August 12, 2005

Italian Archeologists on Trail of Ancient Warships

ROME -- Italian archaeologists believe they are on the verge of finding the ancient ships downed in the battle of the Aegates Islands more than 2,000 years ago thanks to modern technology and a police tip-off.

"This project has an enormous historical value, but perhaps more important is the relevance for archaeology," Sebastiano Tusa, Sicily's chief of marine culture, told Reuters on Friday.

"What we find will help us understand how wars were waged at that time and how battleships were built."

After two years of underwater searches around the islands, which lie west of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea, experts last year found a bronze helmet and some amphorae from about 241 BC, the date of the decisive Roman victory over the Carthage fleet.

At around the same time, a team of Italy's famed art police busted a collector who had a ship's bronze battering ram from the same period on display in his home. It turned out the relic had been illegally looted using nets from the same area.

Unfortunately for Sicily's archaeologists, that area lies 70 metres (230 feet) below sea level.

"We couldn't dive on it, so about four months ago we started a technical probe of the region," Tusa said.

Experts from Sicily and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology in Austin, Texas used sonar and multi-beam bathymetric technology to scan the sea bed and sent down remotely controlled cameras.

"Now, we're certain we have found the location of the battle, but we have yet to discover how much was actually preserved," he said.

"What we really expect to find are remnants of the warships with battering rams and various other weapons like helmets, lances and the heavier tools that would have sunk immediately."

He said works, which were put on hold for analysis of the data, will resume in September and that a discovery could be announced as soon as October.

The Battle of the Aegates Islands was the final naval battle between the fleets of Carthage and the Roman Republic during the First Punic War and marked a turning point for the two powers. Carthage went into decline after its defeat.

Pinpointing the location of the battle and the some sunken 60 ships has been difficult since fighting lasted for up to four hours while the vessels moved in a southerly direction.

The Carthaginian force included 250-300 newly built warships as well as about 400 cargo ships bearing food and agricultural and war equipment.

Tusa said the finds will be the showcase of a new museum dedicated to the battle being built in a former tuna fishing factory on the isle of Favignana.