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K. Kris Hirst

The Secrets of the Dead: Lost Ships of Rome

By November 14, 2010

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The November 17 episode of the PBS series Secrets of the Dead follows along with Timmy Gambin, an underwater archaeologist at the Aurora Trust, as he investigates a handful of Roman shipwrecks off the Mediterranean island of Ventotene.

Recovery of Roman wine amphora from 1st century BC
Recovery of Roman wine amphora from 1st century BC. Photo by
Rob Hartel

Ventotene, called Pandataria by the Romans, is located some 43 nautical miles from Naples. It was first colonized by the first Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, who built a villa and a port on the island in the first century BC.

Craig Mullen and Timmy Gambin with a Roman mortar from 1st century BC.
Craig Mullen and Timmy Gambin with a Roman mortar from 1st century BC
Photo Credit: Piers Leigh

The diving expedition gets a look at four shipwrecks, each of them 300 or more feet underwater. The episode focuses on several aspects of Roman economy, including cookware, pier construction, water control and the famous fish sauce called garum. It also shines light into the life of Caesar's daughter Julia, exiled by her father to Ventotene in 2 BC, for either adultery or plots against Caesar's empire.

In addition to Gambin, the program features the research of classicist Annelise Freisenbruch, historian Salvatore Sciano, and expert divers from the Aurora Trust and the Italian Carabinieri. Also featured, although not in detail, is the Amphora Project at Southampton University.

The best part of "The Lost Ships of Rome", as far as I'm concerned, is the glimpse into Roman life: trade, food, politics, family, even construction of a huge network of underground tunnels to conduct freshwater to the villa. Amazing stuff!

Roman Port at Ventotene
Roman Port at Ventotene. Photo by
Piers Leigh

Narrated by Leiv Schreiber, "Secrets of the Dead: Lost Ships of Rome" airs on Wednesday evening, November 17, 2010. Check local listings.

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