Storms, War and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas
21 June – 25 September 2016
Over 200 objects rescued from the bottom of the sea shed light on the past 2,500 years of Sicilian history.
While some were chance finds pulled up by fisherman, the majority of the artefacts on display were discovered during the extensive archaeological excavations that have taken place in the sea around Sicily in the last 60 years as the development of SCUBA diving equipment has made sustained underwater exploration possible.
A meeting point and battleground of the Mediterranean for many centuries, Sicily holds a key place in history and has become one of the major sites of focus for archaeological divers. Among the amazing finds on display are a series of Roman and Carthaginian warship arms that were excavated near the Egadi Islands alongside helmets and other debris.
The discovery of these arms provided historians with confirmation of the exact location of the Battle of the Egadi Islands, previously only known about from accounts in ancient texts. The conflict marked a pivotal moment in history, ending the First Punic War and ensuring Rome's domination of the Mediterranean.
The exhibition also tells the story Honor Frost, whose pioneering efforts were instrumental in establishing underwater archaeology as an academic discipline. One of the first to take part in an underwater excavation that used systematic archaeological techniques in the 1960s, she went on to direct the recovery of a Carthaginian ship off the coast of Sicily in 1971.
So keen was Frost's interest in diving as a young woman, she would practice by submerging herself in a well at a house in Wimbledon using a garden hose.
A remarkable Byzantine 'flat-pack' church has been resurrected for the exhibition after spending more than 1,000 years on the bottom of the seabed.
Wishing to strengthen Christianity across his empire, Emperor Justinian instructed for churches to built across the land. He sent out fleets of large stone-carrying ships laden with prefabricated marble church interiors to sites in Italy and north Africa, but some sank in stormy weather with their heavy loads.
In the 1960s German archaeologist Gerhard Kapitan excavated a shipwreck and found the pre-made marble elements for one of Justinian's churches – 28 columns with Corinthian capitals and bases, choir screen slabs and a pieces of a pulpit. The Ashmolean has brought together a selection of these pieces to reconstruct the church interior.