You are here:Home/Research/ Byzantine Studies/ Project Grants/ Excavation of the Marzamemi “Church Wreck”

Excavation of the Marzamemi “Church Wreck”

Justin Leidwanger, Stanford University, Project Grant 2014–2015

Fig. 1: Ongoing excavation of the Marzamemi shipwreck, with partial columns and other architectural elements (L. McPhie).

Since its initiation in summer 2013, the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project has been investigating long-term dynamics in the seaborne connections and maritime landscape of southeast Sicily. During the first generation of underwater archaeological explorations, Gerhard Kapitän’s pioneering efforts resulted in the reporting of dozens of shipwrecks and other sites along this coast, including several ancient cargoes of monumental stone architectural elements. One of the most famous, the Marzamemi “church wreck,” comprises primarily interior decorative elements destined for one or more unknown sixth-century religious structures. A basic note on the major finds appears in many studies of early Byzantine architecture, but the lack of comprehensive investigation and research means that the site’s broader social, economic, and political significance has largely been overlooked. Through excavation and analysis of ceramics, hull remains, and other small finds alongside these monumental building materials, the Marzamemi project offers a window into the intersection of economics, politics, and religion during this transformative period.

The stone cargo seems to represent neither a complete church nor a random assortment of available pieces. Rather, the purposeful collection of specific decorative elements must point to a strategy intended for maximum visual enhancement of a structure that would otherwise have been built largely of local stone (wherever “local” would have been). The choice of relief-sculpted fragments often made from fine green and white or grey stones—including pieces of a chancel screen, an ambo, and perhaps a ciborium—alongside “standardized” Proconnesian columns, capitals, and bases, suggests a level of elite coordination that has in the past generally been associated with imperial intervention. Could this shipment reflect the sort of official effort connected to imperial largesse and ecclesiastical administration that fits well with Justinian’s documented large-scale rebuilding program in his newly reconquered territories? The vessel—immense by standards of the day with a capacity of perhaps 200–400 tons—could offer insights into the much-discussed directed movement of goods that may have played a fundamental role in linking the economy of the Mediterranean. Or does the assemblage fit more properly within the general contours of routine Mediterranean commerce, reflecting a more organic market demand among provincial elites or church officials for urban (i.e., Constantinopolitan) architectural taste? Clearly the underlying motivation and mechanisms behind the cargo cannot be answered solely on the basis of decontextualized marbles, but require a broader view of the architecture and its submerged archaeological context.

Fig. 2: Project conservator Asaf Oron prepares a new tank for conservation of marble architectural pieces from the shipwreck (L. McPhie).

With the critical support of a project grant from Dumbarton Oaks, the Marzamemi team embarked on a comprehensive study of the architectural elements that comprise the major cargo. Together with the ongoing survey and excavation (2013–present), which have been concerned with obtaining a more complete record than Kapitän’s notes preserve of the stone, ceramic, and other remains from the ship, cargo, and crew, these efforts aim to shed light on the cultural context of the shipment. During the 2014–2015 research period, our efforts focused on several key areas: (1) establishment of new capacities to facilitate proper housing and conservation; (2) analysis of stone types to determine their origin; and (3) modeling of the hundreds of individual large marble pieces with photogrammetry and laser scanning.

Fundamental to the successful study of Kapitän’s material is ensuring its long-term preservation. In cooperation with the archaeological authorities of Siracusa, the major elements have been evaluated by our professional conservator and we have arranged their transport back to our conservation lab in the historic Palmento di Rudinì in Marzamemi, where they can be restored and studied alongside our newly excavated materials. Such conservation is critical before the objects are exported for display as part of an international exhibition currently in preparation.

In his initial reports, Kapitän identified by eye several stone types and connected these variously with Proconnesian, Thessalian, and a further unknown origin. Significant advances over the past decades have aided in distinguishing among ancient stone sources, particularly the many visually similar white and grey marbles. Stable isotope analysis of newly excavated fragments by Scott Pike (Willamette University) has recently provided strong corresponding evidence that a large part of the stone cargo is probably Proconnesian marble, though other sources for certain samples cannot be ruled out. Based on these promising initial results, we are now expanding the analysis to a wider range of analytical techniques—not only stable isotope analysis, but petrography and electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy—to explore this diversity more comprehensively and systematically.

While the deep variegated green ambo fragments appear largely unaffected by the underwater environment, most surfaces of the decorative panels, columns, and other elements are corroded and friable. This situation severely complicates the process of formal study, particularly for determining the level of standardization, quality of workmanship, and state of finish for export when the ship sank. In an effort to maximize data collection, we have initiated detailed photographic documentation and 3-D modeling of each of the several hundred architectural elements, both new and old. These models are created on the basis of digital photogrammetry (Agisoft Photoscan) under the guidance of our excavation architect, and in June 2015 we will initiate an allied program of 3-D documentation using laser scanning in collaboration with Leopoldo Repola (Università degli Studi Suor Orsola Benincasa, Naples).

Fig. 3: Assembling the 3-D model using digital photogrammetry (S. Matthews).

Fig. 4: A resulting 3-D model of one panel fragment (S. Matthews).

This complete program of digital recording represents a critical step forward in research on the Marzamemi ship and its cargo and socioeconomic context. Given the often poor state of preservation of the marble, the 3-D models could allow us to detect, extrapolate, and reconstruct original surfaces. By doing so, we can not only study the weathering and pitting processes and plan for their long-term preservation, but we may also be able to understand better the original dimensions and level of finish, and to ascertain the extent to which these elements represent one or more standardized collections. In the future, this record will allow us to assemble digitally the elements into their intended architectural forms for ongoing research and local museum display. Once the excavation is complete, we hope to utilize this documentation to aid in the construction of duplicate pieces for a replica of the shipwreck site on the seabed as a regional centerpiece of heritage tourism and public outreach.