea, away from their native land” (Homer, Odyssey 10.46). According to Homer’s epic, one of the many adversaries Odysseus and his men faced on their journey home was the unpredictable fluctuation in the Mediterranean winds. When Odysseus’s crew becomes consumed by jealousy, thinking that the great bag Aeolus gave as a gift to Odysseus contained unshared treasure, the men take matters into their own hands and unleash devastating winds that blow the ship off course. As sailors, the mythic heroes in the Odyssey depend on favorable winds to ferry them home after the Trojan War.

After more than 2,500 years, wind continues to play a significant role in the lives of residents around the Mediterranean. When it comes to our excavation here in Marzamemi, good weather conditions are imperative. A bad day may cause choppy waves for the boat ride to the site, disturbances on the seabed, and of course, seasickness for some unfortunate archaeologists. Every once in a while, violent winds and rolling waves prevent us from working, particularly if northeast winds make perilous anchoring for us or our dredge boat. As maritime archaeologists, we learn to work around unpredictable changes in the weather; wind prediction websites are a regular source of planning [e.g.].

The residents of Sicily have names for winds coming from eight different directions. Andrea, one of our project’s conservators, took the time to explain to me what each of them meant:

North wind: Tramontana (from the mountains)

Northeast wind: Grecale (from Greece)

East wind: Levante (from the direction of the sunrise)

Southeast wind: Scirocco (from the northern coast of Africa)

South wind: Ostro (the southern wind)

Southwest wind: Libeccio (from Libya)

West wind: Ponente (from the direction of the sunset)

Northwest wind: Maestrale (originating from the Italian word for “teacher”; from Rome, since the emperor was the “teacher” of the Mediterranean)

The terminology makes sense when you place the center of this “wind” compass at the heart of the Mediterranean, but the nature of these winds varies, depending on your location. Marzamemi, for example, sits on the southernmost tip of Sicily, where the mountains offer protection from the northeast. Maestrale (northwest) and Tramontana (north), therefore, are usually gentle, save the brief occasions when the wind escapes through the mountains and becomes violent. Scirocco (southeast) and Ostro (south), in contrast, blow up from the equator and are usually hot and humid. Reliance on the wind is one aspect of sailing that has remained constant over thousands of years. While residents of Marzamemi may not have to worry about unleashing the winds of Aeolus, they still depend on favorable winds to guide them at sea.





16 July 2016 

                      Marble architectural pieces in storage 

                  Sofia and Talbot sketching in situ marble elements

Nine metres underwater, surrounded by large algae-covered boulders, my dive buddy and I sift through sand and hundreds of pebbles and small rocks daily in search of remnants from the sixth-century wreck. When we surface and begin sorting our finds, the majority of our basket contains just one type of artefact: more rocks, ranging from fist-sized to smaller than a penny. This is inevitable, considering our wreck was a cargo ship carrying huge loads of marble church elements, and indeed the seafloor is littered with columns and capitals over five hundred kilos in weight. These can tell us a great deal about the nature of the intended church and Emperor Justinian’s Byzantine building program, but why is it necessary to collect the rubble remains, sometimes as small as a fingernail?

My questions were answered this week when we were visited by rock expert and geologist-cum-archaeologist Dr. Scott Pike of Willamette University. Armed with an XRF elemental analyser, he was able to shed light on the types of material we were dealing with, allowing us to begin developing an idea of how the wreck fits in with a wider picture of interconnectivity and commerce in the ancient world. The XRF, which looks like a laser gun straight from a sci-fi movie, is actually an x-ray tube which can identify the elements inside samples by transmitting energy into them, exciting the electrons with just the right amount of energy to shed their shell. This process gives off fluorescent energy, and different elements release different amounts of it, making it possible to determine what makes up the different samples. With this process, Scott was able to clear up some questions on the material we had been bringing up, as well as igniting more. 

Scott’s area of expertise is marble, and through using the XRF machine and analysing the properties of pure marble, he may be able able to determine the provenance of much of the white and grey marble found on the site. Marble is a metamorphic limestone, and different types have a range of colours, grain size, and coarseness. A calcite, marble is made up of CaCO3 and can be more precisely traced through the analysis of its carbon and oxygen isotopes on an atomic level. Isotopes are variations of the same element with different numbers of neutrons, and while some degrade over time, the ratio of the stable isotopes within an element are compared to establish where the marble came from, as every quarry has a unique ratio signature. Through this process, the Marzamemi marble, compared against a huge marble database, was established to be predominantly Proconnesian from the quarries in Marmara, modern-day Turkey, while other samples appear to be from elsewhere. 

By mapping the origins of the marble, it is possible to view the Marzamemi wreck in the context of trade patterns of the ancient world, and through our excavations we are able to understand the interconnectivity of maritime commerce at the time.





15 July 2016

                       Alanna and May examining a piece of pottery

                                 Palmento di Rudini museum area 

It has been an incredible first few weeks in Marzamemi. After a long week of orientation and check-out dives to practice our skills, I finally caught my first glimpse of the site. Upon first glance, the wreck appears like any other part of the seabed. Soft sand dusts the sea floor with occasional protruding rocks interrupting the smooth surface. As we moved closer to the site and past the spoil heap, yellow tubing burst from the sand like strange alien tentacles. These, I soon learned, were the dredge exhausts. We continued moving past the ‘spoil heap’—the technical term for the dredge output and not a nautical term for a heap of pirate treasure—and finally reached the site. As my buddy and I swam over to our excavation unit, I saw column pieces and capitals emerging from the sand. It was then that I realized how special Marzamemi is in its local heritage. 

Italy, especially Sicily, is a place steeped in history, with a long, continuous cultural narrative that its current residents carry on. This sense of deep history is very different from America, which has a long history, but one that is interrupted by different groups of people arriving at different points in time. Sicily in particular is special because of its intense concentration of ancient sites in a fairly small geographic area. Marzamemi is lucky to be a part of this archaeological wonderland, although many of its ancient treasures lie hidden under the sea.

Since most people cannot visit the site to see the shipwreck remains in situ, we are faced with the problem of how to share the heritage we excavate from the seabed with the public. Local museums such as Marzamemi’s Palmento di Rudinì are particularly important for cultural heritage because they allow everyone, from young children to academic specialists, to participate in narratives that were lost long ago. Most importantly, they allow the local community to tell its own story in a way that represents its unique history.

The Museum of the Sea will one day display the story of the ancient shipwreck alongside its own story. The building that currently houses our artifacts was once a winery, and has now been transformed into its present iteration as a museum and field conservation lab. Evidence of Rudinì’s former life is everywhere – from the large cylindrical vats that we must carefully circumnavigate during daily activities, to shallow channels for transporting wine. But the high ceilings and curious cement structures somehow blend seamlessly with the artifacts on display. It seems fitting that Marzamemi, a town that once thrived on the sea through its prolific tuna industry and now thrives on the sea through tourism, should also tell its unique story through a Museum of the Sea.



14 July 2016

                               Talbot and Sofia amid architectural elements

                                 Talbot and Sofia working in their square 

                                          Identifying objects at Rudini 

I am not an archeologist.  Nor do I study classics, or Greek or Roman history, or anything that might be associated with uncovering artifacts from a 6th century AD Roman shipwreck. At Stanford, I study computer science, and my family was understandably confused when I told them I would be working on an archeological site in Sicily this summer. And so, after being repeatedly asked some variation of “What do you do every day?” by family and friends back home, I have decided to outline an average day for a computer scientist masquerading as an archeologist in Marzamemi.

6:00am – Wake up. I like to cook some form of eggs in the few minutes before the meeting starts.

6:30am – Group meeting. Any important announcements about the day are made, and the dive schedule for the day is announced. We take turns preparing coffee and a light breakfast for the group.

7:00am – Teams depart. Early divers go to the dive shop and out to the site; later divers go to the museum to catalogue the previous day’s artifacts. The boat ride out to the site is a favorite moment for many of us. In the morning the water is still and clear, and it is exciting to know that there is a whole day of diving ahead.

10:30am – Teams switch. The early divers come back, and late divers go out to the site.  Being underwater is surreal. For most of us the dives are the best part of the day.  Some enjoy it because it is calm and silent, some like the freedom of movement we have underwater, and some of us just enjoy knowing that the artifacts we are uncovering have not been seen for over 1000 years.

2:00pm – Pasta. Late divers return, and both teams eat lunch at Locanda del Porto, a restaurant connected to El CachaloteLunch is always pasta, it is always delicious, and it is always endless. The food comes until we cannot eat anymore. And then fruit is served.

3:30pm – Siesta. There is a short break after lunch to nap, or work on dive logs. I have been trying to learn Italian, and though it is slow going, I can now communicate my gelato orders somewhat fluidly.

4:30pm – Group meeting. There is a short afternoon meeting before work at the museum begins. We register the artifacts brought up in the morning, a favorite activity for those who do not dive. Occasionally there is a need for someone with knowledge of computers, and I revel in the opportunity to do something that I have experience with.

6:30pm – Evening Break. After work at the museum, we have another short break. I usually use this time to purchase groceries or gelato. Others walk to dinner or just relax and watch tv.

8:00pm – Group Meeting. We have a longer meeting just before dinner to discuss everything we did during the day. Each buddy team gives a report of their area, and plans for the next day are made.

8:30pm – Dinner! We eat dinner at the same restaurant where we eat lunch, and it is equally delicious as the pasta, with more variety. Sicilian dinners are a leisurely affair, and we usually finish around 10:00pm, just in time to go to bed. Or, if you are like me, just in time to stop by the gelato shop for the second time that day.



13 July 2016

                                          Erin, James, Sofia, and Talbot

                                                  Erin on the dredge

As a college student, deciding how to spend your summer, your glorious months of freedom amid a year of crushing workload, is a big commitment. I didn't know what I wanted to do, until I heard about the chance to participate in a shipwreck excavation through Stanford's Archaeology Center. Now, as a student majoring in Chinese and engineering with zero exposure to archaeology or classics, don't ask me why this piqued my interest. I have no idea. I don't even like the ocean really; there's too much water and sand. I spent most of my childhood in Florida trying to avoid the beach, and here I am spending my summer in the sea. But as my first three weeks here come to a close, I know I made the right decision. 

Working on an archaeological excavation has been a bit like adapting to a new culture, being surrounded by classics and archaeology professors and students. Most people I know have conversations about their day, politics and current events, perhaps even a celebrity scandal or two. These past three weeks in Marzamemi I have discovered a whole new realm of daily conversation. On the drive to the El Cachalote every day, as I sit wedged between two archaeology and classics students “shooting the breeze” usually entails a raging debate of Greece vs. Rome, or maybe the minutiae of Ancient Greek and Latin. (Did you know Ancient Greek has 24 different versions of the word “the”—otherwise known as the definite article?—I do now.) 

The discussions I have heard round the table are truly indescribable, mostly because I don't understand them enough to describe them. In between ruining all of Greek mythology (Zeus is not the person I thought he was) and Disney movies (don't even get me started on Hercules and the details left out from that movie), and lulling me to sleep mid-dinner as talk turns to the Minoans and the Mycenaeans, my fellow students have taught me a lot.

When most people see 1500 year-old marble, they see a rock (but don't let anyone hear you use the dreaded r-word to describe an artifact). Three weeks ago, I was such a person. Now I understand that each seemingly indistinguishable lump is a window to the past, each a marble masterpiece that reveals a tiny missing piece of the shipwreck puzzle. That tiny groove on the side of that marble chunk? That tells us it might have been a part of the marble ambo of the church. See how the grain sizes are larger on this piece compared to that one? It might originate from the Greek island of Thasos. That small sherd of ceramic that I found on the sea floor this morning is part of an amphora rim, and guess what? We can find out the size of the vessel by measuring that rim sherd’s diameter. Last month I might have held this over thousand year-old piece of pottery in my hand and tossed it away, not seeing it as a testament to the past. 

I've loved my experience working on my first excavation and I've learned more than I ever have in my life from these passionate people. Who knew I would have such a love and interest in archaeology and classics? I guess what I'm trying to say is: Sorry mom, I'm changing my major. 


12 July 2016 

  An impost block from San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna 


                      Plan of a late antique church

Now that I’m in my second year at Marzamemi, I worry a little less about whether I’m dredging up artifacts or stepping on a rockfish, and can focus instead on the big picture – which, in terms of my interests, is figuring out our site’s relationship to the late antique church architecture of its period.

Underwater, we pick up tiny fragments of marble, occasionally with smooth worked surfaces or decorative grooves. We don’t see the polished columns of what would have been part of a completed church; instead, our artifacts are covered in marine growth and pitted with wear from hundreds of years under the sea. The dynamic nature of the site ensures that what we find while diving looks nothing like the objects’ intended forms. So it’s always important to ask while working: what did a Justinianic church look like? The elements we have at Marzamemi can be seen in structures like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the basilica in Porec, Croatia, and in numerous buildings in Ravenna, Italy. Comparanda like these can help us reconstruct what doesn’t survive on the seabed.

Every day we find fragments on the site that seem to come from an ambo made out of a breccia we call green marble or ‘verde antico,’ panels from a marble chancel screen, and capitals, columns, and bases. These are all standard elements that could make up one church, as Gerhard Kapitän thought when he excavated the site decades ago and estimated that the ship carried a set of 28 columns, capitals, and bases. Another theory would imagine that the ship was not delivering a ‘flat-pack’ church to be set up somewhere in North Africa, but rather bringing assorted architectural elements to some central location like Ravenna, a city in northern Italy that saw a huge burst of church building in the first half of the sixth century.

One element that is more commonly seen in Ravenna’s architecture than that of other early Byzantine churches is the impost block. More decorative than structural and often made of marble, impost blocks sat directly on top of capitals and were often decorated with crosses: “Most of the churches in Ravenna from the fifth century and beyond make use of impost blocks (pulvini), or truncated pyramidal stone blocks placed between each capital and the springing of the arcade. […] Ravenna’s buildings are often cited as the earliest examples of using impost blocks in the west” (Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity, 17-18).

It remains to be seen whether we have impost blocks on the Marzamemi wreck. We certainly have more capitals than Kapitän accounted for in his publications, but some of them are quite eroded; could some of these be impost blocks? If they are, does that point to Ravenna as a likely destination for the ship? Would their absence argue against an affiliation with Ravenna? In this case, specific architectural elements among our finds may help us determine a destination for our ship’s cargo.


10 July 2016

                            Sydney and Leila creating artifact drawings 

                                 Sydney checking the PH of the water


When picturing an archaeological underwater project it is easy to imagine constant diving and a perpetual flow of large important artifacts. But this is not the case. Part of the day is indeed spent underwater excavating, but a large portion of the time is also spent on land.

Although the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project consists of a large group of divers, not every participant dives. Being one of the select few project members that stays dry, I have an opportunity to see more of the artifacts that come from the site. In the morning when the first group of divers leave, the second group and the non-divers head off to Rudinì. At Rudinì artifacts are sorted, registered, photographed, drawn, and desalinated, along with many other ways of preserving and recording them.

The Rudinì group typically begins with finishing any remaining registration of the previous day's artifacts. After that some work on cataloguing, photography, and drawing of select artifacts with diagnostic features; others work on organizing photos, scanning drawings, and entering data into the computer. 

After the second group of divers head off and before the first group returns to Rudinì for similar tasks related to the morning’s discoveries, the non-divers get to work, focusing on the conservation process. During this time I check the salinity of the storage tanks using a TDS (total dissolved solids) meter. The TDS meter can be used to tell if an object is releasing salts, and if the water needs to be changed; it is a critical tool to the conservation process. If an artifact is insufficiently desalinated before being removed from water, the salts in the object absorb and release ambient moisture in a perpetual cycle, compromising the stability of the object.

The desalination process involves a cycle of changing the water in the tanks to ensure the artifacts desalinate continuously. If the water does not get changed regularly and becomes too saline, the artifacts will not release additional salts and may begin to reabsorb salt back from the water. Changing the water constantly has additional benefits. Artifacts brought to Rudinì often have a variety of sea life growing on them (sponges, corals, seaweed, etc.). Upon immersion in fresh water, the marine life dies off, causing the tanks and artifacts to smell. Gentle cleaning of the marine life helps reduce these unpleasant odors.

Since there are many tanks of various sizes filled with artifacts and water all over Rudinì, mosquitoes quickly become a problem. The mosquitoes love that we have set up mini breeding ponds for them all over the place. While mosquito bites are an inevitable consequence of work at Rudinì, we use mosquito pellets that control larvae development, but do not harm the artifacts. 

Although diving is a large component of this project, staying high and dry is just as crucial as excavating under the sea. Although I may not be the one to discover the artifacts underwater, I am fortunate to help with the next stage of the process. My days at Rudinì have given me the chance to experience more of the behind-the-scenes work done on excavation and I can see the artifacts through to the next stage of their role in telling the story of the shipwreck.



