Archives For Mediterranean Sea

Ramming Speed

April 4, 2013 — Leave a comment
battering ram

Athenian Trireme
CC Image Courtesy of Yannis on Flickr

Nearly 50 years ago, British divers off the coast of Libya discovered a metal object that turned out to be a 44 pound bronze ram from a Greek or Roman warship. Only recently, though, has a thorough analysis of the object, dubbed the Belgammel Ram, been conducted and the results have been published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. Dr. Flemming of the UK’s National Oceanography Centre brought together a scientific team with skill sets ranging from radiocarbon dating to metallurgy to 3-D imaging.

The ram had been previously established as not the primary ram found at the waterline of a ship, but rather a secondary ram termed a proembolion which would have “served to break the oars of an enemy ship.” Through the use of radiocarbon dating, the team established that the ram had originally been attached to a ship dating from 100 BC to 100 AD. 3-D imaging by Dr. Jon Adams of the University of Southampton revealed decorative images of tridents with a bird motif on the ram. Additionally, metallurgical sampling of the ram helped further archaeologists understanding of casting techniques from ancient times. Following the study, the Belgammel Ram will be returned to a museum in Libya.


Photo: Wrecksite

Less than a hundred years ago, Austria wasn’t a landlocked central European nation, but a large empire with a coastline stretching from Trieste in the north to modern day Montenegro in the south. During this period, ocean liners of  Lloyd Triestino plied back between Austria-Hungary and other locales throughout the Mediterranean, Middle East, India and Far East. Among those liners was the SS Wien, a 7,767 ton liner built in 1911 and named for the Austrian capital of Vienna. Upon the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the ship was requisitioned by the Austrian Navy for service as a hospital ship. During the war she served in both the Austrian and German navies until a mere ten days before Armistice Day. On November 1, 1918, Italian frogmen launched a mission that resulted in the successful sinking of the Wien.

Raised in 1921 and renamed Vienna, the ship returned to service as a liner and had her name changed yet again to Po – a name change which better reflected her post-war Italian ownership. The Po was again requisitioned for service as a hospital ship, this time for the Italian Regia Marina. On March 14, 1941 the Po was sunk by British aircraft in Valona Bay off the coast of Albania. Thus the ship suffered the ignominy of having been sunk in both World Wars.

Cartagena Coastline

Coast off Cartagena, Spain
CC Image Courtesy of Begona Martinez on Flickr

Civil wars are always tragic affairs with brother turned against brother and a country ripped asunder over conflicting social, economic or political visions. The Spanish Civil War of 1936 – 1939 was especially tragic, though, as the country became a proxy battlefield for the two nastiest political philosophies of the 20th century – communism and national socialism. Units from the Soviet Union supported the Republicans while forces from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy operated in support of the Nationalists under Francisco Franco. All three outside actors used the conflict as an opportunity to hone the tactics they would employ in World War II, among them terrorizing civilian populations with airstrikes such as that of Guernica.

The largest naval battle of the war occurred on March 6, 1938 and flowed directly from international involvement in the conflict. Nationalist naval forces including heavy cruisers Baleares and Canarias were escorting a convoy of war material from Italy when they happened upon a Republican force of two light cruisers and five destroyers off the coast of Cartagena, Spain. At first it seemed as if a pitched battle would be avoided as the squadrons passed one another and made no serious effort to engage the other. The Republicans, though, later decided to pursue the Nationalist forces and around 2:15am the exchange of naval gunfire began.

Nationalist Heavy Cruiser BalearesPhoto: Wrecksite

Nationalist Heavy Cruiser Baleares
Photo: Wrecksite

Unbeknownst to the Nationalist force, the Republican squadron had detached its destroyer escort which launched a torpedo attack on the Nationalists’ heavy cruisers. Two or three torpedoes struck home on the Baleares and caused a catastrophic explosion in her forward magazine. The bow of the ship quickly sank, taking with her 765 crew and officers, while the stern remained afloat and sheltered her 441 remaining crewmen from death. The rest of the Nationalist force withdrew and two Royal Navy destroyers intervened to rescue the survivors.

Although not strategically significant, the battle, which came to be known as the Battle of Cape Palos, did serve as a propaganda victory for the waning Republican cause. During the 1970s, a second Baleares, a guided missile frigate,  joined the Spanish Navy and was recently retired.

Edward Pellew

Stephen Taylor’s latest book, Commander, documents the life of Edward Pellew, a British naval officer who rose to fame during the Napoleonic Wars. Taylor builds on the work of two previous biographies to present the most complete and balanced description of a man considered to be the greatest frigate captain of the Royal Navy. Most Americans, and perhaps many British citizens, associate Pellew with the same-named fictional commander of HMS Indefatigable in C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. Pellew, though, is considered the inspiration (along with Sir Thomas Cochrane) for Forester’s Hornblower character as well as Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey character.

