We Are Sailing (Roman Style)

Lagoon Navigation: 2000 Years of Secrets Revealed by the Archaeology Museum of Catalonia, La navigation lagunaire. 2000 ans de secrets révélés par le musée d’archéologie de Catalogne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

An unexpectedly excellent exhibition on Roman ships at the museum of Lattes in the summer of 2018 was extremely educational.  Not only were there some fascinating survivors of the Roman period relating to ships, but there were also informative explanations of how they actually built them, which involved some hands-on displays.  To lift the sails, and smell the wood fresh from a carpenter’s workshop, made for a vivid sensory experience. and as an IKEA fan, I found this good fun – it is so much easier to understand things like construction when you actually have a go yourself.

View of the exhibition space, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

View of the exhibition space, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

The exhibition was created by the Archaeological Museum of Catalonia, on the back of underwater archaeologists in Catalonia excavating two flat-bottomed commercial vessels from 2012 to 2016: the Cap del Vol and the Cala Cativa I.  The conservation of the wooden parts of these boats was extraordinary and the discovery made it possible for construction techniques to be studied and naval design to be better understood.  The objects were presented to the public for the first time in 2017.

The exhibition was adapted to Lattes with the inclusion of objects from local French museums, most prominently Narbonne, which was an important port in the Roman period.  In ancient times, the coast from Catalonia to the Languedoc was dotted with inland ports which connected to the sea via complex lagoon routes.  Flat-bottomed boats such as the two recently discovered could navigate the route, particularly useful for transporting Catalonian wine up into France.

Part of a boat, 15-1BC, wood, from Cap del Vol, Catalonia, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Part of a boat, showing a smooth joint, 15-1BC, wood, from Cap del Vol, Catalonia, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Lead plummet, 30-20BC, from Auguablava, Catalonia, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. The object was used to measure the depth of water. It was attached to a cord and the inside was filled with wax or pitch which picked up an imprint of what was at the bottom.

Lead plummet, 30-20BC, from Auguablava, Catalonia, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. The object was used to measure the depth of water. It was attached to a cord and the inside was filled with wax or pitch which picked up an imprint of whatever was at the bottom.

Reconstructed boat, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Reconstructed boat, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Stele showing a boat and fishermen, 1st century AD, from Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Stele showing a boat and fishermen, 1st century AD, from Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

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Part of the frame of a boat, 15-1BC, from Cap del Vol, Catalonia, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

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Hull board, 15-1BC, from Cap del Vol, Catalonia, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Wooden rings, 15-1BC, from Cap del Bol, Catalonia, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. These wooden rings were sewn into the sail at regular intervals in vertical rows. It was crossed by ropes,and enabled the sail to be raised and lowered, like a Venetian blind.

Wooden rings, 15-1BC, from Cap del Vol, Catalonia, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. These were sewn into the sail at regular intervals in vertical rows. Crossed by ropes, they enabled the sail to be raised and lowered like a Venetian blind.

Six-sheave hoist, 1st century AD, from Port Vendres, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Six-sheave hoist, 1st century AD, from Port Vendres, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Pulley, 15-1BC, from Cap de Vol, Catalonia, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Pulley, 15-1BC, from Cap de Vol, Catalonia, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Fragment of the lateral rudder, 1st century AD, from Port Vendres, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. To navigate, Roman ships had two lateral rudders located on each side of the stern.

Fragment of the lateral rudder, 1st century AD, from Port Vendres, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. To navigate, Roman ships had two lateral rudders located on each side of the stern.

Relief showing a commerce boat, Gallo-Roman period, Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Relief showing a trading boat, Gallo-Roman period, Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Detail of the figurehead from the Relief showing a commerce boat, Gallo-Roman period, Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Detail of the figurehead from the relief showing a trading boat, Gallo-Roman period, Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Detail of the sails from the Relief showing a commerce boat, Gallo-Roman period, Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Detail of the sails from the relief showing a trading boat, Gallo-Roman period, Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Fishing hook and weights from fishing net, 10BC-10AD, from Catalonia, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Fishing hook and weights from a fishing net, 10BC-10AD, from Catalonia, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Corks, 15-1BC, from Cap de Vol, Catalonia, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. Corks were used to seal up amphoras carrying wine. There is a little hole in the centre to let out gasses caused by fermentation during transit.