8 July 2016

                     Calantha and Justin working through the edge of a square   

                                        Calantha bagging a new find 

Crustacean:  Noun- An anthropod from the group (mostly aquatic) crustacea such as a crab, lobster, shrimp or barnacle.

Adj- Relating to or denoting crustaceans. 


Concretion:  Stone-like encrusted clump/conglomerate created by natural elements around an artifact.


After my first dive on the Marzamemi II wreck, my eagerness to share first impressions of this much-anticipated morning quickly became the basis for an irritating confusion of words. Both crustaceans and concretions are regular sights on this excavation, but they are far from interchangeable words. It is possible that had I not made that initial mistake, I would have had no trouble remembering the word ‘concretion’. Alas, ‘crustacean’ was implanted into my mind, but after many days of good-hearted mockery and two Google definitions, the distinction between these two phonetically similar words has finally sunk in and I’m happily mapping nail concretions while looking for crustaceans in my pasta. 

Despite this rather embarrassing introduction I provided of my less than admirable language skills, the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project has exceeded all my expectations. Although I have studied archaeology at an undergraduate level for three years, this is my first fieldwork experience. I’m probably biased, but I think that the Marzamemi wreck offers an ideal introduction to underwater archaeology. The site’s depth of about eight meters provides an environment where you feel adequately submerged (i.e. you feel like you’re diving and not just using SCUBA in order to keep your head underwater for as long as possible), but you can stay below for nearly as long as the air in your tank allows and remain a safe distance to the surface in case of emergency. There has definitely been a learning curve for all of the new techniques of working underwater (if ‘work’ is even the proper term for the excitement of what we do), but the experienced members of the team have made the process more than manageable. Everyone is suspiciously understanding and patient, even when you don’t seem to be getting any better at removing and donning your fins. I can only imagine the complexity of incorporating students into this underwater environment of concretions and crustaceans, but am certainly enjoying the learning experience.  



5 July 2016

 Green breccia columns in the 'Little Hagia Sophia Mosque', Istanbul

A reconstructed ambo, possibly originally from Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

 A piece of worked green marble raised from the 'church wreck', 2016

Of the many different types of artifacts recovered from the site, one of the most interesting, in my opinion, are the myriad pieces of green stone raised over the last several field seasons along with those discovered by Gerhard Kapitän decades ago. Indeed, among the smaller artifacts uncovered from the seabed on a daily basis, the small green fragments are possibly the most numerous of individual finds. Ranging from dense, darker chunks to lighter, more friable sea-green conglomerations, the fragments come to us in various stages of preservation. In truth, ‘marble’ is a bit of a misnomer for this material, as the ‘green marble’, also known as verde antico, is actually a composite stone breccia, also known as ophicalcite. Most examples are composed from dark green serpentine mixed with calcite, dolomite, and magnesite.

Though it had been used architecturally at least since the 1st century CE, this green ‘marble’ became a popular decorative choice in the Roman Imperial era and found wide appreciation by later Roman and Byzantine builders. We are told much was quarried from one or several sources in the coastal area of Thessaly in what is today northern Greece. The stone was used especially by the 4th century CE in numerous liturgical buildings constructed by the Christian emperor Constantine the Great, and would come to embody through a polychromatic palette the ideas of Roman luxury, wealth, and power for both religious as well as secular monumental architecture erected across the Roman world. A well-known instance of the use of such stone can be found in Justinian’s splendid and colorful Hagia Sophia, built in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the third decade of the 6th century CE. The interior walls and central doorways of the basilica were adorned with green revetment as well as with decorative columns in the same material. Interior columns of verde antico can be found in another nearly contemporaneous church in Istanbul, formerly known as the Church of the Saints Servius and Bacchus, but now generally referred to as the Little Hagia Sophia Mosque. The presence of this green stone, alongside other polychrome materials was described by authors such as Procopius and Paul the Silentiary as creating for the viewer a verdant architectural scene that mimicked indoors the radiant splendor of nature.

It is no surprise, then, that we have found this stone on the ‘Church’ Wreck; we can imagine the choice to use green marble elements in the decoration of the church or churches towards whose construction our architectural pieces were destined to contribute, aimed to create a liturgical ambiance and ideological themes similar to those imparted to the viewers of Hagia Sophia and other churches dating to or around the reign of Justinian. When Gerhard Kapitän first excavated at Marzamemi in the 1960s he recovered and documented a sizable amount of this composite breccia including large decorated slabs and panels, as well as a decorative column, all of which he concluded were part of an ambo, or speaker’s platform. This would have been situated on the longitudinal axis of the nave in front of the choir screens. In recent field seasons, our team has uncovered two large decorated panels of green marble, which were likely also once destined to form part of the ambo. Though all may be part of the larger ambo assemblage, the sheer quantity of undiagnostic green marble fragments recovered on the site may speak for other architectural elements of verde antico aboard the ill-fated ship. It may have been the intention of the architect of the church to adorn the interior walls with other elements in green marble or to erect columns in the material, as in other contemporary churches. These or other possible uses for the visually diverse composite stone remain hidden in the mystery of thousands of tiny fragments of green breccia. But that’s why we keep digging. 


3 July 2016 

An impromptu day off last Friday as a result of too heavy winds from the wrong direction led to a wonderful day new sights. My companions and I decided to quench our thirst for adventure by visiting the city within the hills. The bus drove us from Pachino through the rolling countryside, past vineyards and orchards bearing golden-yellow lemons, and up into the baroque city of Noto, a UNESCO World Heritage site. What a beautiful place! Cobblestones, tourists and vendors lined the streets, coupled with restaurants, bars and gelaterias all tempting our eyes. We took picture after picture of piazzas and churches as we enjoyed the beautiful sounds that filled our ears. Carol, Erin and I took our time enjoying paintings and little shops; we practiced our Italian with a wonderful shop owner who was very patient with our limited (i.e. poor) Italian. In an attempt to find our fellow adventurers we asked a local waitress, “Dove cattedrale?” but still ended up walking through the same square twice, not that we minded considering the beautiful and ornate baroque architecture. Statues decorated the underside of several balconies lining side streets; their features and expressions were so beautifully crafted. We were able to appreciate the art and architecture that is so amazingly preserved and different from our own North American buildings.


                                            Monument of the fallen sons of WW1                                                                                                   Heading downtown through the beautiful streets

With empty stomachs and hungry hearts for Italian culture, Carol and I ended up at Cafe Noir, where our waitress Marianella aided in our language practice and brought us panini con salumi. I enjoyed glass of the local Nero d’Avola wine that was delightfully refreshing and strong. We talked with the locals and a woman set birds on our shoulders. Before heading to the cattedrale we took a break beneath the city’s touching monument to the fallen sons of the WWI (ai suoi figli caduti nelle grande guerra). It was a nice moment to appreciate how other cultures remember and honour a loss we share in North America. And we were reminded of Latin class by the S.P.Q.N. (Senate and People of Noto) inscriptions on buildings and monuments , a symbol civic pride in antiquity and today)


                                     Carol and Aileen at lunch                                                                      Sicilian baroque balcony                                            Cattedrale di Noto, La Chiesa Madre di San Nicolo

We ended our time in Noto by touring the cathedral and meeting up with our group to catch the late afternoon bus (not before buying a supply of wine and chocolate). If you're ever in Sicily, Noto is a place not to miss! 


25 June 2016


    Carol and Aileen during their dry suit checkout dives

                  Aileen and Megan on the dredge 

Going from diving in familiar water to conditions that you’ve absolutely never experienced is interesting in the most amazing of ways. I only learned to dive in January of this year and the last six months have been some of the most enjoyable of my university career. Diving isn’t something you can fully explain to someone – all people have their own experiences.

I started diving in Canada in a very cold January. Initially my check out dives for the Open Water and Advanced Open Water courses were scheduled for Victoria Day weekend (May 24), but I worried that this wouldn’t allow sufficient time for me to finish my certifications in time to leave for Marzamemi. In order to do the dives sooner, Aileen and I opted for the dry suit option with the course, and so we completed our checkout dives on May 2-3. These dives were still very cold even with the dry suits, hoods, and gloves, and the six of us in the course alternated between freezing at the bottom of Lake Ontario (47 degrees Fahrenheit!) to overheating on the boat.

This kind of diving was challenging in many ways, forcing us to learn how to dive correctly while wearing a dry suit. We learned firsthand about the various challenges of dry suit diving: the key ones we faced were too much air in the suit and air in our feet, at one point causing me to ascend feet first to the surface. Now I’m in Italy, diving in salt water in a wetsuit, and the changes I’ve had to make to my diving practices have been dramatic. Not only is the water (and air!) temperature much different from what I’m used to, but also I had to learn buoyancy control all over again. Fortunately our checkout dives with Matteo at El Cachalote helped me to sort out these issues before I began archaeological work. We practiced moving in the water with only breathing (and slight inflation or deflation of the BCD if we needed it) and did a few drills in equipment recovery and air emergencies. 

Now that I’ve begun work on the site, I’m thrilled to see how my diving skills have developed. I may still not be the most graceful of divers, but now I can go down to the seabed and take off my fins without disturbing the site; I’ve been working on my swimming at depth without fins on, and I’m starting to master hopping between (actual) rocks across the wreck. I have learned to take measurements, use a dredge, and identify artifacts underwater; I’m thrilled by how quickly I’ve been able to dive into working.





19 June 2016

Polished marble surfaces in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

             Degraded gray marble from the site.

As I descend to the Marzamemi site for the first time, what looks like a web of tubes and divers gently waving with the current finally comes into focus.  Sprawled across the sea floor is a maze of excavation equipment, grid lines, and divers clustered several crates filled with rocks.  Justin, my professor (and dive partner for the day) points at some of them and indicates that the crates are for “good rocks” and “bad rocks.”  I nod my head, but at first glance, it’s a mystery to me which one is which.

Many of the artifacts we raise from the site look like ordinary rocks: fist-sized chunks of marble, miniscule pieces of black charcoal, and ancient pieces of metal that have transformed into concretions over the last millennia.  While we have accumulated a collection of larger slabs of marble, the majority of artifacts we find on a daily basis are smaller fragments of precious stone.  Sorting rocks is a common task for archaeologists under the water.  Those who have been working on this site for the past few years jokingly refer to this as a game called “Good rock or bad rock?”  As its title suggests, the objective of the game is to determine which rocks are actually pieces of marble from the shipwreck (the “good rocks”) and which are simply part of the endless array of rocks on the sea floor (the “bad rocks”).  The good rocks are put into individual bags with tags and carried to the surface to be further examined; the bad rocks are tossed into a crate to be discarded in one of the spoil piles on the periphery of the site.

The rules of the game are easier said than done.  Over years and years of being subjected to a high salinity environment and varying water movement, most of the marbles’ exteriors have degraded.  Many of the pieces we raise have coarse, permeable surfaces (Picture 1), rather than smooth, polished ones in churches like the Hagia Sophia (Picture 2).  Some are so eroded that the only way to determine whether they are indeed “good rocks” is to crack off a tip and take a look inside.  The process requires careful attention underwater, especially when some of the rocks are only an inch or two long.  A fingernail-sized piece of marble may not tell us much about the shipwreck by itself, but by continuing to collect even the smallest fragments of stone, we hope eventually to be able to answer questions about the ship’s carrying capacity in the Mediterranean world.






8 June 2016

Take a look at our new equipment tents, built to store all of our summer gear.

   Tomas and Raffaele work with the dredge to remove winter overburden.

A volunteer on the project, I came early to help with some preseason setup. Xila picked me up at the Catania airport and we hit the road to Marzamemi. On the way, I was surprised at how similar the landscape and vegetation of Sicily is to certain parts of Mexico, where I live: the Nopal cactus, bougainvillea, and the palm trees. Only the olive trees are unusual for me.

Growing up in Mexico, I was always interested in archeology, but never had a chance to get to know what it really meant, until now. I am excited to learn about archaeology alongside diving, a hobby of mine that I practice at home in Yucatán. Coming from the tropical waters of Yucatán, I had no idea how cold the water would be here (currently between 19 and 20 °C); I’ve been told it will get warmer slowly but surely. Thanks to an extra wetsuit from our newly constructed equipment tent, I have been able to get used to the temperature.

To me the site looks like a valley full of sand surrounded by rocks with columns scattered here and there. As an architect, I have been surprised by how precise archeology is, with as careful measurements needed for eroded columns as for new buildings with sharp angles and edges. I am starting to understand the complexity of the excavation’s methodology, discipline, and logistics and am enjoying the experience so far.


4 June 2016


                          Raffaele secures a datum stake.

                                 Tiziana labels datum J.

Many hours of planning and preparation precede the first shovel strike on an archaeological site—or in our case, before the first dredge hits the sand. For the past few days, we have been inspecting, setting up, and preparing the excavation area. We began by securing the mooring for our boat. After that critical first step we were able to look over the site for the first time this year. Many things can happen on the seabed over the course of a winter that affect how a site looks. These might include coral and plant growth, shifting rocks, or unexpected looting. Fortunately, with the exception of shifting sands and some algae growth on object labels, we did not see any drastic changes to the site.

We began by locating the iron stakes left on the site at the end of last season, including datum points and grid line markers. Shockingly, all survived the Mediterranean winter storms unscathed. With only a few hammer strokes to secure them, the datum stakes were ready for use. On our past few dives we cleaned and labeled the datum points and prepared them for measuring; the next step is to measure them in. Already we are making exciting progress!


1 June 2016

                       Xila, Tiziana, and Massimo prepare hose clamps

Season 4 at Marzamemi is off to a great start—at least for the few early arrivals! After sleeping off the jet lag, we started taking stock of our gear and equipment. Much of the day was spent greeting old friends, organizing our supplies, and going over the plan for our first dive of the season. There is a lot to prepare before we can begin excavating—and not just for the site. We are airing out our accommodations and setting up our work areas. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but look forward to seeing the site tomorrow and getting started on our fourth year in the field.


01 November 2015

Congratulations to Marie Miller! Marie presented her work at Stanford’s “Symposium of Undergraduate Research and Public Service.” Her poster derived from her honors thesis and was based on her fieldwork and digital modeling at Marzamemi. A quick blog on here work can be found here

24 July 2015

    Mosaic floor at Cappella Palatina, Palermo, with 'green marble'

             Cathedral of Monreale, slightly uneven columns


With five weeks of excavation at Marzamemi behind me, my perspective on church architecture (among other things, like teamwork, sunscreen, and gelato) has changed drastically. After the project I spent a few days traveling around Sicily, where I took in Baroque architecture in Ragusa, Greek temples in Siracusa, and finally the many architectural traditions of Palermo, with its polyglot, multicultural Norman structures.

The gold-mosaic-covered interiors of the Cappella Palatina and Cathedral of Monreale were especially striking to me, with my newly acquired eye for luxury church materials. After registering hundreds of fragments of verde antico from the site, it was breathtaking to see the finished products in church settings. 

One thing that I kept noticing, which I probably wouldn’t have before the excavation, was the uneven sizes and heights of the columns. Column standardization (between churches and within the same church) is a big question at Marzamemi: if this ship was carrying one complete church, can the sizes of columns and capitals vary?

Primed from the excavation, I took to the Norman structures with keen attention to detail, so the fact that the columns and capitals were spolia, or plunder from other structures, did not escape me. I was able to appreciate the buildings as the testament to Norman power that they are. After Marzamemi, the details of the columns were as striking to me as the gold covering the ceilings and walls. 

This juxtaposition of big and the small—the overall marvel of a chapel in its golden finished form, and the slight differences in height or width or coloration of two columns—also reflects the Marzamemi excavation experience. For me, it was just as much about the simple joy of registering artifacts, entering data (and even punching holes in plastic bags), as it was about finding beautiful objects underwater or cleaning their concreted surfaces to discover their shapes. I loved drawing artifacts and making discoveries, but I also loved working alongside everyone else as a tiny piece of the functional machine of the dig. 

Like the minute details of plundered Corinthian capitals at the Cappella Palatina—one more subtle message to the viewer that the Normans are not to be trifled with—every little act of the Marzamemi team counts. That's what I took away from my dig experience, and I couldn't be more grateful to have played my part.




22 July 2015


Hold your breath. Don’t move. Hover mid-water.

In a moment the person working in front of you will breathe out just right. The bubbles will drift to just above her. The people around will be in the perfect positions. Stay steady, pull the lever, take the photo. 

Underwater we deal with some factors that are not encountered with photography on land. If we rely on the camera’s auto settings, we get a murky blue photo with a lot of noise. While Photoshop might help, it cannot work magic. Most color is absorbed as it travels underwater. Shorter wavelengths (reds, oranges, yellows) are absorbed first. We aren’t very deep but we still have problems with color absorption. With a lot of playing with the aperture, white balance, and ISO settings, we can take photos that have colors similar to those we actually see underwater. 