Taylor meticulously documents Pellew’s entire life including his youth in Cornwall, his path to the sea, and his early service in the American Revolution on the Great Lakes. Relying on personal correspondence and the efforts of Pellew’s son at preserving his father’s legacy, Taylor reconstructs for the reader Pellew’s various single ship commands and joint operations, including his most famous command, HMS Indefatigable. Especially noteworthy is the behind the scene squabbles that occurred between Pellew and various members of the British nobility and naval establishment.

For instance, while serving as commander of the Indian naval station, Pellew engaged in rigorous conflict with the Admiralty in England as well as another commander on station. Taylor highlights how this particular conflict not only hurt Pellew’s career, but also prevented the taking of the French island of Mauritius (an idea Pellew was pursuing) until later in the war. As a result, French privateers and men of war continued to operate from Mauritius at great cost to British shipping. Taylor concludes with Pellew’s masterful victory over the Barbary Pirates at Algiers in August 1816 and his retirement in England.

Overall, Taylor presents the reader with a well-documented and readable account of Pellew’s life. While some readers may wish for more swashbuckling tales a la Horatio Hornblower, Taylor’s intent was to present a well-rounded account of Pellew’s entire life and not just the daring exploits for which he became famous. Commander is an excellent read and anyone wishing to better understand the Napoleonic Wars and a central figure from them would do well to purchase and read it.

Odysseus' and the sirens

CC Image Courtesy of Ken & Nyetta on Flickr

The Mediterranean Sea continues to give up the secrets it harbors from Greek and Roman times. This week, archaeologists working in Turkey discovered the well-preserved remains of 2 Roman-era shipwrecks. Excavations have been ongoing in the area since 1995 and are being performed by Italian archaeologists. The site was once the location of a Roman trading city named Elaiussa Sebaste which was founded in the 2nd century BC. One ship is from the Roman Imperial period and the other from around 500 AD. They both contain cargoes of amphorae and marble. Archaeologists hope that further excavations and study will supply insight into Roman trading patterns between Elaiussa Sebaste, Syria, Egypt and the Anatolian peninsula.

Work on a third wreck, this one from around 350 BC, is likely to assist archaeologists in their understanding of Greek shipbuilding techniques. Dubbed the Mazotos Wreck, the ship was discovered in 2006 and archaeological work began in 2007. This year the team found that approximately 45 feet of planking as well as the ship’s keel have been preserved and are useful for study. The ship was carrying ~1,000 jugs of wine when it sank and the remains of its cargo have helped researchers better understand the trade of ancient Greece.

These are not the only discoveries made this year in ancient Greek and Roman maritime archaeology. Earlier this year, surveyors for a gas pipeline discovered a Roman era wreck that dispelled the belief that Roman trading vessels hugged the shoreline and did not traverse open water. Robert Ballard also discovered two wrecks off the coast of Cyprus. With the continuation of exploration operations on the Antikythera Mechanism wreck, there could be even more revelations to come as the year draws to a close.


Today, Venice is best known for its graceful gondolas and idyllic streets of water, however, for several centuries it was a powerful city-state which exerted economic and political control over a large swath of northern Italy and the Adriatic Sea. Perhaps the Republic of Venice’s greatest accomplishment was on October 7, 1571 when naval forces led by Venice’s Doge Sebastiano Venier defeated Ottoman forces at the Battle of Lepanto.

For nearly a hundred years the Ottomans had waged an off and on war against various Italian city-states and the Kingdom of Spain. Prompted by the capture of a Venetian colony on the island of Cyprus, the Venetians and their Christian allies assembled a force of 212 galleys and galleasses to launch a punitive expedition against the Ottomans and free the imprisoned colonists. The Christian and Ottoman fleets encountered one another in the Gulf of Patras on October 7th and immediately engaged in combat. Although outnumbering the Christian fleet by nearly 40 ships, the Ottoman forces were decimated by the superior guns and seamanship of the Christian fleet. The Christians captured approximately 130 ships and destroyed another 80 while losing only 50 of their own with 1 captured by the Ottomans. Additionally, the Ottomans suffered 20,000 casualties to the 7,500 lost by the Christian fleet and more than 10,000 imprisoned Christian rowers were freed from slavery.

The battle was one of the most significant naval victories in history and marked the high-water mark of the Ottoman Navy. No longer would Venice or any of her sister Italian city-states be existentially threatened by the Ottoman Empire. Venice reasserted her economic dominance of the region, however, changes in technology and trading routes eventually led to the city’s graceful dive into impotence. The city lost her independence in 1797 when Napoleon Bonaparte captured the city and she became a pawn in European geopolitics for the next 80 years until her incorporation into the Kingdom of Italy in 1866. Today though, there are growing calls for Venetian independence amidst the Eurozone crisis and continuing Italian austerity.

The Battle of Lepanto has been honored by the naming of two ships in the Italian Navy after the battle. The Genoese commander of one wing of the Christian fleet, Admiral Andrea Doria, became one of Italy’s most famous naval heroes and is perhaps most associated with the wreck of his namesake, the Italian liner Andrea Doria, which sank after colliding with the Swedish ship Stockholm in 1956.

