The Ashmolean's major summer exhibition features more than 200 spectacular and unusual objects rescued from the bottom of the Mediterranean
One of the earliest pioneers of underwater archaeology was the remarkable British woman, Honor Frost (1917–2010).
Frost trained as an artist in London and at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford and spent the first part of her career working as a designer in ballet. But her enduring passion was for diving.
In her book Under the Mediterranean (1963), she describes how she started out as a young woman by submerging herself in a well at a home in Wimbledon using a garden hose. During the 1940s she began to train as a diver in the south of France.
The French archaeologist, Frédéric Dumas, took Frost on her first dive to the wreck of a Roman ship at Anthéor on the south coast of France and she became convinced that the skills and methods practiced on land excavations could be adapted to maritime archaeology.
During the 1960s she was involved in the first underwater excavations to use systematic archaeological techniques; and in 1971 she directed the excavations and recovery of a Carthaginian ship off the coast of Sicily.
It is the treasures that she and other colleagues unearthed in the waters off Sicily – an Island where Ancient civilizations met and fought at the crossroads of the Mediterranean – that feature in Storms, Wars and Shipwrecks.
Exploring the roots of a multicultural heritage via more than 200 spectacular and unusual objects rescued from the bottom of the sea, the exhibition features a haul of treasures ranging from bronze battering rams once mounted on the prows of Roman warships to amphoras and sea worn marble busts.
Evidence of intrepid prehistoric traders and the enlightened rule of the Norman kings also make an appearance in an exhibition which seeks to illuminate the movement of peoples, goods and ideas over thousands of years.
But one of the most startling exhibits will be an example of a Byzantine ‘flatpack’ church.
In his efforts to fortify and regulate Christianity across his empire, The Emperor Justinian (circa 482–565) became a prolific builder of churches. From Constantinople he authorised the voyages of large stone-carrying ships, known as naves lapidariae, laden with prefabricated marble church interiors of carved stone from quarries around the Sea of Marmara (the ‘marble sea’) to sites in Italy and North Africa.
Remains of completed buildings can be seen today in Ravenna, Italy, in Cyprus and in Libya. But some of the ships carrying architectural pieces never made it to their intended destination. Heavy and slow, they became unbalanced and often sank during stormy weather.
During the 1960s the German archaeologist, Gerhard Kapitän, excavated a shipwreck off the south-east coast of Sicily and discovered hundreds of prefabricated marble elements of a basilica, which were brought to the surface: 28 columns with Corinthian capitals and bases, choir-screen slabs and pieces of an ambo (pulpit). Much still remains on the seabed and the site has been under investigation again since 2012.
The Ashmolean will use a selection of these pieces to reconstruct a church interior in the final exhibition gallery, allowing visitors to experience a building which spent more than a thousand years on the sea-bed.
“Visitors will be taken on a journey through Sicily’s fascinating history,” promises Dr Paul Roberts, the Ashmolean’s Keeper of the Department of Antiquities.
“This story will be told exclusively through spectacular finds from the sea, because it is the sea which has always been the lifeblood of the island’s unique and diverse culture.”
Storms, War and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas, June 21 – September 25 2016, The John Sainsbury Exhibition Galleries, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Visit ashmolean.org.
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