But the settings aren’t enough. A good photo is much more than color and underwater photos come with some considerations. What do viewers expect to see in a picture taken underwater? Bubbles and blue water. It sounds funny, but it is surprising how much more appealing photos appear with those two things. It’s what we expect to see. When shooting and editing photos, I look for these in the frame. 

Then comes the human factor. Our site is an active archaeological environment that we try to document with pretty and accurate photos. There is a balance between creating a photo record of the site itself and of archaeological work. Sometimes these goals contradict one another. While photos may be my primary concern, not everyone can change their tasks to be in just the right spot at just the right time. It falls to the photographer to find the right moment, to get the right focus, and to stay out of the way as work carries on. 

When looking for the perfect photo, I need a clear view of an archaeologist at work. This can be a challenge when the act of dredging raises a cloud of sand and silt. I like to be able to see bodies and feet. I want bubbles to be clear of the diver’s face but still in the photo. Normally I want a person working, columns and dredges all around, and additional team members in the background: full bodies visible, but not blocking the frame. Multiple levels are important. Flat bodies, prone on the seabed, with a bunch of low objects do not make for dynamic photos. 

At the end of the day, I want a photo that shows we are working underwater, on an archaeological site, hammering, measuring, and dredging around cool ancient artifacts. But the reality is that normally I get heads between columns with bums in the air; flails as people dodge floating hoses, flying rock baskets, and roving tape measures; and all degrees of general awkwardness. 

Enjoy some of my favorite awkward but beautiful moments. 



       In the previous moment, May had been helping on the seafloor        A balloon with legs? Or legs with a balloon body?                                                Liz mid-dash 


     Justin demonstrating 'starfish' pose                                May... her special skill is awkward underwater photos                           Lindsay, always photo ready, but look closely for the three others                            


21 July 2015

                         Tiziana working in a delicate area

                            Raising the finds for the day

When weren’t fighting off menacing bristle worms or tiresome dive buddies underwater, members of the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project spent a lot of time thinking about one seemingly simple question: in what part of the ship are we working? Perhaps it goes without saying that one of the crucial processes of archaeological fieldwork is identifying exactly what you are looking at. Believe it or not, this process can be far more difficult than it may seem.

The Marzamemi II site is very dynamic. Most of the shipwreck and the entirety of the current excavation grid are located in a natural depression on the seabed. Steep reef walls border this quasi-canyon, and ceramic sherds, architectural elements, metal concretions, marble fragments, and all sorts of other artifacts are all spread out within. While excavating, we experience the moving power of the sea regularly, and areas that were cleared of sand on one dive can be covered by several centimeters of loose sand overnight; last winter alone more than 50 cm of sand buried the mesh laid down to protect the excavated site. In short, whether because of the nature of the deposition process, natural or human post-depositional disturbances, or a combination, the Marzamemi II shipwreck looks very different today from its appearance in the 6th century C.E. It has been churned by time and spread across a wide swath of the underwater landscape. Though we have seen many nails, to this point, we have not uncovered preserved wooden hull remains that demarcate the ship’s original orientation on the sea floor.

So where do we go from here? How can we begin to decipher the layout of the shipwreck? One path toward an answer might be the relative positions of cargo, galley wares, and personal possessions of the crew. The first indication of whether an object was used onboard a ship may be signs of use. If we discover a cooking vessel with clear burn marks, we might assume it was used by the crew or passengers. The number of a particular object type may also be an indication of its function on the ship. If we find hundreds of amphoras, for example, we might suppose they are part of a bulk wine cargo, but a single jar of a less common type, a set of four plates, or an inscribed steelyard are less likely to be cargo. The relative position of objects may also provide some indications about their use. If we find cooking vessels, tiles, tools, and other personal items in one area of the ship, we might imagine this to be the ship’s galley.

Of course, there are complications with a strict divide between cargo and personal belongings. The crew may use the same products they are delivering while onboard. They may have drank the same wine they carried for sale or reused the same jars for a different purpose. Likewise, even personal items were surely sold at some point.

At Marzamemi, we are curious to understand the layout of what must have been a massive ship and to understand how it was deposited on the seafloor. In my excavation unit, we found an assortment of artifacts including a large piece of the green marble ambo (a central architectural piece for a church and clearly valuable cargo item unless we are talking about some really heavy travelers!). Nearby, lie large iron concretions (probably associated with the ship’s construction or onboard tools), and a number of ceramic lids that may have capped a liquid cargo or open amphoras used by the ship’s crew at sea. One lid was found directly on top of the ambo. What single area of the ship would have held these varied goods? Does their position speak for the ship’s original lading? Or has the dynamic sea created an enigmatic jumble? Further excavation may provide more evidence as each excavation area offers tantalizing clues to the layout of the stone carrying ship that foundered off the coast of Sicily.



20 July 2015

 Looking down the main museum display area

          Repurposed artifact storage area 

The Marzamemi project conserves, analyzes, and stores its artifacts in the Palmento di Rudinì, a recently restored 19th century winery on a bluff above the town. We work in the rear section, among plastered wine vats and perched over the building’s cavernous heating and storage tunnels. The rest of Rudinì has been turned into a museum and public gathering space for Marzamemi and neighboring Pachino.

Rudinì is a jarring study in contrasts. In the meeting hall, a seven-foot tall industrial film projector stands near the rear, facing away from an oversized modern projector screen which hangs, lacking a digital projector, behind the stage. The office’s massive, burnished couches curve empty across the floor like plush leather millipedes, but face rusting folding tables. In the main hall, more than thirty feet tall, papier-mâché models of Marzamemi and a small antique cannon lead visitors into a towering single isle where 19th-century olive presses and plows sit alongside Fascist grenades and chunks of Greek stonework. A few objects sport bronze plaques or multi-page descriptions, while many sit anonymous alongside.

To an American used not only to scripted, tailored, and artful displays but also to consistent messaging, Rudinì feels at first a bit awkward. Steeped in the expectation that a museum have a theme, and that its exhibitions deliver a carefully crafted thesis, we’re baffled by Rudinì’s seemingly haphazard collection of old things. The whole hulking building feels like a Victorian curio cabinet reflecting centuries of casual accumulation. But, after spending several weeks laboring and wandering in Rudinì, I’ve come to see the museum in a new light, as a space dedicated to crafting community for its small town.

Rudinì tells the story of Marzamemi not by creating focused narratives or selecting particular historical moments as especially informative or grand, but rather by letting the visitor experience the detritus of life as it was lived. The artifacts are made dynamic and relevant by their casual juxtaposition; the visitor sees them as they would have been seen – as unsurprising and unexceptional tools that formed the physical culture of their times. Their interstices show the fabric of Marzamemi’s local culture, setting it humbly apart from its neighbors. It’s a charming and successful space, and I hope it continues to draw growing numbers of visitors, both local and foreign.



16 July 2015

 6th-century ciborium,Poreč, Croatia  photo via orthodoxartsjournal

When he excavated at Marzamemi fifty years ago, Gerhard Kapitän found elements of Byzantine church architecture. Along with columns, capitals, bases, and an ambo, he also described a ciborium. Having just completed a course at Stanford on medieval art and architecture, I wondered which elements of this structure he found. The ciborium was a roofed structure or canopy upheld by small columns (though it could also be a more temporary construction made of wood or the like), under which would be the altar; it protected important objects and people. 

What should we expect to find in an early 6th-century ciborium? Because it housed the altar, the ciborium had considerable liturgical significance as a place where sacred energy was gathered during ceremonies like the Eucharist. For this reason, in a cargo with a finely carved green marble ambo, we should expect a similarly ornate ciborium. According the Paul the Silentiary, the (now lost) ciborium of the Hagia Sophia was an “indescribable tower” held up by silver columns. If the Marzamemi ciborium was made of precious metal, perhaps it was salvaged in antiquity or later times.

Among our best surviving examples of a 6th-century ciborium is in Poreč, Croatia. The Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč still preserves the marble columns of its early ciborium. The basilica was made from Proconnesian marble, much like the cargo of the Marzamemi II wreck. Its columns are polished and veined and support a 13th-century mosaic decorated canopy on top of Corinthian capitals. If the “Church Wreck” was carrying the parts of a complete basilica, we should have at least four matching small columns, and perhaps some paneling or other roof decoration for the structure (later ciboria have mosaics or carved marble on display above the altar). How does this compare to Kapitän’s ciborium?

In his 1969 article in Archaeology (22.2: 122-133) Kapitän identified a small, thin column on top of a pilaster as belonging to the ciborium. He appears to have only found the one. As Kapitän describes (128), “We…found a monolithic fragment of the transitional portion of a pillar topped by a column. This pillar is of a smaller size, so it cannot belong to the choir screen but probably belongs to one of the four supports of a ciborium roofing the altar. Of this element of the architecture, only a few pieces have been found.” Kapitän also notes, “A little marble column of a smaller diameter than those of the choir screens, but likewise topped by a cubical capital, may be one of the supports of the altar slab, if it is not a fragment of the candelabrum sacrum.” In other words, Kapitän associated the columns and capitals that were too small and perhaps too ornate to be part of the external structural with the more liturgically significant elements of ciborium and altar slab, used to hold up or house the altar. 

Since Kapitän only found one small ornamented column, it’s unclear whether a whole ciborium was among our shipwreck’s cargo (unlike the ambo, the ciborium did not survive well enough for Kapitan to reconstruct it). The columns of Poreč’s basilica are not the same shape as Kapitän’s “ciborium column”; they have smooth polished surfaces and Corinthian capitals, as opposed to the pilaster-column structure identified at Marzamemi. The evidence for Kapitän’s theory that the wreck was carrying the complete elements of one church may fall a bit short in terms of the ciborium—where are the other three columns? Surely they would match in an important, imperially contracted basilica. It remains unclear whether Kapitän’s column really did belong to a ciborium. But now I’m always looking for those other three pillar columns on the site.


Kapitän, G. 1969. “The Church Wreck of Marzamemi.” Archaeology 22.2: 122-133.

15 July 2015

             Liz carefully hammering free a rock covering a column  

Lindsay exploring her square after being out of the water for a while 

   Xila gathering information for the raising of the marble artifacts 

Descending down, down, down, you stretch out your arms and the world passes in seeming slow motion around you. A low ‘blub blub blub’ echoes in your ears as the bubbles flow from your regulator. You grasp your target, a cinder block on the ocean floor. Rotating your shoulder you flip your entire body vertically over the block and come to rest on the sand below in one fluid motion, an acrobatic feat impossible in the world above. You doff your fins, stash them beneath the block, and rise to your feet. Crouching, you push off the sea bed and in a single bound effortlessly glide 20 feet over rope and dredge tubing and into your excavation area to begin work. This process, though foreign at first, becomes strangely natural as you repeat it day in and day out.

In this world you are, indeed, beyond human. With your gear on, the ocean is your realm; you are Neptune, or Triton, or even a Hercules of the sea. An enormous rock obstructing further excavation? No problem. What would take a team of undergrads to lift on land can be conquered by you alone with the aid of only a small bag of your own exhaled air. Singlehandedly, you are able to guide the 50 kg rock from your excavation square to the spoil pile. You need no trowel to move sand, but only to flick your wrists, as the force you create dislodges the upper strata of the seabed and reveals its hidden mysteries. Truly, the accustomed boundaries of physics you have experienced for most of your life above no longer constrain you here. Despite the addition of over 20 kg of gear and lead, you are agile, swift, and, with fins on, able to dart across the site or between datum points for precise measuring with a few quick pumps of your legs, as if your ScubaPros were Mercury’s winged sandals. This ‘flight’ affords you the opportunity to operate wholly in three dimensions, facilitating quick and efficient work as you sail over or under obstacles and people, as opposed to having to always go around them. Or, if you are our conservator, Asaf, you make use of this ability to regularly perform backflips, handstands, and other dazzling feats as though competing for an Olympic medal in underwater gymnastics. When a suspiciously marble-esque rock presents itself—as is often the case—you can simply remove it, take up your mighty 3 kg sledge and smite (a tiny corner of) it like Vulcan at his fiery forge. Should the gleam of marble present itself, you tag and bag your new gem and stash it safely away in your basket like Pluto hoarding his subterranean treasures.

I’m running out of deity metaphors and though I won’t call upon the rest of the Roman pantheon, gods of lightning, war, or beauty (though we all of course look dashing in our scuba masks and hoods!), I think you get the point. There is nothing like being able to circumvent the restrictions the laws of nature have placed on you in the above world, and equally nothing like being able to apply these new talents to specific tasks. The resulting psychological boost, as you may have gathered from the analogies above, can spark a feeling sometimes bordering on hubris. Yet as the stories of Tantalus, Icarus, and others from the ancient world remind us, we must be ever wary of such a feeling. And, though I have yet to experience the wrath of any gods while traversing the subaquatic world (let's hope I didn't just jinx it), the occasional slip, stumble, or underwater flail (which of course always happens when others are looking your way) quickly returns some humility and reminds us that even though we may be more powerful here in this underwater realm, we remain far from infallible.



14 July 2015

                    Ken and crew exploring Ragusa on a day off

                                     Working away on site


It was with a very heavy heart that I left Marzamemi after a month of participation in the project to return to my other life. At the risk of sounding cliché, it was truly a magical experience for me, and I think about it every day and smile, though with a touch of sadness that I cannot still be there with the team. I cannot in fairness feel too sorry for myself, I keep reminding myself, because I have managed to make my double life work, and I cannot help but feel very lucky and even a bit privileged in that. So perhaps this blog entry will serve as a bit of therapy and help me focus more on how lucky I am, and less on how much I am missing the Marzamemi project.

When people ask me what I do, I always answer that I have two lives. I tell them that, for money (and I might even say “filthy lucre”, depending on the mood), I sell software, and that my education is in the Ancient World and nautical archaeology, and I indulge that passion every year as well. This is not at all what they are expecting to hear, in the business world where I spend 90% of my time. It is amusing to surprise and intrigue people, when they have tossed out the question automatically with no real interest in the commonplace response they expect will follow. You may not be surprised to learn that the ensuing conversations rarely touch on software.

So I am pretty atypical in the business world. And yet I do not fit the mold of the academic world, either, where I lived for quite a number of years. Most people go to grad school, at least in the Liberal Arts, with the idea of pursuing an academic career. I went to grad school (twice) to learn more about the subjects that most interested me, Roman history and nautical archaeology, but with no plan to make my career in academia. And frankly, my early teaching experiences as a Princeton grad student reinforced my disinclination to go that route. I found that I enjoyed teaching the relatively small percentage of the undergraduates in the classes that were actually interested in the subject matter, but that the majority, who were just there to fulfill an area requirement for their degree, were a bit of a drain on my own energy and enthusiasm. While working on my dissertation, these were the last things I needed to lose. I’m sure others, with more of a gift for teaching, relish the challenge of reaching those more distant minds and drawing them in, and derive great satisfaction therefrom, but it just wasn’t for me.

So I completed my training and struck out into the business world, in complete ignorance, really, of how life outside the Academy works. The transition was not easy, but through a series of accidents, and no doubt aided by some transferable life skills honed as a scholar, I have landed in a very comfortable place. My “other life” I think helps me in business, which is after all largely about relationships, when people are interested in something they don’t hear about every day. And by maintaining the contacts I made in graduate school and on field projects, and joining the board of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology [hyperlink:], I have been able to remain involved in archaeology, and to continue to participate personally on field projects. It was an unusual path, this double life, but not one, I believe, that others could not follow. If an academic career does not happen for someone, or is not their dream, they can still find ways to be involved in the academic pursuits of their choice.

So what made the Marzamemi project magical for me this year? One of the many things is a bit ironic, perhaps, in light of what I said above about teaching undergraduates. This is the first under water project in which I have ever participated that includes undergraduate students, and they bring an enthusiasm and joy in discovery that is infectious. I am in a different place in life now than I was as a grad student, and a few of these students are exactly my daughter’s age; they could be members of her posse I have watched grow up around the house. I realize now that I am more open to their perspective than I was willing to be 20 years ago, and more appreciative of the privilege of sharing in their wonder in new discoveries. How funny to come full circle, and find so much joy now in teaching!



12 July 2015

                                          Max with Elise - Play time in 3..2..1

                                                             The in-field school yard

How many two year olds does it take to get a room full of adults hopping and croaking like frogs? A complicated set up, I know, but the answer is simple. One. It takes one two year old to get a room full of adults hopping and croaking like frogs. As long as that two year old has a magic wand (broom handle) that can envelop foes (parents, nanny, passersby) with a special transformative concoction (air). See how simple that is? But here’s where it gets more complicated: the tools themselves make no difference when it comes to this certain power, this magic. What does make a difference is whether the child can tap into their abilities. And that depends on the child being surrounded by people who recognize their magical capabilities and nurture them into fruition. When the magic is encouraged, a slobbery pretzel stick can be wielded with all the grace of a newborn gazelle and adults will still be croaking or meowing or slithering or crawling or whatever else the child has deemed appropriate in a fit of magical inspiration.   

