The Discovery of the Marsala Punic Ship

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

Marsala, Sicily

In 1971 the Marsala Punic Ship was discovered by chance off the west coast of Sicily during underwater archaeological surveys by an international team led by Honor Frost. 

Over the course of the next seven years the remains of the vessel were excavated, recovered, conserved and reconstructed. The hull, which dates to the mid-third century BCE, was first put on public display in 1986.

Honor Frost in Sicily (1969)Honor Frost Foundation

A pioneer in underwater archaeology

Honor Frost was a pioneering maritime archaeologist and one of the first female practitioners in the field. The work she undertook on the Marsala Punic Ship was unique at the time, as the wreck was believed to be an ancient military galley - possibly the first ever discovered. 

The site has provided valuable information on Punic ship building techniques and has contributed significantly to maritime archaeological research. 

The Sand Dredger the Motya (1970)Honor Frost Foundation

Initial discoveries

In 1969 a sand dredger operating in western Sicily outside the Marsala lagoon uncovered several unusual ship timbers. The dredger captain, Diego Bonini, immediately contacted Edoardo Lipari, a local archaeology enthusiast, who alerted the authorities. 

When maritime archaeologist Gerhard Kapitän and Honor Frost visited nearby Mozia that summer, Lipari brought them to investigate the ship remains. Intrigued by evidence of several ancient wreck sites, they determined to return the following year to investigate further. 

Initial survey of the area (1970) by Honor Frost and Robert YorkeHonor Frost Foundation

The search continues

In 1970, armed with a permit from the Palermo Archaeological Superintendency, Honor Frost returned to Marsala. The shipwreck she had hoped to investigate had disappeared beneath shifting sands.

However, a more general survey revealed some isolated timbers and scattered finds on the seabed including a spearhead, a military-type anchor, possibly a corvus (a device to board enemy ships) and many metal concretions, as well as several piles of ballast stones.

The combined assemblage and general absence of ship cargo remains, suggested to Honor that they might be dealing with vessels associated with military activities -- a tempting idea given that the sea battles of the First Punic War had taken place nearby. 

Honor on the rib (1970) by Robert YorkeHonor Frost Foundation

A remarkable discovery

The team returned in 1971 and continued their systematic survey across the area. During a line survey on August 7th the team photographer, David Singmaster, went a little off course to retrieve a stray marker, and that’s when he discovered a bizarre, recently exposed timber poking out of the sand. Honor went over to investigate...  

First views of the ship (1971)Honor Frost Foundation

Discovering the Punic Ship

 “Between two piles of ballast-stones, a large timber (such as I had never seen before) emerged from the sand like the head of a primeval animal crowned with weed; the presence of a buried wreck was evident.” (Frost, 1981)
The team had found what they later determined to be the sternpost of the vessel, recently exposed by the shifting sands, in just 2.5 metres of water. 

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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