ram sitting on seafloor

The Egadi warship rams provide insight into the variety of depositional fates for ancient warships once their hulls were breached, as well as subsequent site formation in deep water. A hypothesis offered by some ancient historians and Classicists pertaining to ancient warships is that they did not sink. A corollary hypothesis is required that warships were virtually empty shells during their operation that carried no shipboard items, cargo, or ballast on board, as of course this would allow a vessel with its hold filled with water to sink and nullify the first hypothesis. However, these hypotheses have failed the test against the data. Maritime archaeologists have discovered and excavated nearly every type of watercraft in the past 50 years and understand the principles of hull construction and ship/boat operation. Consequently archaeologists have long realized all boats and ships can sink. Sinking has been a fate of all boats and ships that plied the seas throughout history, and in fact was recognized for warships in ancient sources (Polybius I.60-61.6; Diodorus XI.24.11.2). Some historians and Classicists have attempted to explain away statements by ancient authors that warships sank by characterizing them as careless and imprecise descriptions - although statements made a passage later are held as ‘truths’. One basis for this misguided assumption is that wood floats: an overly simplistic observation that fails to comprehend the changing state of wood in ships’ hulls and why ships and boats float. Most, but not all wood species have a specific gravity under 1.0, that of water, and thus float. However, the specific gravity for wood is not a constant and over time the wood in ships’ hulls becomes waterlogged through immersion, spray, and humidity. Water is absorbed into the wood cells up to the wood’s fiber saturation point, which raises its specific gravity. As the specific gravity of the wood in the hulls increases, its inherent ability to carry additional weight decreases in an inversely proportional manner. Shipwrights have understood the nature of wood for millennia and designed hulls to attain their buoyancy through the displacement of water (a ship or boat) rather than relying on the buoyancy (specific gravity) of the construction material itself (a raft). Hence, the vessels can carry additional weight beyond the weight of the vessel – cargo. Ships were regularly hauled out and degraded hull sections replaced yet absorbed water remained to some degree, and during operations the water absorption greatly accelerated and raised its specific gravity.

A notion that any vessel that operated at sea, particularly with numerous individuals onboard, in conflict situations, and by both oar and sail propulsion, did so without significant equipment and stores, as well as some ballast, is contrary to any basic understanding of ship operations. Ships’ tools, arms (ship and personal), containers, and personal equipment must be taken into any realistic analysis. Metal fasteners, lead sheathing, rigging gear, anchors, equipment, weapons, crew items and possibly galley structures are commonly known to be on ancient merchantmen, and evidence from the Egadi islands indicates this was true for warships as well. This is not surprising to maritime archaeologists as the necessities of operating all sea-going vessels require basic considerations. Ancient warships conducted the overwhelming majority of their voyages under sail propulsion. For any sailed vessel ballast was mandatory for to sail effectively, a feature noted in Renaissance galleys, particularly for long and narrow vessels that had little extended keel. The numerous stones associated with the Egadi warships attest to this, and those tested have shown to come from North Africa. All vessels carry weight in addition to their hulls when in operation at sea. Consequently, when a warship’s hold was flooded, thus loosing buoyancy from displacement, the wooden elements of the hull had less ability to carry any additional weight. Warships performed diverse functions and missions throughout the 5th century B.C.E. – 3rd century C.E. and there was no standard or absolute manifest of items carried on board, a factor that directly affected their depositional fate. In the specific event of the Battle of the Egadi Islands, the Carthaginians sailed their warships loaded with supplies to the Egadi Islands, on a rough weather day, and were sailing in this manner when the Romans sprang their ambush. This over-laden condition placed the Carthaginian warships at a disadvantage in their engagement with the Romans (Polyb. I.61.4-6). The armor finds and amphora dispersion in site sector PW-A support Polybius’ account of the Carthaginian ships laden with supplies and troops while sailing. Once breached by ramming attacks during the battle, warship hulls filled with water. The material within the warships raised the hulls’ overall specific gravity to a point whereby these warships were either disabled or sank: both are attested (Polyb. I.60 - 61.6; Diod. XI.24.11.2). A breach in a mortise-and-tenon hull would catastrophically weaken it to a point that ships could break in two due to the hogging and sagging forces of waves. Evidence confirms that the rams were not removed from the hulls, but sank while attached to the warships. Warships, like all other ships and boats, had numerous fates that were determined by factors such as hull condition, cargo, ships stores, hull integrity, and the weather at the time of the sinking event.

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