I’m talking about imagination here folks: playing. All kids do it and actually, even the wrinklier, decidedly less cute humans do it too, though it might be argued that they tend to rely on a few beers to get a good session going. So for the sake of brevity, let’s stick to the cute and sober players (not the hiphop use of the word).

Play is absolutely essential for the healthy development of children. It’s how they learn. Play tends to be cooperative, collaborative, and co-created. When engaged in dramatic play, children are able to sense different perspectives through role playing, problem solve and negotiate, and expand their own sensitivities through pretend and real emotional situations that arise. Also, it is So. Much. Fun. Especially when you’re hanging out with a kid who really knows how to play. The kind of kid who can turn a broken broom handle into a wand and transform everyone into frogs. The kind of kid who sees a blue blanket and decides it’s the “deep blue sea” and plunges right in. The kind of kid who makes pancakes out of rocks and is sure to share them with anyone who passes by.  

Lucky for me, as a preschool teacher, aunty, and summer time nanny, I get to hang out with competent players (still not the hiphop use of the word) all the time. But the examples I gave above come specifically from one Max who I have the pleasure of watching while his parents excavate sunken ships off the coast of Sicily. At only a little over two years old, Max hones in on the ordinary things of everyday life and gives them alternate and imaginative purposes. A mint container? Uh, no, that’s a bubble maker. A set of keys? Wands, duh. Pillows? Nope, those are mountains, and watch out because you can get trapped under them faster than you can say “ribbit”.  

So how is Max so skilled in the ways of playing? Is he actually magical? Well, maybe, but I think it has something to do with the point I made all the way up there in the first paragraph. Max is most certainly surrounded by people who have helped to nurture his imagination into something so robust for his age. As a weirdo nanny who likes to use my hands as makeshift but recurring puppets who eat all the berries, I wont deny I have a small role to play in this. But I suspect something else is up. I suspect that the true culprits in the case of Max’s strange and hilarious play are none other than...are you ready for this?...HIS PARENTS. More than once have I walked in on Max and his dad Justin making “bed castles” out of blankets. And it hasn’t been just a few times that I’ve spied Max and his momma Liz making cakes and pies out of thin air...and then jumping into them. How lucky for Max! Not every child has parents who are willing to get a little weird for the sake of imagination.  

And now I wonder, what makes Liz and Justin so able and willing to engage in this kind of play? Maybe they were raised in the same type of playful environment and are paying it forward for their awesome little dude. Or maybe, in a strange way, it has something to do with their profession. When I asked them about imagination in relation to archaeology, Justin and Liz both agreed that the two go hand in hand, though Justin was quick to note that it is, “imagination without fancy.” Ancient objects can’t speak for themselves; it’s up to the archaeologist to tell the stories of the past based on the evidence in front of them. This isn’t my field, so I have no idea just how boring or dry archaeology courses or texts can be, but I’m willing to bet that the teachers who keep students coming back again and again are those that know how to tap into their imaginations and tell stories that people can really sink their teeth into. Perhaps in the same way a two year old can sink his teeth into a slice of air pie while his mom roots him on.  

Whatever the case may be, Max’s imaginative powers are only getting stronger, and Liz and Justin are only helping to strengthen his playing skills and social-emotional development at the same time. Archaeology may rely on imagination without fancy, but Max relies on the imagination of his parents, and asks for it with extra fancy. Justin and Liz would be wise to keep serving it up exactly as they have been; their boy has the power to turn them into frogs, after all.



10 July 2015 

                     Marie measuring in an artifact rich area

                             The ever changing worksite

This is my second year at Marzamemi. Last summer was my first opportunity to excavate a site underwater. Previously, I had worked on a few land sites: mostly colonial and Native American. As much as I loved that work, courses I took about the ancient Mediterranean, the Roman world, and maritime archaeology, led me in a new direction.

The experience last summer exceeded my high expectations. I worked almost nonstop and was exhausted most of the time, but somehow, I never really noticed or cared. Every afternoon I photographed artifacts raised on the morning dives and did a lot of data entry. One of the benefits of photography is that I saw nearly everything that was brought up and, through the camera lens, got to explore the artifacts. 

Such close interaction with the objects underwater and in the lab made me intrigued by the idea of partial prefabrication of the architectural elements on the “Church Wreck”. Back at Stanford, I explored this topic in my Archaeology honors thesis. To gain a better understanding of the artifacts and the stone trade in general, I explored the production of Late Antique marble pieces manufactured and distributed by quarries at Proconnesus, the likely origin of much of the Marzamemi cargo. What I discovered highlighted the importance of this site in particular. It also reinforced my understanding that the finds from this site go beyond any one ship or one aspect of trade, and speak to larger issues of commerce, unification, imperialism and the overall interconnectivity of the Mediterranean. My research also fueled an ever-greater desire to return to the site. Along with my thesis research, I also became interested in the application of digital technologies in archaeology, which I pursued through coursework and independent projects. 

Year two at Marzamemi has been just as fascinating for me as the first year, but in different ways. Coming into this session, I knew more of what expect and also know more about the wreck and its greater context. While my work underwater is more or less the same, my role on land has changed. No longer involved in daily artifact photography, I am less aware of the objects discovered throughout the site. On the other hand, through photography and three-dimensional modeling of particular artifacts discovered since 2013, I’ve had the chance to look more closely at some of the marble elements from the site as we record them for future analysis.

I find myself as excited about this project as I was last year. One of my favorite parts of the day remains the boat trip to the site, about a ten-minute ride from the marina. Some days the water can be so calm the water looks like a mirror. Other days it is so rough that you can almost bounce off your seat. During the ride, I love to contemplate what will happen that day. Although we have a set plan, things can change depending upon what we find. Each day is different; each day has been amazing. 



9 July 2015 


        Rachel building a large desalination tank 

          Laura cleaning with an air scribe

       Rachel fine cleaning a marble panel piece

It’s easy—and exciting—to get wrapped up in romantic notions of maritime archeology and to think no further. Attractive divers descend to the ocean floor to search for ancient artifacts, return with triumphant finds of great importance, conduct research, write articles for peer-reviewed journals, then set up a prominent museum display. Sexy! But what happens in reality when the fragments of recovered marble and ceramic are brought to the surface and suddenly exposed to a very different environment than they have been for centuries? What actions do we take to ensure that the shock of harsh drying air does not reduce our museum display pieces into piles of marble chips? Desalination! The careful removal of soluble salts impregnating recovered artifacts is one of the key conservation techniques that ensure the safe storage and aging of the artifacts recovered.

Depending on their fabric, the recovered artifacts will have absorbed a greater or lesser amount of seawater, and with it various soluble salts. These salts infiltrate the matrix of the material, and if the object is left to dry untreated, the movement of the salts within the fabric could cause the object to degrade and deteriorate, and potentially be destroyed entirely. To remove these salts and mitigate damage, the process of desalination is initiated as soon as the object is removed from the sea floor and brought to the surface. This is usually achieved by keeping objects soaking in baths of water, while taking regular readings of the salinity levels in each bath. As the salts within the objects migrate through the material and into the water, the salinity levels in the baths will rise, indicating that the water must be exchanged for fresh. The salinity readings will eventually plateau, indicating that all the salts able to migrate from the objects have done so, and the object is desalinated and safe for air-drying. In a perfect world, the initial water baths would be of close in salinity to the marine environment; as the water is changed, the salinity would be gradually reduced. This is to ensure that the salts migrating from the objects would not do so rapidly and with force, which could cause damage to the object.

The capacity of a small local museum such as Rudinì to treat and house the multitude of larger and smaller artifacts raised from the Marzamemi II wreck is somewhat limited. In our case, we treat the objects in batches, where objects are sorted by size and material into large bins filled with local tap water. This first step in the desalination process jumps to a much lower degree of salinity than seawater, but the local water sources have a consistently high enough salt content to ensure that the artifacts are not shocked by the change. Salinity readings are taken using a hand-held TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) meter, a device that measures the capacity of ions in an aqueous solution to carry electrical current, and the amounts of dissolved solids (salts) in our desalination tanks. The units used for these measurements are either microSiemens (µS/cm) or milliSiemens (mS/cm), depending on the concentrations found. For example, the local tap water generally has a TDS reading of roughly 500 µS/cm, a number that can easily rise to 2.4 mS/cm when a new batch of amphora body sherds soak over night. Many of the fragments are ready to begin the drying process once they have been brought down to the low salinity levels of the local tap water. However, for objects composed of more delicate or sensitive materials, such as glass, metal, or fine ceramics, further baths in distilled water are necessary to bring the salinity levels of the objects down yet further. Distilled water is used for this, and in our case carries a TDS reading of around 40 µS/cm. Eventually, all the artifacts will be desalinated, dried, and stored away carefully.

All this sounds quite scientific and it is to a degree, but the realities of an assistant field conservator can be anything but clinical, and are as exciting as excavation. Just the other day I had to chase a ferocious pack of (very adorable) puppies away from the lab door in order to hook up the garden hose for refilling artifact baths. How’s that for action and adventure?



7 July 2015 


                           Hoses winding through site 

        May dredging around a column to prepare it to move

       Marie & Nick working through an artifact abundant area

                      Josh working to finish off his square 

Preserving cultural heritage may be important work, but there are still a few moments during any underwater archaeological excavation when you feel downright silly. One of mine came last week when I found myself standing finless on the sea bed and smacking a heavy plastic tube with a hammer. No, this wasn’t just a marine rebellion against the dog days of dig life. Believe it or not, I was fixing something.

The term “excavation” implies removal. At Marzamemi it refers to the careful removal of marine sediment in order to uncover and record artifacts related to our site. But anyone who has ever placed a toe in the sea knows that tossing sand underwater doesn’t yield much progress without specialized equipment. This is where our water dredges come in. They are the life force of the excavation: twisting, heavy, and sometimes annoying, but necessary.

A water dredge works by pumping water through a fire hose into a “y” venturi. Our pumps sit on a fishing boat, carefully guarded by Salvo, one of our many hardworking Sicilian friends. Extending from the pump, a fire hose connects to the venturi underwater. The other two parts of the “y” are “the working end” of the dredge made of thick plastic tubing with a grill on the end, and the exhaust that runs away from the site into a strategically placed spoil heap. The flow of the pumped water causes a Bernoulli effect, creating suction on the working end of the dredge and allowing us to clean away sediment as we excavate. The grill blocks larger objects from entering the system. Sediment and the occasional fireworm are transported through the plastic tube, into the venturi, and out the exhaust. At the end of the day when it is time for Salvo to go home, he disconnects the fire hose from the engine pump and casts it back down into the water away from the site. This means that the first thing we do in the morning is to reconnect the fire hose by tying it to a rope connected to the fishing boat and signaling to Salvo when it is ready (two hard pulls of the rope—I didn’t say it was complicated) to be hoisted back up.

Another tool used in underwater archaeology is an airlift, which serves essentially the same purpose of moving sediment. In this system, air is pumped instead of water, also creating a suction effect. Both dredges and airlifts have advantages and disadvantages. Airlifts require large volumes of compressed air to work effectively at shallow depths and tend to work better in deeper water. Their lighter components (narrow hose and PVC pipe) are lighter and can be more maneuverable; for this reason they might be preferable on delicate sites where archaeologists want to keep their equipment from touching the bottom. Although their components are more expensive, water dredges are effective in shallow water and more portable for use on a fishing boat. Both systems serve as the work horses of underwater excavation.

So why was I smacking this essential device with a hammer? From time to time something goes wrong with the dredge. The most common issues are clogs from small rocks make it through the grill, then change their orientation in the tube and become an obstruction. Often the first solution is to simply whack the hose until the stone is dislodged (not recommended for other archaeological equipment like the computers); if that fails, we dismantle the system, remove the rock, and reassemble. Other times, the exhaust valve becomes buried in sediment, limiting the suction of the working end until it becomes useless. The solution here: dig a hole or prop up the exhaust!

Even with a fully functioning dredge, it takes some time to learn how to excavate with one. The first step is to get the dredge into position. This requires moving the venturi and hoses (ours are tied to cinder blocks on the sea bed) and adjusting their height using attached lift balloons or buckets. There are various different strategies for controlling the dredge while working. Most of the time we hand-fan the sediment into the working edge of the dredge, evenly exposing the stratigraphy below and recovering all artifacts. While the dredge is used like a vacuum cleaner in a sense, we don’t actually stick it into the sand.

It is our destiny as underwater archaeologists to duel with this mechanical kraken. Its yellow and blue tentacles greet us with every descent to the site. And while from time to time it may be temperamental, the water dredge is a critical tool for archaeology under water. 




5 July 2015 


The past few weeks here in Marzamemi have been far more of a culture shock than I expected when I first arrived in Catania. The Sicilians’ insistence on answering their phones regardless of the situation is one reminder of the many small differences between the Sicilian way of life and my own.

The practice of answering the phone seconds after scrambling onto the boat, shielding the phone from spray with one hand, and clutching the boat with the other is a completely ordinary occurrence here.

With so many of these kinds of small cultural differences, I had no idea what I was in for when our colleagues at the dive shop promised to throw us a party for American Independence Day. I can now proudly say that this year’s 4th of July was by far the greatest and strangest of my life. Between what might have been the best burger I have ever eaten grilled right in front of us on the beach, to one of the dive shop employees rocking out with his band, to the general feeling of camaraderie and happiness we all shared after a productive, but exhausting week, it was a night to remember. The highlight of the night for me was listening to the band’s lead singer belt out the lyrics to every American classic under the sun knowing full well that, despite how amazing it all sounded, she did not speak a word of English and had no idea what any of the lyrics meant. It was simultaneously a wonderful example of Sicilian culture in action, a window into how American culture is viewed abroad, and an example of how groups of people can have an amazing night regardless of the language barrier. Now, whenever I stumble upon a new Sicilian behavior, I appreciate it knowing that these little differences make for the most memorable and unexpectedly exciting experiences.




4 July 2015 





Recently, my mountainous southern California hometown experienced a hefty wildfire; more than 17,000 acres burned in a matter of days. Interestingly enough, Sicily is also on fire, though on a much smaller, more constant scale. Italy and California experience similar climates, however dissimilar the cultures may be. For example, “the fire at home” called upon hundreds of firemen working multiple consecutive weeks and a massive base with fire trucks, helicopters, planes, and even some civilian drama with full news coverage. 

On the other hand, a fire in Marzamemi is typically ignored if it’s not a controlled burn in the first place. On more than one occasion, we have been forced to turn our car around to avoid thick smoke and flames creeping across the road, although a true Sicilian might have just driven through it, moped, bare feet, and all. It’s a rare morning to wake up and smell the roses; the more common scent is smoky, like the remnants of a campfire. The boat ride out to the site typically reveals a handful of fires sputtering smoke into the horizon, and blackened patches and tree stumps litter the ground everywhere like red Solo cups after a frat party. 


The first and only time I have seen anti-fire behavior here was when a nearby garbage fire began to consume an adjacent telephone pole. Fire fighters arrived with their water truck—lights flashing and siren sounding—and t-shirts. They directed hoses at the blaze, stomped on some embers, then admired the smoky view for a few minutes before leaving a sodden, smoldering pile of mattresses, water bottles, orphaned shoes, and rotting fruit. All joking aside, the Sicilians seem to have an efficient system figured out where frequent, small controlled burns prevent uncontrolled infrequent infernos like the one that ate an entire side of my mountain. The ecosystem benefits from occasional burning. In any case, I feel perfectly at home here. 




3 July 2015


   Photos of Noto provided by Josh Lappen

During our first day off, several of us caught a bus from the square of Pachino to the Baroque town of Noto. Entirely destroyed by a cataclysmic earthquake in 1693, Noto and several neighboring towns were relocated and rebuilt in Sicilian Baroque style. The town’s golden sandstone buildings climb an abrupt cliff side, looking out across a river valley toward the sea. Noto’s weathered grid of church domes and apartments preserves the aesthetic sensibilities and social ideals of its designers; today, UNESCO and the Italian government continue to preserve not merely the pre-eminent buildings but the town as a unified creation. Viewed from a balcony high on the town’s bluff, Noto’s intentionality is striking, and beautiful. From above, the rooftops reveal none of the chaotic and fractious realities of communal life in an occupied city; they look like a single sprawling villa or a grand Papal complex. Far off across the river valley, though, Noto’s cemetery is visible from the heights, belying the town’s unified façade.

