How was a 2,000 Year Old Ship Built?

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

Punic Ship Timbers (1971-08-20) by Honor FrostHonor Frost Foundation

How was the punic ship built?

The ship was constructed “shell first”: that is, the transversal frames and floor timbers were inserted after the hull shell of planking was erected on either side of the central keel. The planks were held together by oak tenons inserted into mortises along the plank edges, and pegged. 

The planking was made from pine and the frames from oak and maple. The original vessel is estimated to have been between 25 and 35 meters long, about 4.8 meters wide, and between 2 and 2.7 meters high -- a sleek, fast ship. Evidence suggests that the ship was quickly built and still new when it met its demise.

Lead Sheathing (1973)Honor Frost Foundation

Sheathing

The outer hull planking was protected from marine wood-boring organisms by a layer of lead sheathing that was in an exceptionally bad state of preservation due to the effects of the salt water. 

The outer hull planking was protected from marine wood-boring organisms by a layer of lead sheathing that was in an exceptionally bad state of preservation due to the effects of the salt water.

Phoenicio-Punic letterings and markings (1972) by Honor FrostHonor Frost Foundation

Shipwright's marks
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Evidence of prefabrication

Perhaps the greatest discovery involved the over one hundred painted and incised markings on the timbers. These were carefully studied by epigraphist William Johnstone, who confirmed Honor's idea that they related to the Phoenicio-Punic alphabet. 

He determined that they had served to guide the Punic shipwrights in the hull construction sequence.

Together, these findings point to a system of prefabrication - the first ever identified in an ancient vessel, although hinted at in ancient literary sources.

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



References
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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