More than 100 years ago, Greek skin divers discovered the remains of an ancient shipwreck nearly 200 feet below the surface of the Aegean Sea near the Greek island of Antikythera. For 2 years, divers utilized crude diving gear to recover items from the wreck. Among the items discovered was what appeared to be a random assortment of cogs and gears. Not until 2006 were scientists able to discern that the object was in fact an ancient computer designed for use as a calendar as well as to show the positions of the sun, moon and planets in the sky. The computer, termed the Antikythera Mechanism, could evn predict the timing of eclipses. The device is believed to have been built in the 1st century BC and the video above shows a Lego recreation of the device.

The diving technology of the early 20th century prohibited a full survey of the site and 2 divers were left paralyzed from the bends and another killed during the work. Apart from a few brief dives on the site, it has remained undisturbed until this year. Scientists with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute are set to begin surveying the site this week after reaching a deal with the Greek government. Using rebreather gear and self-propelled dive scooters, the scientists will be able to dive deeper and go farther than earlier expeditions and hope to learn more about Greek trade patterns and technology from the expedition.


Messerschmitt 323 Gigant Disgorging Cargo

A year of researching obscure World War 2 era archival materials has paid off for Italian diver Cristina Freghieri and her team of divers. Although looking for a different wreck, the group discovered the intact remains of a Messerschmitt 323 Gigant downed by a Royal Air Force Bristol Beaufighter on July 26, 1943. The wreck was discovered nearly intact approximately 8 miles off Italy’s Maddalena Islands. Only ~200 Me 323 Gigants were produced during World War 2 and none survive today, thus there is a distinct possibility that the plane will be recovered and restored. Earlier this year the German Navy recovered the remains of a Ju 88 from the Baltic Sea with plans to restore and display the plane at the German Historical Museum’s Air Force Museum.

The Me 323 Gigant was developed from a glider design the Luftwaffe had commissioned in October 1940. The plane could accommodate up to 100 assault troops or 10-12 tons of cargo (by comparison a C-130 can lift 22.5 tons) in the form of field artillery and its halftrack, two trucks or even the ubiquitous 88mm flak gun. By the time they were deployed in late 1942, the Luftwaffe had begun to lose air superiority and the Gigant often fell prey to Allied fighters due to its slow speed. Due to its low volume of production and Allied air superiority, the Gigant never lived up to its full potential.

Robert Ballard Cyprus

CC Image courtesy of Erik Charlton on Flickr

Legendary underwater explorer Robert Ballard has added two more shipwrecks to his already incredible list of discoveries (RMS TitanicBismarck, USS Yorktown and John F. Kennedy’s PT 109). Ballard and his team spent two weeks off the Cypriot coast exploring the Erastosthenes Seamount, a 120km by 80km undersea mountain that was previously above water. The expedition’s chief goal was to survey the seamount’s geology through the use of submersibles and high definition cameras. Ballard plans to return in several weeks after the Nautilus is equipped with a new sonar system that will allow him and his team to map the seamount. Previously the seamount was believed to contain only limestone, but the expedition located a formation of volcanic rock that doesn’t fit the area’s geologic profile. Additionally, the team found a curious methane source on the formation which requires further investigation.

It was in the process of completing their geologic mapping that the team discovered the two wrecks. One ship is believed to have sunk 2,300 to 2,500 years ago and carried cargoes between Greece and Cyprus. Among the artifacts photographed at the scene are a variety of ceramics, two anchors, a possible bun ingot and several other unidentified objects. The second ship appears to be an Ottoman war galley and an 18th century flintlock pistol and black rum bottles were located amongst the wreckage. One question left unanswered by the expedition is the speculation that Ballard’s team was searching for a WWII-era wreck containing a gold cargo. There exists little grounds for such speculation, though, as Ballard is known for not seeking to directly profit from his underseas exploration.

Prior to this month’s expedition, Ballard helped Turkey locate the two Turkish pilots lost when their F-4 crashed under mysterious circumstances near the Syrian border.

Photo: Charles McCain

Earlier this week, Titan Salvage and its Italian partner Micoperi presented updated salvage plans for the stricken cruise ship Costa Concordia to the Italian goverment. Titan/Micoperi’s initial plan called for removal of the ship in January 2013, but delays in subcontractor deliveries has pushed the completion date to spring of 2013.

Immediately after the wreck on January 13, 2012, all fuel oil was pumped out of the ship’s bunkers and a bidding process initiated for salvage proposals. Titan/Micoperi was awarded the salvage contract and began planning for the removal of the ship from the coast off the Italian island of Giglio.  Titan has salvaged some of the world’s most difficult wrecks and has now completed initial environmental and site assessment for the Concordia salvage. The wreck initially hurt the general tourism industry on Giglio, but “disaster tourism” has spurred an increase in day trippers ferrying to the island to gawk at the wreck.