Noto’s cemetery feels like a city in its own right, but where Noto is monolithic, the necropolis is riotously diverse. Scattered, packed, and straining, it displays nearly seven hundred years of uninterrupted occupation. Family tombs – art deco, Greek revival, modernist, and even Baroque miniatures of Noto’s churches – crowd the cemetery walls, jostling for some distinction of height or ostentation. Further in, equally diverse tombstones spread like tropical undergrowth, some even showing renovations to accommodate a second or third occupant. In the last century, several new sections have burst through the original walls like suburbs. From these, the sounds of life reverberate faintly across the hillside – tears, but also laughter, argument, and the hum of new construction. Here the cemetery feels alive, raw, lived-in; bare planks bear family members over open trenches and wet concrete to lay fresh flowers. Children swing from the columbarium railings. Here the cemetery feels in some ways more lived-in, more dynamic and tangible than Noto’s own core.

In the central sections the air is hollower. The imposing monuments are mostly abandoned, filled and sealed, though often hanging open. Picturesque, stereotypical, hair-raising, the utter deadness of these crumbling tombs shows the accretion of centuries of real living. This section, too, reveals something about Noto and city life. Each generation of bereaved builders raised tombs befitting their emotions, ideas, aesthetics, and culture. The weeping angels and streamlined iron flames explain grief, remembrance, and a whole constellation of belief in the popular language of their time. Side-by-side, the visual babble is stunning – kitschy or cosmopolitan – like the layered architecture of most cities but distinctly unlike Noto. The cost of upkeep and dwindling space played a part in driving later generations to different resting places, but so too had new ideas, new art, and new beliefs. Walking through the cemetery was a looping trip through the evolution of Noto’s social dialects, one the city’s own preserved architecture blotted out.

In the cemetery as in the city, builders and dwellers hoped that their occupancy would be permanent. In both cases, they were right – Baroque Noto has a modern population of 24,000, and even the cemetery’s oldest tombs still hold bodies (in some cases visibly so, through cracked stone covers). But social life, not physical residence, is what makes these spaces meaningful and enduring. I found it easy to assume, walking through Noto, that the physical structures and the fact of their occupation defined the city. But Noto’s cemetery reveals social living shifting above physical being, forming patterns driven by cultural norms and new ideas – the tidal gravity of the necropolis’ mirror twin. We’ve preserved Noto as a “late Baroque jewel” not because it’s particularly pretty, which it is, but because it expresses, in monolithic rhetoric, the living social language of its times. Though Noto’s old dialect remains lyrical for its modern residents and visitors, in the cemetery style, aesthetics, and culture have remained fluid over the centuries. With its dynamic cacophony of styles, the necropolis preserves its town’s ability to speak in the modern world. Standing among the rows of graves and looking back across the river to Noto, it was hard not to be swept up in the dynamism of the cemetery’s continuing life.


2 July 2015 


                  Jarrid excavating amoung the artifacts and rocks

                The delicate art of mapping the site underwater

                    Artifact depo full of marble ready to be raised

“I am interested in Roman social history and archaeology, especially of intercultural spaces in the ancient world, and more specifically in areas of Romano-Punic interaction such as Sicily and North Africa.” This is the mouthful of an ‘elevator speech’ I have given over the past few years to explain the areas on which I wished to concentrate, both as an advanced undergraduate and as a new graduate student. One thing I have learned this past year is that these quick synopses of one’s interests are, and should be, fluid in nature, and, despite the necessity of preparing such a spiel, it should not serve as a limiting parameter for one’s study. After accepting this reality, I have come to appreciate opportunities for expanding my horizons, looking at different areas, and applying new skills to topics that interest me.

For example, this past fall at Berkeley I had the opportunity to take a seminar with Ted Peña, an expert on ceramics in the Roman world, where I completed a GIS mapping project of the tituli picti found on amphorae at Pompeii. Though ceramics are invaluable to archaeologists, I had never thought working intensively with them could be anything like ‘fun’. Well, maybe fun isn’t the right word given the frustrations I encountered with deciphering the error-riddled fascicles of CIL IV (A testament to the importance of accurate and thorough archaeological documentation!). Still I found myself enraptured in solving the riddles of these ceramic vessels and their labels. I became immensely curious about the logistics of trade, the way goods were transferred, stored, consumed, and where and by whom, along with the ways these often hastily scrawled symbols adorning the vessels (the tituli picti), or indeed the vessels themselves, may hold the clues to such questions.

I also had the privilege to learn from Carlos Noreña, whose Roman Law seminar taught me the value of using fragmentary legal codes to extrapolate the social situation ‘on the ground’ throughout the Roman world in the Late Republic and Early Principate. Legal codes may be tedious and rhetorically dry to some (don’t tell him I said that!) but they are invaluable for delineating the day-to-day operations of society; legislation derives from necessity and as a reactive force to a recurring problem, whether social, political, or economic in nature. Again, we can learn much about the logistics of economic interaction, shipping, and consumption from these preserved codes and apply this knowledge to archaeological data.

An Iron Age Greece seminar with Kim Shelton (Director of the Nemea Excavations and the Nemea Center for Classical Archaeology was notionally farthest from my stated interests. I’m no Greek archaeologist, and in dealing with any pre-Roman material I am a novice at best. But this seminar too helped me to recognize and analyze recurring trade and economic patterns diachronically and across civilizations.

Here in Marzamemi (you were probably wondering how this would tie in), I have found yet another opportunity to expand my horizons, in some ways related but unrelated in others to my self proclaimed ‘elevator speech’ of interests. By applying the knowledge and experience I have acquired this past year as a graduate student, I have begun to hone another skill set which, I hope, will help me become a better scholar and archaeologist. The Late Antique period is truly not where I am most comfortable—I prefer my Rome on the upswing—but the ‘Church Wreck’ represents an invaluable source of information on production, shipping, and distribution throughout the (later) ancient world with far-reaching significance for other areas as well. Using my knowledge of early imperial ceramics and their cataloguing process, considering how legal codes or other historical works and inscriptions may shed light on the situation on the ground (or on the sea!), and contemplating diachronic systems of maritime economic and cultural exchange, I hope to make a contribution to the project, and at the same time take away even more from my time here for my future as an archaeologist and scholar.



01 July 2015


One of the constant challenges of undertaking an archaeological project abroad is how to continue the study of artifacts throughout the year, when the columns, chancel screens, and other objects we’ve spent so long recording and excavating now sit thousands of kilometers away. PhotoScan is a program that can create scaled, three-dimensional models from multiple photographs. These models allow the virtual examination of artifacts from any location. The technology can be applied not only to artifacts, but also to the site itself. Models of the site over time, in layers, can be stacked on top of one another and looked at individually or together, revealing the excavation process.  

The system we use at Marzamemi for modeling objects involves photographing each side of the object from multiple angles. 


                                                                                           Screen print of aligned photos used to model object

After we have instructed the program to ignore background details through a process called “masking,” and indicated specific reference points on each photograph, PhotoScan finds matches between the photos.


                                                                                                            Masked photo with reference points

The program first generates a “point cloud” (a loose and pixelated image in the form of the artifact). After this, it creates the “dense cloud,” which gives more shape to the model, but is still simply a cluster of points.


                                                                                                                              Point cloud

To connect them, we build a “mesh” to close the gaps between each dot in the cluster.


                                                                                                                                Mesh model

The model is now “water tight” or solid, but must be “wrapped” with color and texture. After this stage, the model looks like a 3D version of the artifact in full color.


                                                                                                                             Textured model

This final model is a scaled representation of the artifact—and portable as well. For artifact study—dimensions, decoration, workmanship and details not easily seen by the human eye—these models can be even more helpful than the object itself!




30 June 2015



                                                   Amphora lid in situ

              Lindsay working with our dredge, hoping to uncover another story

“The truth about stories is that’s all we are.” 

                                            - Thomas King 


Take a scan through the blog and you quickly realize that this project is about more than the excavation of a 6th-century shipwreck. Each object has multiple stories that include people from across 1500 years; as archaeologists, we consider which tales to tell. 

Two days ago, Lindsay and I were excavating in our trench, L9. While hand fanning across the across the southern edge, we uncovered an amphora lid wedged between some rocks.  At this point we stopped, carefully picked up the lid, marked its location with a mapping flag, bagged it, and then took measurements. When our dive ended we swam our find basket to the surface and passed it onto the boat. Later in the day that lid made its way to our conservation lab. It was registered, photographed, and placed in a bucket for desalination.  

While that might be the story that my dad wants to hear (a day in the life of his daughter), it is not the story that archaeologists are working for. Consider that lid’s history. At some point it was on a ship that sank, dumping its cargo onto the sea floor. The lid drifted until it became lodged into some rocks. Someone filled that amphora; someone transported it onto the boat; someone wanted its contents, whatever they may have been. Even earlier, in the process of making that lid which I picked up from the sea floor, a potter selected a chunk of clay, worked it into shape, then pinched up the top to create a nub marked with his finger imprints. 

This one small lid fits into the puzzle of a broader story. By looking closely at the form, fabric and other distinguishing markers, we can start to tell more of the story. When and where was this lid made? What were the stylistic trends at the time? Were all of the jars closed with similar lids or were some sealed with more permanent stoppers? How do the lids help us tell the full story of the cargo? We have found multiple lids, along with columns, marble fragments, chancel screen pieces, iron concretions, bits of glass, cooking ware, and more. The puzzle of this ship’s origin, purpose, and destination could in turn fit into our collective knowledge of the movement of goods in the ancient Mediterranean. 

There are many stories for that one lid and the ship’s cargo. There are my stories, the ones I know how to tell. As we slowly fill in pieces of the puzzle, listening to the silent objects, the tales of Kapitän’s earlier work on the site, and imagining the voices of the ancient sailors, our site’s story continues to grow with each day of excavation, publication, exhibit and letter home. 




29 June 2015


      James cleaning an artifact in a newly opened trench

                        Rocks being cleared from site

Every site—on land or under water—comes with its own particular challenges. The tools of the trade are often the same. To dredge away the sand in shallow water we rely on water pumps and in deeper water, airlifts. These tools are constant but how they are used and the challenges we face in their use depend on the nature of the site. 

Over the past two summers, I have had the good fortune to participate in two maritime projects. Last year at the harbors of Burgaz, Turkey I learned to dig in what can only be described as a gray area between sea and land, diving in water so shallow that ascending simply meant standing up. In the weeks I spent there we excavated through meters of mixed layers striving to reach the level of the ancient harbor all the while grappling with the exhausting challenge of lugging gear, pumps, and dredge components several hundred meters from the road to the harbor. The greatest hindrance to our excavation was the constant degradation of our water pumps by the waves and spray. The greatest challenge was the attempt to decipher the stratigraphy of remains probably ranging in date from late Classical to modern. 

Coming from that experience to Marzamemi was a bit of a shock. Diving from a boat a kilometer from shore is an exciting but also entirely alien experience for me. Excavating a shipwreck whose lost cargo still pokes through the sand is strikingly different from the meters of silt that bury the ancient harbor at Burgaz. With these fundamental differences in the nature of the site came various new challenges for diving and excavation. At Burgaz I had never considered the dangers and limitations that the ever-changing winds of the Mediterranean presented to maritime archaeology, nor the difficulty of safely raising columns or large marble blocks from the seabed. Despite these and many other quirks of Marzamemi that I am still getting accustomed to, I realize more every day that the basic tenets of archaeological mapping, excavation, and recording remain the same whether we excavate in one meter or eight meters of water.





27 June 2015


                     Image via

                                           Calm waters

       A rare chance for moving large objects in the calm waters


The wind, they say, it is a song, harbors through the winter
The wind, they say, it is a door, bids the soul to enter
Let us sail the seas, good friends, let us sail together
The singer lasts the season long, but the song, it lasts forever

                -“The Wind Song,” Traditional Sea Shanty

In between deep yawns and eager sips of coffee, the first group conversation in the morning every day on the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project is always the same: what is the character of the wind today? For maritime archaeologists, the wind dictates the rhythms of our work as well as the flow of the entire project. In general, we are most concerned with wave action as diving can be difficult in rough conditions (for those who don’t like big gulps of seawater and long obligatory swims). Relatively calm seas are also crucial for underwater excavation because we need a stable platform to host the dredge pumps, allowing us to safely and effectively clear sand. These vessels, often slower and less maneuverable than our dive boat, are particularly susceptible to the ever-changing wind.

Our daily struggles with Neptune’s temper link us to the ancient mariners we study. The ancient Mediterranean was not a featureless liquid plain. It could not be traversed in all directions without consequence at any given time. Instead, natural obstacles (e.g. reefs, sandbars, etc.), currents, local weather, and especially wind directions and strength all contribute to the character of a voyage, whether a local jaunt of less than a day between small coastal sites or an interregional shipment of a larger vessel. Navigation required a thorough environmental awareness and Roman mariners would have relied on the recognition of natural formations and rapidly changing conditions. The sea was a richly humanized and textured space, and maritime networks were reactive to physical distance between ports and a variety of other circumstances, especially the wind.

The site of Marzamemi sits on the confluence of multiple regular fronts. Wind direction and speed can change within the hour, but in the summer, the wind generally comes from the northeast, northwest, or west. The sirocco, a hot southern wind from North Africa, is also common, creating the disorienting effect of sending the waves offshore and out to sea. For us, this means that we can be hit in the face with waves while going out to the site and then, if the wind flips during our dive, we can be hit in the face with waves on the way back to shore as well!). Ancient sailors on the southeastern tip of Sicily would have been largely at the mercy of this shifting triangular system, and would have had to adjust accordingly. Through most of the Roman period, mariners would have been equipped with a square sail, meaning that they could use tailwinds, or by easing the left sheet and pulling the right one (and vice versa), they could have used lateral winds as well.

The wind was an ally for Roman sailors, but some allies are more loyal than others. Too much wind can push a vessel towards a natural hazard or churn the sea and cause a ship to capsize. It is possible that the Marzamemi II shipwreck is one such victim. Did stormy seas or a sudden shift in wind direction and speed cause the heavily burdened ship to take on water, and slowly descend into Davy Jones’ locker? Is it possible that this wind, centuries later, blows with the same fervor, laughing at our excavation plans and causing the same humbling sensation of being at the mercy of the elements? For sailors shipping marble and other goods for an important payday or archaeologists fanning away sand and sea life on those marble pieces 1500 years later, the environmental conditions of the sea simply cannot be ignored. If the wind is indeed a song, at Marzamemi, it seems to last forever.





26 June 2015




                                   Image via

   African asylum seekers packed into a boat. Image via

                        Abandoned boat outside the Marzamemi harbour

                                          Sunset over the harbour



It was immediately apparent when I landed in Catania that Sicily was distinct from the rest of Italy. I rapidly became familiar with “Sicilian time,” the universal explanation for tardiness, absence, and confusion. During afternoons the streets are vacant and shops are shuttered for siesta. Some weeks, the weekend begins on Thursday. 

After World War II, Regione Sicilia gained broad political autonomy from Italy, which it retains today. Determined to exert independence even from Italy, the island seems to take pride in its isolation. Sitting at the confluence of winds and trade routes in the central Mediterranean, though, Sicily can’t help but be a hub of interaction and commonality. Throughout its long history, Sicily has blurred and challenged the borders between cultures and continents.

In the 8th c. BCE, Greek colonists from crowded Aegean city-states began to settle Sicily’s eastern coast. Later known to the Romans (along with Italy’s southern Gulf of Taranto) as Magna Graecia, or “Great Greece,” the region developed a distinctive Hellenic culture. These colonies rapidly became independent, and relations with eastern mother cities were as complex, and sometimes as fraught, as those with the neighboring Italians. As Rome spread southwards, encounters with these cities introduced influential Greek culture. The Greeks who settled Sicily’s eastern coast may be the island’s most famous colonists, building powerful cities like Syracuse and raising such legendary figures as Archimedes. But the Greeks were not Sicily’s first colonists.

Centuries before the first Greeks partook of the local aranchino and gelato, Phoenician colonists were making landfall in western Sicily and nearby Tunisia. Though a simple narrative of Greco-Italian cohabitation is tempting – and encouraged by stereotypes of African, European, and Middle Eastern cultures – Sicily’s history is far more multicultural, conflicted, and nuanced. As Carthage, the Phoenician colony near modern Tunis, grew in power and influence, the Sicilian colonies fell into its orbit, absorbing its distinctive culture as well. As much as Sicily was Greek, it was also African, though culture, bias, and nationalism use the southern Mediterranean as a definitive border for a European world, Sicily has often defied these lines, serving instead as a point of first contact, continued connectivity, and even unification.

It was Sicily, and conflict between its disparate cultures, which drew the burgeoning Roman confederation beyond the Italian peninsula and fully into the Mediterranean world. The Marzamemi II wreck, carrying remarkable products of an interconnected, complex, and powerful Mediterranean economy, owes something to the island’s nuanced connective role. As we dig, this legacy continues to confound racial and cultural expectations. 