Corks, 15-1BC, from Cap de Vol, Catalonia, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. Corks were used to seal amphorae carrying wine. There is a little hole in the centre to let out gasses caused by fermentation during transit.

Modern reconstruction of a cork lid fitting in the amphora, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Modern reconstruction of a cork lid fitting in the amphora, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Fragments of amphorae with makers marks, Roman era, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Fragments of amphorae with makers’ marks, Roman era, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

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Reconstruction of amphora as they would have been stacked on board a ship, from Cap del Vol, Catalonia, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. The ships could transport 400 amphorae – that equals about 8,800 litres.

Reconstruction of amphora as they would have been on board a ship, from Cap del Vol, Catalonia, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. The ships could transport 400 amphorae - that's 8,800 litres.

Reconstruction of amphora as they would have been stacked on board a ship, from Cap del Vol, Catalonia, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France.

Ingots of tin and lead, 1st century AD, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Ingots of tin and lead, 1st century AD, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Decorative applique of a dolphin, c400-425AD, Narbonne,

Decorative applique of a dolphin, c400-425AD, from Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Figure of a boy, 1st century AD, from Marseille, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Figure of a boy, 1st century AD, from Marseille, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Rhino, 2nd century AD, from Port Vendres, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Rhino, 2nd century AD, from Port Vendres, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Dice and playing counters, end of 4th century BC, bone, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Dice and playing counters, end of 4th century BC, bone, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Talisman with a boar horn, Roman era, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Talisman with a boar horn, Roman era, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Hat of a mariner, Roman era, wool, from Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Hat of a mariner, Roman era, wool, from Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Saw handle, 1st century AD, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Saw handle, 1st century AD, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Handle of a gimlet, 1st century AD, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Handle of a gimlet, 1st century AD, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Scene of the disembarkation of a boat (maybe ceramics or lingots), Gallo-Roman period, from Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Scene of the disembarkation of a boat (maybe ceramics or lingots), Gallo-Roman period, from Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Scene of the packing of merchandise, 1st century AD, from Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. The guy on the left is pouring olives into an amphora.

Scene of the packing of merchandise, 1st century AD, from Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. The guy on the left is pouring olives into an amphora.

Stele representing an amphora, Roman era, from Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. The inscription "OLEO V" shows that it contained five measures of oil.

Stele representing an amphora, Roman era, from Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. The inscription “OLEO V” shows that it contained five measures of oil.

Amphora of oil, 1st-3rd century AD, from Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. This type of amphora originated in Hispania Baetica (Southern Spain). It was uniquely used to carry oil.

Amphora of oil, 1st-3rd century AD, from Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. This type of amphora originated in Hispania Baetica (Southern Spain). It was uniquely used to carry oil.

Wine amphora, 20BC-1st AD, from Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. Produced mainly in Italy, Greece and Spain, these amphorae transported wine. Of the ones found in Nabronne, most come from Tarragona.

Wine amphora, 20BC-1st AD, from Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. Produced mainly in Italy, Greece and Spain, these amphorae transported wine. Of the ones found in Nabronne, most come from Tarragona.

Measure or folding rule, 1st century AD, from Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Measure or folding rule, 1st century AD, from Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

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Bell, Roman era, from Cap d’Agde, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. It was probably used as a signal in bad weather.

Shell, Roman era, from Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. It was used to signal during bad visibility.

Shell, Roman era, from Narbonne, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. It was used to signal during bad visibility.

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Bottom of a barrel, 1st century BC, ceramic and lead, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France.

Foculus, 1st century, lead, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. This was a portable form of heating. The lead would stop the risk of fire. In the centre, carbon would make heat for cooking pots.

Foculus, 1st century, lead, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France. This was a portable form of heating. The lead would stop the risk of fire. In the centre, carbon would make heat for cooking pots.

Relief of a Roman ship, Roman era, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

Relief of a Roman ship, Roman era, Henri Prades Museum, Lattes, France

So In Summary

Trade and seafaring were important in the Roman world, so it was really great to see an exhibition that looked exclusively at this area.  This exhibition was particularly great because we got to see the kind of random remains that usually aren’t on display in museums – things like pulleys and the rings for the sails.  It was a real eye-opener for me, and I was struck again by how amazing the Romans really were and how amazing modern archaeology is to be able to find and save these fragile wooden objects – and the woollen hat!  I hope a good permanent home is found for these marvellous Catalonian objects so that more people can admire the ingenuity of Roman seafarers.

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