An international team of underwater archaeologists made an incredible discovery last year, when they found three new shipwrecks in the treacherous Mediterranean waters off the coast of Tunisia. One of the wrecks is ancient, dating back to somewhere between 100 BCE and 200 CE, while the other two are thought to be from the late 19th or early 20th centuries.
The finds were made during a mission to the Skerki Bank, an area approximately 200 nautical miles in length that sits between the Sicilian and Tunisian coastlines in the Mediterranean Sea. Historically, this was one of the busiest shipping channels in the world, providing a direct trading route between the great city of Carthage and the Roman Empire. More recently, the area played host to several naval battles during World War 2.
But the area also poses significant hazards to the vessels that seek to traverse it, with the most dangerous section being Keith Reef. The rocky elevations here reach almost to the surface of the water at one point, an invisible deathtrap that helps explain why dozens of wrecks have already been found in the region.
For the first time, the archaeologists on this mission were able to produce a detailed bathymetric map of the seafloor around Keith Reef, which allowed them to spot the three newly discovered wrecks. They sailed on new research vessel the Alfred Merlin, and used a robot called Hilarion, as well as multibeam sonar, to gather as much information as possible about the region.
The first of the new finds is the wreck of a large, motorized, metal vessel from the late 19th or early 20th centuries. No trace of any cargo was found, which could indicate that it had none or that the cargo was perishable. The fact there’s no indication that any lifeboats were present may indicate that the crew was able to escape the ship before she sank.
The second wreck is of approximately the same age, but made of wood and probably not motorized. Again, no cargo was found, and since this wreck was smaller (at 15 meters [50 feet] long), the team speculates that it could have been a fishing boat.
The third and final new discovery, however, is significantly more ancient. Likely a Roman merchant vessel, the team dated it to between the end of the first century BCE and the middle of the second century CE. It’s thought it may have been carrying wine, as the remains of some amphorae were also found.
Along with the incredible new finds, the team was also able to get a close look at some other wrecks closer to the Italian coast, which had previously been documented by US explorers in the 1990s.
The mission, bringing together 28 experts from Algeria, Croatia, Egypt, France, Italy, Morocco, Spain, and Tunisia, was coordinated by UNESCO as part of a wider goal of conserving underwater heritage. As UNESCO outlined in a statement:
“Underwater heritage is vulnerable to exploitation, trawling and fishing, trafficking and the impacts of climate change, therefore this mission aimed to demarcate the precise zone in which many shipwrecks lie, and to document all the artefacts.”