Outside the marina wall, an isolated fishing boat lists abandoned on the shoreline, bleaching from blue to white in the sun. It is a refugee boat, abandoned by the human traffickers who owned it. The southern tip of Sicily sits at the center of a massive modern human migration – a crisis which is overwhelming the Italian Navy, blindsiding the European Union, and fueling xenophobic rancor across the Eurozone. Marzamemi, along with nearly half of Sicily, lies farther south than the northernmost points of Africa. With Libya in crisis, and Tunisia and Egypt mired in economic stagnation, people seek safety, stability, and opportunity in the EU in unprecedented numbers. To them, Sicily has become the nearest gateway to the Schengen Zone.

Like Marzamemi’s squat blue fishing boat, the migrants who survive the treacherous crossing go unclaimed. The EU and its member states have only reluctantly confronted the legal and social uncertainties surrounding the migration, and the influx strains existing resources. In contrast to the bright, if faded, colors of most migrant boats, inside Marzamemi’s harbor wall nearly all the boats have been painted white. Colored boats carry the stigma of migration, and of African origin. Modern Europe draws away from Africa, reinforcing the mental wall in the Mediterranean. As connections wither, Sicily shows the maritime detritus of its relationship with Africa.

Sicily is once again a crossroads for travelers seeking economic opportunity as well as political asylum. But these immigrants and refugees need not, in an ancient sense, be total foreigners. Families from Libya are sailing north from the birthplace of several of Rome’s most powerful emperors. Young men from Tunisia, home to the final grave of the Roman Republic and one of the empire’s foremost cities, come to Sicily in search of better jobs. Two millennia ago, similar young men may have made their journey in reverse. Other migrants come from across the Sahara, where Rome turned for salt and gold, not just wild beasts.

Gerhard Kapitän, who first explored the Marzamemi II wreck, theorized that the church wreck’s marble cargo had been intended for a North African destination. Regardless of whether Kapitän was right, the stonework would have arrived not at a provincial backwater or proto-colonial outpost, but in a cosmopolitan, multicultural region with nearly a thousand years of Mediterranean history.

What’s important is not that North Africa was once Romanized, but rather that the Classical Mediterranean world was a diverse whole. The sea comprised not a liminal space between distinct regions living under irreconcilable conditions, but rather the connective tissue of a single multicultural world. In the late empire, North Africa was an integral part of the Mediterranean world, and no less a part of the Roman world than Spain or France. In later centuries, Sicily remained more closely tied to the Byzantine East and Arab North Africa than to Medieval Europe. At a time when northern and Western Roman lands were receding into parochialism, Sicily was once again multilingual and culturally diverse. Throughout Sicily’s long history, connectivity has come with conflict. Cultures have not only communicated but clashed. Today, Sicily is again a hub in the Mediterranean, between two continents whose religious, cultural, and economic borders it has the potential to blur and even erase. The faded blues of the rotting migrant boat perched on the edge of Marzamemi feel hopeful, even though the boat’s occupants were likely turned away from a Sicily claimed wholly by Europe, or detained somewhere in between. Passing the boat every day on my way to excavate, I can’t help but wonder about Sicily’s continuing role in the Mediterranean world.





24 June 2015


                                   Diver takes photos in a school of fish



One year ago when I was first introduced to this site, it occurred to me that there was an incredible abundance of sea life in addition to the impressive marble columns and other artifacts. From the algae encrusted marble to the urchins and rockfish malevolently hiding in the best foot- and handholds, there is no way to look at the site without considering the ecosystem. As the excavation progressed we increasingly affected the surrounding habitats through the removal of vast amounts of sand and rocks. I had thought that this would result in a desertion of the site by the more mobile organisms, but we observed just the opposite. As the sand was disturbed, frantic swarms of fish appeared to feed on the freshly accessible nutrients. While it’s true that a certain octopus seemed a bit disgruntled at the relocation of his favorite rock, our activities did not discourage the ecosystem from thriving.

The modern ecosystem is not the only system affected by the site. I’ve been intrigued by the differences in shells we have found in the various strata from the shipwreck and above. In modern wrecks and artificial reefs there is an order of appearance of organisms that are involved in the decomposition of the wreck, and surely there was a similar progression involved in the deposition process of our site that can speak to site formation and the shipwreck’s impact on an ancient ecosystem.


24 June 2015


                        Jarrid excavating amongst the work on site  

                                                   Our office

A second year student in the graduate group in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley, my academic interests lie in Roman history and archaeology and the economic and social interactions between the Romans and other ancient peoples, so it may be somewhat obvious why I’m here: the gelato, of course.

My journey to Marzamemi began in the fall of 2014. Through a lecture at the Berkeley Ancient Italy Roundtable (BAIR) I first learned about the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project. I was eager to hear Justin speak, having noticed the unique nature of this “underwater project” on the event’s schedule. I had always wanted to learn more about maritime excavation, but had been exposed very little to the field during my undergraduate career—during which I excavated only on dry land. The presentation greatly piqued my curiosity and desire to learn more about this type of research and study. Seeing the vivid, awe-inspiring images taken from the first and second seasons of excavation (who doesn’t love some huge marble columns?), and hearing the theories as to just what cargo the ship was carrying, where it was going, and whence it came—as drawn from the artifacts the team had recovered thus far—were all truly captivating. As a result of the talk, not only did I further appreciate how pivotal projects such as this one are to better understanding the logistics of trans-Mediterranean trade, economics, and cultural interaction in the ancient world, but I also came to the realization that I, as a budding classical archaeologist and historian, might even be able to take part in such a study!

And now, having just finished a week of excavation, registration, and conservation at the site and nearby museum, I would say that the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project is even more intellectually stimulating than I could have imagined. I still have much to learn, having quite literally just got my feet wet (someone had to say it), but Justin, his staff, and the returning students from previous seasons have all greatly assisted me in my transition from excavating on terra firma to working at the bottom of the wine-dark sea (OK, it is actually pretty clear blue).

Back on land the town of Marzamemi itself is equally a wonder to behold. A beautiful and scenic Sicilian fishing village overlooking the sea, it is an ideal place for a relaxing stroll along the beach, or to dine on some local Italian cuisine (like pasta al mare, or some creamy gelato). Many other towns rich with historic significance, including Noto, Ragusa, and Syracuse, are only a short car or bus ride away, allowing days off from the excavation to be spent in some equally awesome places. I very much look forward to the coming weeks as we continue to uncover the hidden mysteries buried in the sands off the coast of Marzamemi.



22 June 2015


                   May in the early attempts of taking off her fins 

                           May and James working in their trench  


I just finished my second year at Stanford as a Classics major and a Medieval Studies minor. Though I participated in a land dig last summer, Marzamemi is my first experience on a maritime excavation. Before I got to Sicily, I had gone diving about ten times in my life and was as a result very nervous to work underwater. The supportive team here has been overwhelmingly helpful, and I’ve received guidance from Americans and Italians both. It’s been interesting to me to see that underwater - where communication is wordless and should be more difficult - the language barrier is not the problem that it is on land.

The excavation I worked on last summer was at Salapia, a late antique Roman city occupied from about the first century BCE to the seventh CE, with evidence of later medieval settlements as well. Because it was in Puglia, southern Italy, the cultural situation was similar in important ways to the one I’m experiencing now in southeast Sicily. One of the Sicilian archaeologists here has told me that she views Sicily as a little piece of North Africa, and I felt that same influence in Trinitapoli a year ago. At Salapia we were in collaboration with the farmers who had owned the local land; here at Marzamemi, we work with the divers at El Cachalote.

Underwater archaeology, while the same as that on land in much of its ideology, has proven to be (unsurprisingly) very different in practice. I’ve had much more fun doing menial tasks underwater than I did on land - any excavation tends to require intensive removal of material covering the site, but the sweeping and pickaxing on land, shoveling into buckets while covered in dirt and sweat, can’t compare to floating at the bottom of the Mediterranean and sucking up sand with a dredge while curious fish look on.

Maybe the most significant difference between my experiences at Salapia and at Marzamemi is site access. Last summer we stayed on site for upwards of twelve hours a day, more than our 80-minute dives by far. Here each moment on site must have a purpose and a goal, and as a result of this I’ve felt much more accomplished after each dive than I would have after 80 minutes of land excavation and am excited to learn more about the site.



18 June 2015


                                   Rachel and Jarrid sorting new finds

                 Dr. Leidwanger explaining the relevance of some small finds


As a recent graduate of Fleming College’s program in Cultural Heritage Conservation and Management and a new professional in the field, I am interested in exposing myself to as many different areas of conservation as possible. To date I have worked mainly in museum labs, and treated a variety of materials including wood, leather, ceramics, and metal. Ask me to perform a tannic acid treatment on a rusty pickaxe from Gold-Rush era Alaska, and I would have no problem! Need some localized humidification to reform a stiff and disfigured leather gun holster? I can do that too! But to get settled in a lab for the conservation of archeological material recovered from a marine environment… Well, let’s just say that there has been a steep learning curve.

Organization is key to the processing the hundreds of tiny -or not so tiny- fragments of marble and ceramic found in association with the shipwreck. One of the more insidious agents of object deterioration isn’t the destruction of the physical object at all; rather it is the loss of information regarding the provenance of the material collected. In this case, the important information is the location on the wreck site where the objects were found, along with the date of the dive.

When archaeologists find materials associated with the wreck, they place the item (or items, if a few are found in close proximity) in a small bag and ensure that a label is included to describe the quadrant where it was recovered, as well as their initials and the date. The bags of material are then transported to the surface, and then to the museum and conservation lab, where each bag of material is emptied, the material examined, and new tags written. These new tags include the same information about quadrant and excavator, but also include a lot number. The lot number is the organizational tool we use to keep track of the material collected, as each bag of collected material is given a unique lot number, and each different type of material within each lot number is identified separately again by the addition of a decimal point or sub-lot. For example, if a bag of material contains green marble, white marble, and ceramic sherds, the lot number for the whole bag may be 0239. Each material is bagged separately and given the sub-lot numbers 0239.1, 0239.2, and 0239.3 respectively. This information is then added into our electronic database system, so we can record and compile where each object and material was found, and which other artifacts may be in proximity. Each lot is photographed, sorted by material, and then continues on to the desalination process.

The entire process is undertaken at the Palmento di Rudiní, a museum that houses objects and artifacts related to the history of Marzamemi. The museum building itself is an old winery, with vats that once held wine now housing our desalination tubs and crates, and passageways leading to subterranean tunnels now functioning as artifact storage areas. This novel setting for a conservation lab is enough to set a history buff’s heart racing. Add in registering artifacts under a quaint thatched sunshade, and the glittering Mediterranean just a short hike away, and this certainly is a glorious place to learn about conservation.



10 June 2015

       May, Laura and Ken ready for the morning dive

    Ken works with Xila to set up the grid lines on the site

Twenty-five years ago in my student days, on a backpacking tour around Europe and North Africa, I spent some time in Sicily. I took in sites such as Agrigento, Taormina, Siracusa and Palermo, and even ventured out to the smaller islands of Favignana, Lipari, Vulcano and Stromboli. A couple of years later, as part of my Ph.D. program, I participated in the excavations at Morgantina in central Sicily, and spent the entire summer on this three-cornered isle. The project afforded me the opportunity to see still more of the sites, and to begin to learn the language. It was a lovely summer, capped off with diving in Favignana to see black coral at 60 meters.

Years passed, and other archaeological projects came my way. I switched from terrestrial to nautical archaeology, and most of my summers since Morgantina have been spent under water in Turkey. Sicily, and my Italian, began to fade in my memory.

This past October, at the annual board meeting for the Institute of Nautical Archaeology in Istanbul, I learned in casual conversation that the famous “church wreck” made known to the world by Gerhard Kapitän was being excavated. After three difficult seasons in Sri Lanka , on a project that is now on hiatus, I was looking for another shipwreck excavation, and this strongly piqued my interest. Was there a chance for me to get back to the Mediterranean, back to the Roman world, and back to lovely Sicily after more than 20 years?

To my delight it has worked out that I am here. Xila and I arrived a couple of weeks early to prepare the site, work areas and living spaces as much as possible before the team arrived in force. We have a full complement of folks now, and are operating at near maximum capacity. To my great shock, I even remember a bit of the language after all these years! It has made me feel quite nostalgic (and a little old!) to be back here again.

After the Sri Lanka experience, this excavation is a dream. The Sri Lanka wreck is so far from shore that we were forced to stay out there during our hours of surface interval before the afternoon dives, rolling on the big swells and baking in the tropical heat. This site is a ten minute boat ride from the dock, and the morning air is nice and cool. The Sri Lanka wreck lies in 105 feet of water, which necessitates short bottom times and/or decompression. Here we are shallow enough that we can in theory stay on the wreck and work as long as we like. The Indian Ocean is so cloudy most days and with such ripping currents that we needed a shot line, both for divers to find the wreck at all, and to get to it and back without being swept off to Somalia. Here there is good visibility, so that we can see the site from inside the boats, and almost no current at all. This is exactly the experience I needed after those difficult conditions in Sri Lanka. I am greeting every day here with joy, excited about this wreck, excited about diving of course (I am addicted, I fear), and thrilled to be back in Sicily again.




9 June 2015

This is the third year I have traveled to Sicily to participate in the Marzamemi II excavation and it feels very different from previous years. The first year I had nervous jitters. It was a new country and I was joining work I had never done before. The second year I was excited and super organized. I knew what I needed to take with me, I knew where I was going, and I knew what to expect. This year was different. I spent about a day throwing stuff into a bag the way you do before heading off to your parents’ house. Somehow Sicily has come to feel like a second home to me.

After taking off from Toronto, I settled in and slept through two flights to arrive at Catania. In the hour and a half drive to Marzamemi there was just enough time to catch up with Justin about work, dive shop happenings and life updates. When we arrived at Matteo’s for dinner it was like a family reunion. People call out your name, smile, hug, and kiss cheeks. Beloved familiar food comes to the table. Little things have changed: the kitten from two years ago just had a second batch of kittens to replace last year’s; Max is bigger, runs faster, and gets into more trouble; and there is a chance that my favorite gelato spot may be under new management.

I am not sure how it happened, but somehow getting ready to dive on a Roman shipwreck has become work as normal and the international specialists on our team have become close friends. I am back at home in Marzamemi ready to greet our ever-expanding excavation family and to start the season at a run.



25 May 2015

It’s beginning to look at lot like fieldwork… 

‘Twas two weeks before the season and boxes,
full of everything from BCs to slates, sample jars
and air scribes pile up in the Maritime Archaeology
Lab at Stanford



When the boxes roll in and the slow stream of emails turns into a flood of frantic one-liners, it’s clear that another season of fieldwork is near. As we get ready for another season at Marzamemi, I am happy to report that our team will include a fantastic mix of seasoned veterans and talented fresh faces. Our colleagues from the Soprintendenza del Mare are already at work surveying another shipwreck around the cape in collaboration with Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Meanwhile, Matteo and his team at El Cachalote Diving Center are inspecting dive gear and preparing equipment, including shiny new dredges, gleaming pumps, and a dedicated platform. The detailed dive plan is coming together thanks to the hard work of Freya, Diving Safety Officer at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station. Sheila, our irreplaceable mapping specialist, and Ken, a long-time veteran of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology’s shipwreck excavations in Turkey and Sri Lanka, will arrive soon—ahead of the main team—in order to begin preparing the site and testing out the new camera . They will work alongside our seasoned Italian colleagues, Tiziana and Gabriele, with archaeological assistance from Nicola and logistical support from Matteo and the El Cachalote crew. The team is a great one, and we look forward to a productive season!




Luglio 2014

Si è conclusa con successo la IX edizione di “Un’ estate da Archeologo”,  i campus estivi di Archeologia per ragazzi dai 14 ai 20 anni che si svolgono ogni anno a Noto, in Sicilia, nella Riserva Naturale di Vendicari. Le attività sono  state ideate e dirette dall’Archeologa Laura Falesi presidente dell’Archeoclub di Noto in collaborazione con l’Associazione Escursioni Iblee e la scuola confederale El Cachalote Diving Center di Marzamemi.

Anche quest’anno un gruppo di ragazzi ha conseguito il brevetto subacqueo  I livello (CMAS),  ha svolto delle attività di archeologia sperimentale (ceramica e mosaico), ha appreso i fondamenti dell’archeologia terrestre (survey), dell’archeologia subacquea e della biologia marina esplorando i fondali della fascia costiera. I giovani hanno effettuato delle immersioni per conoscere i relitti sommersi presso Vendicari, Marzamemi e Portopalo di Capo Passero. L’equipe di archeologi dell’Università di Stanford e della Soprintendenza del Mare ha illustrato ai giovani allievi del campus la propria attività di ricerca sul relitto Marzamemi II (resti di una chiesetta bizantina), rispettivamente, sotto il profilo storico-archeologico col Prof. Justin Leidwanger e sotto l’aspetto conservativo con Asaf Oron.

