August 15, 2005

Archeologists on trail of ancient warships

By Shasta Darlington

ROME (Reuters) - 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

At around the same time, a team of Italy's famed art police

busted a collector who had a ship's bronze battering ram

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.