Archaeologists unveil complete Roman ship

Friday, May 16, 2003

DE MEERN, Netherlands -- Archaeologists unveiled the oldest shipwreck ever recovered in the Netherlands on Thursday, an astonishingly well-preserved Roman military transport that sank along the banks of the Rhine 18 centuries ago.

Although other ships have been found in what was the sprawling Roman Empire, the flat-bottomed barge is one of the few found north of the Alps. It was built about 180 A.D., when Marcus Aurelius passed the throne to the emperor Commodus.

"What's really exciting is that the type is slightly different from others that have been found," said maritime archaeologist Andre van Holk, who oversaw the excavation.

The ship's 75-foot-long exterior is intact, as are a masthead and iron nails. The ship, along with its wooden mooring, was found in De Meern, about three miles west of Utrecht, near what was once the site of a Roman military camp.

The Romans first arrived in the region at the time of Julius Caesar, about 53 B.C., and the Rhine later became one border of the Empire.

Several Roman watchtowers have been discovered along the river in the same area. One apparently was burned during an uprising by local tribes about 69 A.D.

After Roman times, the river changed course, and the entire complex around De Meern was buried under a deep layer of mud, clay and sand which kept the ship from rotting.

The ship "must have sunk in some kind of accident," Van Holk said. "It may have been natural causes, such as a heavy storm on the river, or it may have been capsized. The flat bottom construction makes it easy to tip."

The bow of the ship was open for loading supplies, or possibly men and livestock. Near the stern a roof covered a kitchen and a cabin furnished with a carved chest and a small cabinet, the keys to which have been recovered in near mint condition.

Remains of a bed or couch also were found, as were wooden stool legs made of walnut and carved with spiral grooves. The rest of the ship was built from massive oak planks. The wood was not native to the area where the barge was found and probably came from France or Germany.

Among the items uncovered with the wreck were leather shoe soles, complete with studded bottoms for extra strength; a knife, a saw; a wooden shovel; shears; a copper pot; clay cups and pots; a paddle with traces of blue paint; a perfectly preserved iron crowbar, and a piece of wood with Roman numerals.

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