Roman wreck with sealed amphorae found at Mallorcan beach

This July, Félix Alarcón and his wife were walking on the Can Pastilla beach beach at Palma de Mallorca when they came across the pieces of clay amphorae sticking out of the seabed. The artifacts had been exposed by a strong storm. He alerted the Cultural Patrimony Council of Mallorca who confirmed there was a Roman-era cargo ship approximately 33 feet long and 16 feet wide just a few meters from one of the most popular tourist-frequented beaches on the Balearic Islands. 

The councilor for heritage quickly commissioned the Instituto Balear de Estudios en Arqueología Marítima to excavate the site which was so exposed it was at immediate risk of damage and theft from the curious or treasure hunters. It was placed under 24-hour police surveillance to protect it while excavations were carried out.

A team of researchers from different fields — maritime archaeologists, naval architecture experts, restorers and documentary filmmakers — were deployed to salvage the wreck. They discovered a 3rd century A.D. cargo vessel that sank near Mallorca on its way from southern Iberia to Rome. Its cargo of amphorae is in impeccable condition and the wooden hull of the ship is also intact, making it one of the best preserved Roman shipwrecks in the southern Mediterranean.

Because so many of the jugs were undamaged, archaeologists believe that whatever sank the boat wasn’t a turbulent shipwreck caused by bad weather. The two leading hypotheses are that the ship somehow sprung a leak; or perhaps a violent clash between humans on-board resulted in the ship’s demise.

It’s possible we’ll never know. The amphorae, on the other hand, should reveal what the vessel was transporting.

Archaeologists believe, based on the regions from which the amphorae appear to have originated, the contents were probably foodstuffs – things like wine, olive oil, and a type of fermented fish sauce called garum from Lusitania that was particularly prized in Rome.

The excavation recovered all portable materials that were at greatest danger of being looted. The rest of the archaeological materials and remains, including the hull, were reburied in the sand of the seabed. The recovered materials have been transported to the Museu de Mallorca where they will be desalinated and conserved. The content of the amphorae and the wood will also be analyzed.