Perfectly Preserved Roman Wreck Discovered

Remarkably, it was found just 2m below the surface off one of Mallorca’s busiest beaches and tens of thousands of tourists flocking to this Mediterranean island will have swum, unknowingly, straight over it.


Jumble of intact Roman amphorae in the sunken ship.
Photograph: Jose A Moya/Arqueomallornauta - Consell de Mallorca, Universitat de Barcelona, Universidad de Cádiz, Universitat de les Illes Balears

Until last month, its miraculously preserved treasures in the Bay of Palma had lain untouched for 1,700 years. Now, however, the boat (12m long and between 5 and 6m wide) – known as the Ses Fontanelles wreck – is giving up its archaeological, historical and gastronomic secrets. An expert recovery operation has retrieved about 300 amphorae as well as other objects that offer priceless insights into the Mediterranean of the fourth century AD and the crew’s daily lives.


The project is "about recovering and preserving both the wreck and its historical cargo. This isn’t just about Mallorca; in the whole western Mediterranean, there are very few wrecks with such a singular cargo,” says Jaume Cardell, the region's head of archaeology.


“It’s important in terms of naval architecture because there are very few ancient boats that are as well preserved as this one,” says Dr Darío Bernal-Casasola, an archaeologist at the University of Cádiz. “There are no complete Roman boats in Spain.”


Two scuba divers exploring the wreck just below the surface of the sea
Divers at the Ses Fontanelles wreck site, 50 metres off one of Mallorca’s busiest beaches. Photograph: Jose A Moya/Arqueomallornauta - Consell de Mallorca, Universitat de Barcelona, Universidad de Cádiz, Universitat de les Illes Balears

What’s more, he adds, the amphorae represent an improbable subaquatic archaeological hat-trick: “It’s incredibly difficult – almost impossible – to find whole amphorae that bear inscriptions, and also still have the remains of their contents.


The state of conservation here is just amazing. And you have got all this in just 2 metres of water where millions of people have swum.”


For Enrique García Riaza, a historian at the University of the Balearic Islands, the wreck highlights the commercial and strategic importance of the Balearic archipelago during the Roman empire.


“The islands weren’t cut off – on the contrary, they were a fundamental staging post on routes from the Iberian peninsula and the Italic peninsula,” he says. “In Roman times, the cities of the Balearic archipelago had political elites who were also very well connected to the main Roman cities of the Mediterranean coast, such as Cartagena and Tarragona.”

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