Diving into History: Roman Stone Carrier

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The glorious marble monuments of Greece and Rome are architectural masterpieces to be sure, but they are also great feats of engineering and logistics. After spending the last four years excavating the wreck of a first-century B.C. stone carrier in southeastern Turkey, nautical archaeologist Deborah Carlson of Texas A&M University has a unique perspective on how those great buildings took shape. “The ship was carrying a column,” says Carlson. “It had eight giant marble column drums, each about five feet across, and a capital.” Stacked one on top of another, the drums would have formed a 30-foot-high Doric column.

The ship foundered off Kızılburun (“Crimson Cape”), only 40 miles from the Temple of Apollo at Claros, famous for an oracle similar to the one at Delphi. Based on detailed measurements and stylistic analysis, Carlson is now virtually certain the column was intended for Claros. “It’s an eye-opener in terms of the logistics,” she says. “The eight drums in the cargo, which together weigh about 50 tons, weren’t enough for a single column at Claros, each of which was made of 11 or 12 drums. Using a ship like this one would have required 20 voyages to supply enough marble for the 14 known columns at Claros.” Geological studies have pinpointed a quarry on Marmara Island in the Sea of Marmara in northern Turkey, as the likely source of the marble.

Carlson’s team moved the drums with lift balloons in order to excavate a wooden pallet that protected the hull of the stone carrier. They also found marble headstones and basins that were probably bound for Claros. Perhaps the most poignant find was a terracotta statuette portraying a pillar with a bearded face, likely on board as the ship’s protective deity.

To learn more about marine archaeology, please visit Archaeology Archives.

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