Marzamemi Shipwreck: Moving Christian Architecture for Justinian’s Empire

2 mins read

Justin Leidwanger and Sebastiano Tusa dive into a 6th-century puzzle off the coast of Sicily.

This serpentine tangle of water dredges and fire hoses, anchored with concrete blocks and partially suspended with air-filled buckets, is key to current underwater excavation.


In 1959, a local fisherman, searching for cuttlefish in the shallow waters off the coast of south-east Sicily, spotted several carved stone blocks nestled among the rocks, reef, and sand about a kilometre from the coastal port of Marzamemi. An archaeological expedition, led by Gerhard Kapitän with Pier Nicola Gargallo, set out to investigate. To everyone’s surprise, the blocks comprised distinctive architectural fragments, including an intricately carved stone ambo, or pulpit, designed for a Late Antique church. Now, more than half a century later, a new archaeological project is again piecing together these mysterious finds and the ship that carried them.

Carved ambo panels depicting parts of Latin crosses.

In those early underwater expeditions, Kapitän’s team of professional divers and enthusiastic volunteers identified large marble columns, capitals, and bases scattered across a wide area, with still more pieces lying beneath the sand. Certain other objects were sculpted with religious iconography, and most appeared unfinished. As a whole, they seemed to belong to a shipwrecked cargo of architectural parts intended for an early Christian church of the 6th century AD.
This Late Antique ‘church wreck’ belongs to the period that saw the emperor Justinian I embark on an enthusiastic programme of church building to renew both what remained of the Roman Empire and the centrality of its Christian practice. Underwater archaeology was in its infancy in the 1960s, but Kapitän’s pioneering investigations put the site on the map and paved the way for more intensive research. In 2013, Stanford University and the Soprintendenza del Mare picked up where he left off.

The Marzamemi ship lies in water just 8m deep, at the base of a steep reef. Higher modern sea levels obscure the fact that, in antiquity, the top of this reef would have been just over a metre from the sea surface. Perhaps the ship’s crew, misjudging the depth of the shallow water at this point, ran aground; the ship sank, toppling down the bank of the reef, before coming to rest on the seabed.

The shallow depth also exposes the site to strong weather, particularly during winter, when shifting sands uncover and recover objects – even large column pieces have moved on occasion. Moreover, the region is prone to tectonic activity, and there are reports of dynamite fishing in the area, both of which almost certainly contributed to the collapse, in places, of the soft reef onto parts of the site. However, we have enough clues to give us an idea of the vessel’s original layout on the seabed.

While sand can be moved fairly briskly from the site, disentangling large and sometimes eroded elements from rocks and reef is an arduous and precise task. Slowly excavating through, around, and under this complex jumble is key to understanding, for example, when large pieces of columns became wedged under boulders, where small objects may have trickled down through the reef and shifting sands, and how all of these finds can be woven back together into a narrative about the ship, its journey, and its broader world. New challenges demand new methods: 3D stereo-photogrammetry, provided through partnership with Suor Orsola Benincasa University researchers in Naples, involves using multiple images that are cross-referenced automatically to produce high-resolution topographical data across large areas, allowing us not only to document the excavation site but also, eventually, to reconstruct the original deposition.

This is an excerpt from an article published in CWA 81.  Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.

CGI reconstruction of a Byzantine church interior with the ambo in the centre.


Images: Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project; Regione Siciliana Soprintendenza Beni Culturali e Ambientali di Siracusa;  Stan Verbeek/VODAL: Virtual Heritage Reconstructions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.