Un’esperienza speciale che permette a giovani provenienti da tutta la Sicilia e da altre regioni italiane di avere un primo approccio con la subacquea e di vivere in gruppo in modo piacevole la scoperta del territorio siciliano, in particolare quello della Riserva di Vendicari che con le sue zone umide, la vegetazione della duna costiera ed il transito di uccelli migratori è un luogo unico al mondo. I ragazzi hanno potuto scoprire  anche i fondali con i tanti tesori nascosti che al momento sono conosciuti solo da pochi esperti. Anche l’incontro con i ricercatori di Stanford è stata un’ importante tappa che ha fatto capire ai ragazzi la rilevanza internazionale del luogo in cui si trovavano.

Laura Falesi (349.5543352,


Young Italian students discover underwater archeology and meet with Stanford University researchers

July 2014

The month of July saw the successful completion of the 9th annual “Summer of Archaeology” (“Un’ estate da Archeologo”). Each year archaeological summer camps for young men and women aged from 14 to 20 years old are held in Noto, Italy, inside the UNESCO Natural Reserve at Vendicari. The activities were organized and directed by archaeologist Laura Falesi, president of Archeoclub Noto, in partnership with the Iblean Excursion Association and the diving school El Cachalote Diving Center in Marzamemi.

A group of young men and women earned Level 1 diving certification from CMAS instructors, undertook experimental archeology activities (ceramics and mosaic), learned fundamentals of terrestrial archeology (survey), as well as underwater archeology and marine biology in the depths of the sea around Marzamemi. The students visited underwater shipwreck sites at Vendicari and Marzamemi. The archaeological team from Stanford University and the Soprintendenza del Mare discussed with the students their ongoing research activity on the Marzamemi 2 wreck, where the remains of a Byzantine church are preserved. Prof. Justin Leidwanger explained the historical and archaeological goals of the project, while Asaf Oron discussed techniques for conservation of underwater archaeological finds.

This special summer program allows students from all over Italy to learn diving while discovering the Sicilian territory, particularly the Vendicari Reserve, unique for its wetlands, coastal dune vegetation, and migratory birds. The group was able to discover the underwater world and its hidden treasures currently known only to a few experts. The Stanford University collaboration was instrumental in helping the students to understand the international importance of submerged cultural heritage in Sicilian waters.

Laura Falesi (349.5543352,

22 September 2014 

The Church Wreck at Marzamemi is a fascinating find from a particularly eventful and tumultuous time period, an era marked on one hand by an increased movement of grand building materials and the construction of magnificent edifices, but on the other by military conquest that resulted in endemic warfare, political destabilization, and massive depopulation. All of this came at the influence of the emperor Justinian (r. 527-565 AD) who, for a time, greatly increased the size of the Roman world and left behind a legacy that would last for over a millennium.

The architectural cargo itself is, of course, quite impressive. It demonstrates the utmost possibility of Justinian’s new empire: not only was the ship itself massive, but the cargo it carried required enormous work to quarry and carve, and the building it would have adorned would stand triumphantly for the greater glory of God, his emperor, and the newly-restored Empire. The wreck is also a chronological marker, representing the beginning of the end: very soon the economy in the west would ebb and, perhaps, crash, and monumental architecture of the sort the ship’s cargo was designed to enhance would cease to be produced for centuries.

It is tempting to see the Church Wreck as a vessel frozen in time while on a direct mission to carry one largely prefabricated church to one particular destination. That destination, however, is debated. The original excavator, Gerhard Kapitän, assisted by the great J.B. Ward-Perkins, believed the Church Wreck was bound for North Africa. An equally tempting location, however, is Italy, as it is only in Italy that one finds churches that contained material that the Church Wreck carried.

This observation, in turn, allows us get closer to the citizens who built, prayed, and viewed such structures. The Marzamemi cargo provides a window into the role of local authorities in Justinian’s rebuilding program. We know that the mid- to late-fifth century Church of the Apostles in Ravenna, for example, contained Proconnesian marble columns and capitals similar to the ones found at Marzamemi. In addition, during Justinian’s reign, Italian cities such as Ravenna and its port at Classe were well-provided with building materials for churches, financed by the donations from local aristocrats, bishops and archbishops. Ravenna also served as a distribution node, a city where architectural elements were imported, stockpiled, and then transported to other cities.

In other words, it appears that Justinian’s rebuilding program was not the top-down monodirectional reconstruction of an Empire as it is often understood, and instead was a facilitator of Mediterranean connectivity, one that relied on and required centers of regional authority to form complex networks with the powerful eastern potentate who controlled vast quantities of luxury building materials and the resources and desire to quarry, move, and finish them. The Church Wreck is less a vessel frozen in time and more a cog in a larger economic engine that remains, tantalizingly, more intricate and – thanks to finds like this – whose outline is becoming ever clearer.



27 August 2014 

The deterioration of archaeological material within its burial context is governed by a range of factors, including both the environment in which it was deposited and the material group from which it was made. Thus metal objects, ceramics, organics, and other material groups are preserved at different levels at different archaeological sites. Within the wide range of burial environments, marine archaeological sites, such as the Marzamemi II shipwreck, hold a unique place.

Low oxygen levels, reduced biological and chemical activity, and little or no human interference at the seabed (unlike land sites…) can create ideal settings for the long-term preservation of archaeological material. Thus delicate organic objects which will normally perish on land sites often survive in the marine environment, and fragile artifacts such as ceramics will often remain more intact while on land sites they are commonly found in more fragmentary condition. However, the long stay of cultural remains on the seabed affects their stability through slow chemical and biological degradation processes leading to a reduction in their physical strength and dimensional integrity.

The sheer volume of material that may be retrieved from a shipwreck site during an excavation season, as well as its fragile and often unstable state necessitate a specialized facility geared towards processing, storage, handling, and treatment of a large bulk of objects efficiently and safely.

In order to meet these requirements the Marzamemi project set up an artifact processing and conservation facility at Rudinì, a beautifully restored 19th century wine press located near the local marina (fig. 1). The large building and its spacious grounds provide an ideal setup for the processing and conservation of the Marzamemi II shipwreck material, including many massive architectural marble elements (fig. 2). To facilitate the processing of newly excavated material and its long term conservation, two work areas were set up on the premises comprising an outdoors wet working zone and an adjacent indoor clean work space (fig. 3). Both spaces were fitted with wet storage areas (fig. 4), local water outputs, work benches, and low air pressure supply for running various pneumatic power tools.  These work areas are used simultaneously for finds registry, photography, cataloging and drawing, as well as for conservation work. The latter involves sorting new finds into material groups, labeling with non-degradable materials, condition assessment, and initial cleaning (fig. 5). Subsequent conservation work at Rudinì will involve gradual desalination, further cleaning, stabilization, transitioning of the material from wet to dry state, and later its reconstruction and display.


                    1a The Rudinì building’s main display hall                             1b Indoor work space at Rudinì              2 Large architectural elements in Rudinì indoor work/storage space

       3a Finds registry at the Rudinì outdoor wet workspace       3b Artifact cataloging at the Rudinì indoor clean work space      4a Construction of a collapsible indoor wet storage tank


                      4b Indoor storage of large stone elements                    5a Photography and labeling of artifacts                            5b Initial cleaning of large stone objects





1 August 2014

As we dived into the final week of the excavation season, thoughts turned to the task of cleaning and prepping the site for next season. Other, more excited thoughts turned to the inevitable, but wonderful eleventh hours discoveries waiting beneath the sand. If you have ever worked on an excavation (marine or terrestrial), you know that the best finds appear when time is short. Without fail, there were several notable finds in the last days as teams desperately tried to finalize their grid squares, including our first artifacts to offer clues about the ship’s hull and some key ceramic and marble pieces. Other teams prepped marbles to be moved. Finally, with the perpetual help of El Cachalote Diving Center and special guests, the Guardia di Finanza, ten large marble elements were raised, via crane boat, from the seafloor.


Once the marbles were safely raised they were transported to the local museum, where conservator Asaf Oron began the conservation process, the final dives were made to cover the site with a series of tarps, and clean all visible remains of our season’s work. Of course there was one final diagnostic ceramic find recovered in the last minutes of the season that has us all excited to return to Marzamemi next year to continue our work on this exciting project.



30 July 2014

While in Sicily, I decided that there are three essential life skills I need to obtain, all of which I saw demonstrated in a single day: (1) I want to be able to captain a boat; (2) I want to be able to raise heavy artifacts from the bottom of the sea onto a ship; (3) I want to be able to do mundane tasks—like drinking an espresso—while wearing scuba gear in the water. And I want to be able to do each of these skills with Sicilian coolness.

The day started at 7 a.m. Justin and I loaded into a car and sped through town toward El Cachalote. Normally our team members are the sole occupants of the dive shop at this hour, but today a group of Guardia di Finanza officers were drinking coffee when we arrived. By 8 a.m we were skidding across the water in the Guardia di Finanza rib.

Skill #1 (cool captains): Our contact from the Guardia di Finanza, Marco, casually leaned behind the driver of the rib. Arms lightly crossed, he looked toward the site. I sat clutching all holds within reach, bracing my legs, and looking disheveled as the wind whipped my hair into tangles and we bounced over the waves. With a smooth turn, we reached the site and welcomed the next arrival: a beautiful, large, Guardia di Finanza ship equipped with a lifting crane. Its captain stood far above us, aviators on, languidly observing as we skittered around in the small rib. With the ship anchored, Justin and I hopped aboard—I with all the grace of a hippo—under the watchful gaze of Marco, the new captain, and Matteo on the El Cachalote rib, as he smoked and chatted on his phone.


Skill #2 (heavy lifting): The artifacts to be raised had been marked and moved into a temporary underwater depot. The large ship sent down a line from its crane to the depot. On the sea floor, Matteo and the Guardia’s Salvo hooked lift balloons to the prepared artifacts. Guided by the rope and balloons, the artifacts seemed to float to the ship. With a few smooth motions, the boat’s crane raised the columns from the water. I marveled at the clean efficiency of skilled professionals undertaking a task so common to them, but so astronomically alien to most.


Skill #3 (coffee break): They asked if we wanted coffee and I obviously agreed. When the platter of little cups came out, I tripped on my way to grab one, knocking something from someone’s hand. As I gripped my coffee looking down at the water, my jaw dropped and I nearly dropped my cup as well. Gracefully floating and chatting with the boat crew was Salvo, sipping a small cup of espresso. Coffee break complete, he tossed his empty cup into the dive boat and descended to fetch the next artifact.

Artifacts raised and returned to shore at Portopalo for transport to Rudinì, I marveled again at the captains and divers who raised tons of architectural marble with casual skill and grace. With my own small dose of Sicilian sangfroid, I managed to not trip over the 250 kg column at my feet.  



29 July 2014 

Writer John Littlefield works on Kızılburun artifacts

What sort of ship could have carried such a load?


An undergraduate on the project recently asked me, “how does the Marzamemi excavation fit in with your own research?” As a  Ph.D. student in the Nautical Archaeology Program at Texas A&M University [] whose M.A. thesis dealt with Hellenistic era ship construction, my interests center on the construction of ancient stone carriers. Was there a distinct type of ship used to transport heavy stone cargoes? Were the hulls of stone-carrying ships more robustly constructed than standard naves onerariae (merchant vessels)? Specialized vessels for grain transport and obelisk relocation are described in ancient literature, but the sources are nearly silent about stone carriers.

Pliny (36.1) mentions that mountains were moved for the sake of architectural construction and carried away on great ships, but makes no reference to the constructional features of these vessels, nor does he assign a typological-style name to them. Petronius provides the sole reference to an implied specialized ship type, when a complaining servant compares himself to a stone carrier:

                  "What do you think I am: a beast of burden, or a stone-carrying ship (lapidaria navis)? I contracted out

the labor of a man, not a horse! I’m a free man just as much as you, even if my father left me without a

penny” (Satyricon 117.12).

Currently more than 70 shipwrecked cargos of architectural stone are known in the Mediterranean, with a concentration in Italian waters. These wrecks date from the 2nd century BCE to the 6th century CE and hold potential information about stone transport over a large chronological range, yet the common approach to such remains—through surface survey and recording, or in a few cases, partial excavation—means that that information about hull construction is scarce.

Only recently have archaeologists begun to approach shipwrecked stone cargos as more than a collection of interesting architectural elements. For example, the 1st century BCE shipwreck of Proconnessian marble column drums at Kızılburun [] provides rare information about the ship itself, even if preserved hull remains were sparse. My examination of these hull remains revealed that the ship was, in fact, of similar dimensions to other contemporary merchant ships with no evidence of robust or specialized construction. It’s my hope that our excavations at Marzamemi will provide additional answers about stone carriers; the more such wrecks are explored, the more we can answer existing questions and ask new questions in the future.


24 July 2014

As a team, our research interests range from ancient economies to ship construction to ceramic studies to heritage management and museum display. But virtually all of us arrived in Marzamemi this summer with a shared research topic: gelato. What flavor is best? Which gelateria has the best gelato? Is it possible to survive solely on gelato?

While these questions may seem daunting, I was sure there was a way to discover an absolute truth for each. As the resident Expert In All Things Food Related (an official title), I generated a testing methodology; as a team we threw ourselves into the research. Because our field season is short for such broad investigation, we compensated by running experiments as often as two to three times a day, often combining two flavors in one grande cup. Research began even at breakfast with the Sicilian specialty brioche con gelato – an ice cream sandwich made from a brioche bun filled with gelato – the perfect accompaniment to a morning café lungo. [These more extreme experiments were carried out by experienced researchers. No students were injured in these tests and all research clearance was duly obtained. Though delicious, granite, cremolata, and other frozen treats were not included in the research sample]. 

Despite the difficult task, answers were found. While the results of the study are somewhat controversial, as the Expert In All Things Food Related I assert my opinions to be correct. Some team members gravitate to the beige and white colored gelatos including: yogurt, stracciatella, nocciola (hazelnut), caffé, etc. Others choose the fruit flavors including limone (lemon), anguria (watermelon), and fragola (strawberry). These flavors are definitely worthy of a post-diving or afternoon snack. Zuppa inglese, torrone, and the bizarrely named and colored big babol and peppa pig are—in my opinion—best avoided. The true winners are the chocolate flavors – cioccolato fondente (dark chocolate) and best of the best, setteveli or seven veils. This layered delicacy changes from shop to shop, but its base is a mix of chocolate, nutella, and hazelnut gelato folded with crunchy cookie bits and swirls of soft fudge. I tested this remarkable product at a variety of shops but the best can be found just before the main square of Marzamemi at Da Carletto gelateria and pasticceria []. The bonus is an incredibly nice owner and staff, as well as wifi through which much of this website has been created!

For a divine gelato excursion, the team recommends a trip to Ragusa. A beautiful town, it boasts Gelati DiVini [] offering wine-flavored gelato. Moscato gelato paired with spicy cioccolato fondente is an amazing treat (and the view of the Piazza Duoma and the Duomo di San Giorgio is nice as well).   


21 July 2014 

By the end of the 2013 field season, the small and quaint town of Marzamemi held a special place in my heart. However, this little fishing village alone was not able to completely satisfy my longing for exploration and my eagerness to experience the surrounding areas. This season I came prepared with my bike and Stanford Cycling Team jersey and have headed out at sunrise on our days off to explore Sicily. My journeys have taken me through the Sicilian landscape, rich in variation, ranging from breathtaking coastal views of the Mediterranean Sea to stunning backdrops of rolling hills of vineyards and olive groves. The region encompasses beautiful architecture that reveals numerous layers of intriguing history and heritage. I’ve ridden through the main piazzas of Noto and Ragusa Ibla, and gazed upon their famous baroque architecture. Likewise, I’ve been captivated by the crumbling, rustic homesteads and wineries in the countryside with their ruins overgrown and entangled with wild fig trees.

Every ride has contained its own adventure and experiences unique to Sicily. On my ride to Siracusa I got caught in the middle of the morning’s open-air market on the island of Ortigia, the historical center of Siracusa.  As I tried to balance my bike through the crowd of locals buying their groceries, sellers shouted the prices of their latest stock as they stood on stools over their stands of fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and other seafood, cheeses, breads, nuts, herbs and sauces.  After the commotion, I continued North past the city and caught my first glimpse of the much celebrated and iconic Mount Etna, an active volcano that erupted on the night of my arrival in Sicily. As I passed through Modica, a city built into the rocky slopes of the Hyblaean Mountains, I turned off the main road and climbed the narrow, cobble footpath that switched-backed up to Modica Alta, the ancient heart of the city. The path was so steep that at times I feared I was going to roll backwards and I constantly worried my skinny tires would get caught in the cracks between cobbles. I also loved weaving down the narrow, one-way roads of Portopalo, a small town at the tip of southeastern Sicily, where I passed under fluttering Italian flags and drying laundry strung across the road from second story windows.

I’m excited to see where my next Sicilian cycling adventure will take me!


