WHEN Vivian Locke Ellis wrote of “New Naxos by the friendly sea” in his lyrical poem “In Sicily”, he apostrophised:
Sicilia, to have known thee in thy youth,
When to thy shores the ships of Chalcis came,
Not many days’ soft sail from Attica,
A fairer seaboard of the same fair sea.
The city of Naxos, on the east coast, was founded in 735 BC by settlers from Chalcis on a natural landing place at the foot of the lava flow of Cape Schisò, but is now subsumed by the tourist hotels sprawling south of Taormina. It is reckoned to be the first Greek colony. Syracuse, further to the south, was established a couple of years later.
The first item in this amazing exhibition, which is largely drawn from seven shipwreck sites, is a terracotta jug of Naxiot production, which is encrusted with red coral, the underwater fire that consumed the boy Colapesce in the myth of his encounter with Frederick Barbarossa, who asked what the famous diver could find under the waves. The fusion of the coral and the pottery forms an outrageous baroque design that could almost be a contemporary piece of sculpture realised by the likes of Dale Chihuly.
The seas around the island were not always friendly, and have yielded an extraordinary treasury of shipwreck finds. Since 2004, they have been administered by Sicily’s Superintendent of the Sea Office, one of the regional archaeological departments headed since 2012 by Dr Sebastiano Tusa, who is professor of Palaentology in Naples.
He is an archaeologist who had worked on the mainland in Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran before returning to Sicily, where his father had been one of the leading marine archaeologists of the 1970s. He tells me that it has recently become possible, with EU funding, to plan a marine museum for these remaining survivals to complement the naval museum already in the former Bourbon Arsenal.
All (bar one) of the items on display in Oxford have come from the Mediterranean seabed around the triangular island that lies at the watery crossroads of Europe, Arabia, and Africa, and offer a mouth-watering foretaste of what such a museum will be able to show. They also tell the story of the development of underwater archaeology.
These range from the Neolithic, before the ancient Greeks established a presence on the island in the early eighth century BC, and include much more than dredged-up amphorae, with their rich trade of oils, fish sauce, and wine. There are several displays that allow children to smell them.
The last room is taken up with recreating a Byzantine church from some of the prefabricated columns and stone panels that were destined for one of Emperor Justinian’s overseas churches, but were lost at sea. The Byzantines continued a well-established Roman practice of sending half-worked stone across the Mare Nostrum on what were called naves lapidariae, “stone ships”. Such stone would then be completed on the building site by locally instructed craftsmen.
Alongside 28 part-finished columns, made of the distinctive white marble with blue grey veins from Proconnesus, in what is now Turkey, the wreck at Marzamemi has so far produced the architectural members for an ambo (a pulpit) that would have had a double staircase and also parts of the choir screen.
The ambo itself was made from green porphyry from Larissa, in Thessaly, which would have been taken on board as the ship sailed westwards. Comparison with the surviving church at Al Athrun, in Libya, shows how widely Justinian sought to spread Christianity in stone. It is estimated that the ship’s laden cargo weighed between 76 and 77 tons. (An earlier imperial ship found at Isola delle Correnti was carrying 350 tons of marble.)
Ecclesiastical bronze vessels, including a sanctuary lamp and a candlestick, have been recovered from Plemmirio, offshore at Syracuse, showing that the workshops of Constantinople operated a widespread distribution network for church goods. Similarly, once Augustus Pugin (1812-52) had an established business, he, too, sent out mail-order church furnishings, including pre-cut tombstones, to both Australia and New Zealand, to build and to equip churches.
Perhaps the most dramatic recovery has been the finds associated with the decisive sea battle between the Romans and Carthaginians fought on a damp March day in 241, which finally brought an end to the 24-year “Sicilian War”.
Eleven bronze battering rams (rostra) from the prows of ships have been recovered off the Aegadian islands at a depth of 81 metres. All but one are of Roman manufacture. One was in the British Museum show “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” (Arts, 27 May). Three are on shown in Oxford, including the one that is Punic.
Distinguished only by their inscriptions, they suggest how both Carthage and Rome shared technological advances, or perhaps employed the same skilled metalsmiths. Inside one, elements of the wooden prow to which it had been attached have survived. On the front of another, part of the wood from the hull of an enemy ship can be seen clearly, trapped for millennia in the teeth of the ram.
These serve as testimony to the astonishing battle in which, according to Polybius, writing a hundred years later, “we shall find no forces of such magnitude ever met at sea before this war” (World History I, 63). The Ashmolean has brought in the award-winning game-developers Creative Assembly to bring the battle to life with brilliant digital animation that draws on the historical sources as well as on archaeological finds to reconstruct the fateful day of 10 March 241; this forms a remarkable backdrop to the three battering rams.
Such a formidable sea-borne culture could thrive only at a cost, as the ancients well knew. The stock of one Greek anchor, reckoned to date from 400-300 BC, found off Favignana island in 2004, is inscribed with the aspiration bon voyage (ΕΥΠΛΟΙΑ). In the wake of the Travelling Heroes surveyed by Robin Lane Fox in 2008, as the Greeks and their myths populated the Mediterranean, it serves as a sharp reminder — if such be needed when we hear of so many drowned refugees — of the perils of sea travel. Ellis’s “shore of tideless waters” was often reached at high human cost.
Later, we are reminded that Christians adopted the anchor as a symbol for hope, and of faithful endurance.
There is a standing bronze statuette of the Phoenician deity Reshef, one of the gods of storms. Found off the coast at Selinunte, it is one of the first items on show; hieratic, and standing much like a later pharaoh, the small figure has a distinctive ostrich tiara, associated with the cult of Osiris. Maybe some pious ship’s captain took it with him to sea, never to return.
The lost treasure brought up from some of these wrecks is richly varied, including a single bronze Corinthian helmet (600 BC) found in 1987 off Camarina; part of a hoard of 3000 Carthaginian coins dated to the time of the First Punic War; a circular terracotta altar that still shows signs of where incense had been burned; and a Hellenistic pedestal table leg, in which Hercules lifts Antaeus off the ground to defeat him. From a much later period comes a sugar funnel for processing sugar cane, which was introduced to the Norman world of Sicily from Arabia.
The book Sicily and the Sea (2015), which accompanies the exhibition, is not a conventional catalogue, although it covers all the shipwrecks and illustrates most of the finds on display. It is much more comprehensive, and provides a concise introduction to the history of Sicily, bringing the land of the songs of the Cyclops up to the present; in 2015, a Sicilian was appointed for the first time as President of Italy.
It concludes with essays on Pirandello (1867-1936); the Conference of Messina (1955), at which the EEC was founded; the Palermitan Mafia today; Rossini’s opera Tancredi, illustrated with uncredited photographs of Emilio Sagi’s 2015 stage production for Lausanne; and the part that Sicily plays on the silver screen.
Taking the show at the Ashmolean alongside the underwater world of the Mediterranean off the Egyptian coast (“Sunken Cities”, British Museum, Arts, 10 June) makes for a fascinating comparison.
“Storms, War and Shipwrecks” is at the Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford, until 25 September. Phone 01865 278000.