An Ongoing Story

A story of the discovery and excavation of a mid-third century BCE Punic shipwreck, led by Honor Frost, a pioneer in the field of underwater archaeology

By Honor Frost Foundation

Archive images copyright of the Honor Frost Archive, Special Collections, University of Southampton

Filling tanks (1976)Honor Frost Foundation

What happened next?

With few comparative examples of ancient shipwreck recoveries, and modest resources, Honor and her team improvised many recovery and storage methods to protect the well preserved organic materials.

All the organic materials were desalinised in freshwater and some smaller finds were conserved in a freeze-drier.  Ship timbers were treated with water-soluble wax, or polyethylene glycol (PEG), with guidance from Michael Katzev’s team that had first experimented with PEG to conserve the 4th century BC Greek shipwreck recovered at Kyrenia (Cyprus) just a couple of years earlier. The finds helped the team to determine when, where and how the ship was built.  

Recording the Punic Markings (1976) by Honor FrostHonor Frost Foundation

How was the ship dated?

The wreck was dated to the mid-third century BC using several methods. While stylistic dating of its pottery contents was less conclusive, the Punic epigraphic analyses indicated a date between 300 and 265 BC, and radiocarbon measurements of dunnage branches yielded a date of 235 ± 65.

The First Punic War

Circumstantial evidence, together with these dates, led Honor to propose a direct connection to the famous sea battle of the Egadi Islands that concluded the First Punic War, on March 10, 241 BC, in which the decisive Roman win over the Carthaginian fleet opened the Mediterranean Sea to Roman conquest.

Plaster casts (1974)Honor Frost Foundation

Making models

Honor pioneered a number of innovative techniques to document the Punic ship.  A three-dimensional record of the ship’s stern, keel and floor timbers was made using plaster casts, creating copies of key parts of the ship structure, and providing a model in case of distortion or damage to the original timbers during conservation.

The plaster casts were also intended as a useful aid to understanding the architecture of the ship without handling the fragile timbers. This initiative was funded by Pietro Alagna of the Cantine Pellegrino winery of Marsala, where the casts remain on display today.

The Baglio Anselmi, Lilibeo Museum

The Regional Archaeology Museum of Lilybaeum-Marsala is a 19th century industrial building originally built as a wine factory. It was converted into a dedicated museum for the Punic Ship and opened to the public in 1986.

The hull timbers were re-assembled and mounted on a metal frame support based on architectural lines drawings that the naval architect Austin Farrar derived from the hull remains.

Honor’s contribution and her untiring efforts to preserve the ship for the Marsalaesi led to her being elected Honorary Citizen of Marsala.

The ship on display (2019)Honor Frost Foundation

3D Digitisation

From 2018 to 2019 a project was carried out to assess the condition of the ship; as part of this research, a high accuracy 3D digital model of the ship was created, providing a digital record of the ship.

Honor working on the recovered timbers by Steve NathansonHonor Frost Foundation

An ongoing story

Maritime archaeology as a discipline is constantly evolving as we find novel ways to investigate and understand archaeological sites. 
In her final report (1981), Honor outlined how future discoveries would help illuminate some otherwise puzzling features of the ship.

Having published her fieldwork data and initial interpretations, Honor invited specialists to engage in a fuller conversation regarding the analysis and interpretation of the unique Punic vessel. While it remains true that no ancient galleys of the Punic era have been recovered since the Marsala project, the site continues to inspire new research. 

Virtual Dive ScreenshotHonor Frost Foundation

Explore the site virtually

Using Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) we have produced a virtual dive of the site as it looked in the 1970s. Follow this link to explore the site and find out more about this unique find and ground-breaking project.

Credits: Story

This exhibition was created by the Honor Frost Foundation, archive images are courtesy of the Honor Frost Archive, Special Collections, Hartley Library, University of Southampton

The Regional Archaeology Museum of Lilybaeum-Marsala 

The Alagna Family and the Cantine Pellegrino winery of Marsala 

Claire Calcagno, Independent Scholar

Giulia Boetto, Centre Camille Julien, Aix-Marseille University, CNRS    

Grant Cox, Artas Media   

Lauren Tidbury, Honor Frost Foundation

Lucy Blue, Honor Frost Foundation

Mateusz Polakowski, University of Southampton

Pat Tanner, 3D Scanning Ireland Ltd/University of Southampton

Frost, H. et al., 1981, Lilybaeum (Marsala). The Punic Ship: Final Excavation Report. Notizie degli scavi di antichita, Supplement to Vol. 30 (1976), Serie Ottava. Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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