19 July 2014


As with any archaeological excavation, conservation is a primary component of our project. I’ll admit, I didn’t know exactly what this would entail before starting the project. Pressed for an answer, I imagined myself scrubbing delicate pottery sherds with a toothbrush and a pair of tweezers under piercing lights of a laboratory. So when I first stepped foot in the wine press-turned-museum of the Palmento di Rudinì, I found that my expectations were easily met and surpassed. The cool dry air and subdued quiet gives no indication of the cavernous spaces tucked around each corner. While I have not yet seen the infamous grottos beneath the museum, I can honestly say that Rudinì is one of the most multifaceted and dynamic places in which I have ever had the pleasure to work.

A stroll through the main hall—a room lined with basins for pressing grapes—leads you through several centuries of history in the artifacts that sit perched between the cavities. Ghoulish gas masks from the World Wars sit in one corner, while a pitted capital from our wreck is propped near the center still showing signs of its time in the ocean. You can ascend a darkened stairway to find yourself in a sort of assembly hall that occasionally hosts the town government, or the opposite direction leads you to a cavernous room with a vending machine and a small coffee maker. The back of the museum contains multitudes of artifact-laden desalinating bins, carefully arranged by our conservator, Asaf. His adjacent office is where the rest of the magic really happens.

I have seen little indication of dental tools, although we did recently acquire a suspiciously familiar drill. Most of the work is in registering the artifacts that are regularly found on the seafloor. The remarkable finds—rims or bases of pottery, or marbles with worked surfaces—are passed on for cataloguing and possibly drawing. For the cleaning that I have done, we used not toothbrushes, but broom heads, and worked vigorously to remove purple and green encrustations from the durable marble columns. Artifact drawing in particular is of interest to me, and I find that my favorite days at Rudinì have been those spent in what was once the machine room, carefully taking measurements for the cross section of a decorated marble panel.


15 July 2014

Each day after diving, we bring all new artifacts to Rudini, an old wine processing plant that was converted into a museum. There, we register, photograph and clean each artifact. Some we also draw and catalogue. I tend to work on the artifact photography, making a digital photographic record of each and every artifact. No matter how large or small, we need a visual record of it. I have the opportunity to examine each find, look closely at its facets and find the most interesting view of each artifact. I try to catch the light in just the right way to highlight the details of each piece. Sometimes I am focusing on one small item, while other times I am dealing with small groups of artifacts and must arrange them to provide the best display of their details. It may seem like a small task, but it’s a critical one and I really enjoy the opportunity to examine and preserve a visual record of what we find.


13 July 2014 

Marzamemi is mentioned in exactly two sentences in my guidebook to Sicily. Both refer to it as a small place down the road from some other small place. At the southernmost tip of Sicily, it is almost off the map. There is a definite sense of being at an edge, an end. Even the word Marzamemi does not sound Italian—maybe Arabic, someone suggested. Its weather is volatile, and it can come from any of three directions. “It’s the southern wind today,” someone said as I swatted after insects again. “They say it brings the flies.”

The place is engulfed by the Mediterranean. You can walk from the ocean on one side of the town only to hit, yet again, the ocean on the other side of town. As someone living next to the vast expanse called the Pacific, I somehow expected this sea to seem smaller, more tame. Looking at it for the first time, however, I could see no difference. In either case, it’s endless, rolling blue. (Though the water’s saltier, as I notice every time I accidentally gulp it down.) The Mediterranean is so strong that a marble column at the site was flipped over in a winter storm.

When I was first dropped off at the place where we’re staying, the air was thick with the smell of smoke, and I was bewildered to see the field outside our gates—burned, blackened, and still hot. Strangely enough, fire is a part of life here. Many Sicilians smoke cigarettes, and the yellow landscape frequently goes up in flame.

Marzamemi seems so far from everything that it is strange to look out into the ocean and try to imagine when there was an element more important to be close to than earth—it was water.



11 July 2014

When working in archaeology, one of the most important aspects is knowing exactly where artifacts come from on a site. Since it’s impossible to use a GPS or a Total Station underwater, we have to map sites differently on the sea floor. During the first season of excavation at Marzamemi, we hammered large metal stakes into rocks around the site as permanent reference points (datums). Using a program called Site Recorder (, a direct survey method involving pulling tapes from four or more datums, we measured the distances between datums and fixed their positions relative to each other. The program uses Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Information Management Systems (IMS) specially designed for use in underwater or terrestrial sites. 


Screenshot of objects being measured from datums in Site Recorder by Megan Collier


From these fixed points, we were able to measure in the columns, capitals, and other marble elements scattered across the site. We were then able to create an accurately scaled site plan of the Marzamemi wreck by entering this data in a 3D modeling program. We also used this information to produce a preliminary but precise plan by overlaying these fixed points on a photomosaic of the site in Photoshop and tracing over the topography. This season, we relocated these datums, re-measured them, and compared our results to last year’s to see how much they had changed. By doing this, we keep continuity between the site plan made last year and the one produced this year. Once we had the datums firmly fixed we measured in the grid we had set up and began excavation. 

But measuring this way presented its own set of new problems. In order to give accurate calculations, Site Recorder requires perfectly straight measurements from the datum to the point being measured.  As our excavation units moved lower and lower, it was almost impossible to get a measurement from any datum without bending the tape over a rock, marble piece, dredge part, or grid line. To overcome these obstacles, we began using a photogrammetry program, PhotoModeler, which measures and models objects and produces 3D points from photographs. Instead of using a tape measure to find the distance between points, this program uses a direct line of sight and the focal length of a camera to calculate a point’s relative position. Our divers can photograph a certain area from many different angles and PhotoModeler will calculate a point’s position using the photographs. This allows us to measure in objects that Site Recorder will not and allows the archaeologists to spend more time on excavation rather than measuring. Of course, since we are relying on photographs, whether we can use PhotoModeler depends heavily on the visibility under water.  Using these two programs in tandem permits us to measure in all artifacts no matter where they are placed or what the visibility is like.


Screenshot of a referenced image in PhotoModeler by Sheila Matthews


As new challenges arise in our work, we are constantly adapting our system, but so far, our new system combining methods has worked well.


9 July 2014

This week, we uncovered and raised four marble fragments from the seabed that appear to be pieces of one or two chancel screen panels. While the pieces are only partial, we can identify them based on the carved decoration that has survived almost 1,500 years underwater.

For me this was a particularly exciting discovery, as I have been studying the distribution of these panels as part of my dissertation research at the University of Southampton. These screens were popular in the mid to late 6th century AD; more than 300 examples have been identified at 96 locations throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea (including 16 here in Marzamemi). While the panels from our site have not yet been analyzed, the marble used to make panels found in North Africa and Northern Greece came from the island of Thasos in the Northeast Aegean.



Panel in situ, generated with photogrammetry software by Nicholas Dugdale


Chancel screens were utilized in Early Byzantine church architecture to separate the bema (or chancel, the inner sanctuary at the east end of the church where the altar is located and the clergy sit) from the main body of the church, the naos (or nave, where the congregation gathers). The panels often incorporated Christian symbols, and later on, natural or abstract motifs.


Aphentelli Basilica in Lesbos: reconstruction of bema indicating the position of chancel screen panels (Orlandos, A.K. 1954. He xylostegos basilike tes Mesogeiakes Lekanes, v. II, Athens 1954: 527, fig. 492).


Drawing of a panel raised by Kapitän from Marzamemi (Kapitän, G. 1980. “Elementi architettonici per una basilica dal relitto navale del VI secolo di Marzamemi (Siracusa).” Corsi di cultura sull’arte ravennate e bizantina 27: 71-136).

The recent discovery at Marzamemi is characterized by a wreathed christogram flanked by Latin crosses on either side. The christogram, which looks like a six-spoked wheel, is a common topos formed by the intersection of the Greek letters iota (I), for Iesous, and chi (X), for Christos. The spokes may also suggest the six attributes of God: power, majesty, wisdom, love, mercy, and justice. The stylized laurel wreath around the monogram is another frequent element in Imperial and Early Christian iconography, used as a symbol of triumph and resurrection. Finally, the Latin crosses remind of the crucifixion. In combination, these elements suggest the journey from crucifixion to resurrection alongside Imperial victories (perhaps those that had just occurred in Italy and North Africa) and Justinian’s proclaimed status as the physical representative of Christ on earth.


8 July 2014

Making a joke on site is sometimes a dangerous thing. Jokes can have the tendency to grow, and change, and take on a life you never intended. I made a joke about cooking.

I should be truthful in my cooking abilities upfront so you can fully understand how horrified I was to eventually be standing in a Sicilian kitchen with a giant knife and a giant slab of pork. My cooking abilities extend to the classic student meals. I am excellent at single person, simple meals that can pass for enough nutrients to make it through the day while spending as little as possible. I have cooked exactly 3 meat dishes in my life. Chicken, fish and turkey - most of those on a rare occasion, perhaps once a year when inspired. I can also make an almost perfect cookie – cookies are a fundamental building block to a healthy lifestyle.

So a joke was made, and that was repeated to Matteo, our fantastic but slightly terrifying, dive master and chef. It grew, took a life of its own, and next thing I knew I was being invited into the kitchen to be a guest cook for the next evenings meal.

Despite my general reluctance, I had a fabulous time. Matteo was patient, teaching through my horrid grasp of Italian and low skills with a knife. The end result was me in a hilarious chefs hat and a pork and tomato dish that the team ate without much teasing. My foray into being team cook was fun, but I think tomorrow I will attempt to simply enjoy the food prepared for us, avoid for the day, and do some archaeological tasks.

Pork – sliced into 1cm by 10 cm strips
Butter in a pot with some onion (constantly stirring)
Oil – about half a cup for a large pot that would feed 15, stir still
Tomatoes diced, about 5 cups. Stir gently, trying not to squish the tomatoes
A couple cloves of garlic
Salt – until it tastes right
Some curry powder
Then put the pork in and keep stirring until the pork looks finished
Let simmer for a little bit
Serve with bread on the side to soak up the sauce


4 July 2014

The week started out with several team members testing a new air lift which we hoped to use on site. They determined that this system was not exactly what we needed for moving sand in this area and so decided to switch to using water dredges. This system is proving far more efficient for moving large amounts of sand (which we certainly have) and easily operated from a small boat moored above. With the addition of two new dredges and an extra vessel for the pumps, our excavation is well underway. The site has been transformed by the addition of a grid delineated the area we are excavating as well as new labels on large marble pieces which replaced the old and missing ones from last year. We have opened three large square units in the grid and our teams have started removing sand from their areas. Each unit has its unique challenges from trying to work around large rocks to keeping sand from falling in along the sides, but our excavators are more than up for the challenge and have been making great progress. So far our efforts have been rewarded by the discovery of various ceramics, new marble artifacts, and several smaller stone fragments. We are excited to see what emerges next week!


4 July 2014

As someone who is entirely new to the field of archaeology, I arrived in Sicily with little idea of what to expect during an underwater excavation. After a multitude of flight complications and a couple of days spent searching for lost luggage, I really started getting into the excavation aspect of the dig. The basic archaeological techniques were interesting in themselves; things that work well on land require further consideration for their application under water. Something as seemingly simple as mapping the site is complicated by the lack of GPS technology, differing visibility for photographs, and inconsistent tape measurements due to surging swells and difficulties maneuvering around rocks and a sloping seabed. I soon came to realize that although providing archaeological provenance for artifacts is important, contemplating the implications of these objects is truly what’s developing my addiction to this field. My first find was a small, amphora body sherd a few inches down in the grid square my buddy and I had been assigned. The sherd would be unremarkable to most people, but to me it seemed as though I was the first kid to find an egg during an Easter egg hunt, and it has fueled me with a burning desire to find more. From fractured chunks of dark green marble to small fragments of ceramics and stone, there is a subtle significance in holding objects that were last touched by human hands hundreds of years ago. Whose hands were they? What purpose did they serve? A strange connection between the past and the present is forged as the bits and pieces fall back into place, and there are many pieces that still must be found before this story can be properly told. Each day brings another opportunity to find a tangible object that will shed light on the ever more mysterious events that brought the ship to its final destination off the coast of Sicily.


04 July 2014

Excavating an archaeological site on land is generally rather straightforward. Wearing t-shirts and sunhats, archaeologists use trowels to remove layers of dirt, stepping carefully so as not to crush anything or collapse the walls. Working underwater is entirely different—from gear and equipment, to techniques of excavation. It can be challenging underwater to stay buoyant and not hit anything while drawing, measuring or simply moving around the site. Since it’s not possible to do anything but gurgle through our regulators, all work takes place without speech or verbal instructions. It is necessary to be aware of all the extra gear now attached to us: mask, fins, tank, regulator, depth gauge, slate, etc. As on land, we have divided the site into excavation units, here 4 x 4 meter grid squares. Even though this may seem like a lot of room, it ends up feeling pretty tight with the artifacts, all our gear, and the dredge (a large hose that vacuums up sand to assist in the excavation). Working barefoot or in booties helps to solve the crowding problem as we no longer have to worry about the extra foot and half length of our fins, or the fear that our waving fins will stir up the sand, kick a grid line, or move artifacts and datum stakes. And it’s tremendous fun! It feels sort of like moonwalking—at least that's how I think of it. One moment I’m standing on a rock and then with a crouch and a leap I’m soaring through the water. I find it amazing how far I can go with a single bound. But the surface of the seabed is entirely different from the moon: a landscape of ancient columns, marble chips and ceramics jutting out of the ground. Every day of the excavation brings experiences that are surprising and new.

02 July 2014 

It had never occurred to me that digging could happen underwater. Sea and sand are relentless, irresistible forces, as anyone with a beachfront house or a sandcastle knows. You can impose your will on it for only a short period of time until it decides to stop humoring you and takes whatever it had in mind.


So I was fascinated when the Dredge appeared on our seafloor excavation site. The idea of moving sand in the ocean—and having it stay put—was so strange to me that it took a couple of days for me to comprehend the significance of the Dredge. At first, it might as well have been a spaceship, hovering above us, occasionally eclipsing the sun, and supporting a web of ropes and tubes. I would look up, dodge one of its appendages, and continue to work around it. There were diagrams and discussions of the Dredge, but the magnitude of what it was doing only became clear to me when I began to work with it.

I would wave (or waft, or fan—there’s some debate over the technique) my hand, and the sand, never having been directly touched, would swirl up and head toward the Dredge’s hungry mouth. It was magic: swish and flick, and then it was gone. As the silty clouds were swallowed up, they uncovered nests of rocks and, when we were lucky, artifacts.

The hand fanning seemed like a delicate process, yet the floor of our excavation square dropped down significantly, as evidenced by the surroundings and our original grid lines. Once I followed the longest tube of the Dredge, its tail, over a rocky crest and found its end: soft sand dunes that would indicate the presence of giant subterranean worms in any sci-fi movie worth its salt. Even though I understand the simple physics behind the Dredge, I am still in awe of it. In rearranging the ocean floor, it seems like it is defying the will of nature.


21 June 2014 

With the remainder of our team assembled over the past few days, today marks the first full week of work on the “Church Wreck” at Marzamemi. Already we are on track for a productive season, and our student divers made it into the water to tour the site and have been practicing their archaeological skills. Highlights from the week include: shooting thousands site photos to use for a 3D plan in PhotoScan; locating, stabilizing, replacing as necessary, and mapping the datum points and permanent markers established in 2013. Some of our efforts over the past few days have been devoted to preparing certain areas of the site for excavation, including delimiting an area for the first trenches as well as assembling and testing the functionality of our new excavation tools. Next week should see the initiation of excavation in several sandy areas where marble elements and other artifacts can been seen protruding from the seabed.



14 June 2014

Welcome to the new blog of the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project (MMHP), a collaborative excavation, survey, and heritage management initiative focusing on the maritime landscape and seaborne communication off the southeast coast of Sicily, Italy. Our setting in Marzamemi provides an ideal vantage point for studying long-term structures of regional and interregional maritime exchange from the pre-Roman era through the end of antiquity and beyond.

Following preliminary work in early fall 2012, our research here began in earnest in summer 2013, when our team from Stanford University and the Soprintendenza del Mare started comprehensive survey and excavation of the so-called “church wreck” in the shallows just north of the small fishing town of Marzamemi. This famous vessel, first explored by pioneering underwater archaeologist Gerhard Kapitän, sank while carrying prefabricated architectural elements for the construction of a late antique church during the 6th c. AD.

While our current work emphasizes recording and investigation of this particular wreck, the project embraces a broader approach to heritage that seeks not only to understand one shipwreck within the context of local Mediterranean maritime history, but to promote the protection and valorization of the material remains of the maritime past more generally for today’s local communities and visitors. Under development are a variety of heritage education and outreach components—museum displays, dive trails, etc.—that we hope will engage the scholarly and lay audience alike.

We hope you will find interest in following along with the project during its second field season (June-July 2014) and beyond.