Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Divers Used Floatation Balloons to Raise Column Drums from the Sunken Ship

Hello My Friend and Welcome. 

Among other things, today we’re going to talk about obelisks…those stone pillars with a square base and a pointed top that the Egyptian Pharaohs loved so much. Think of the Washington Monument. In truth, the Washington Monument is not truly an obelisk, but an obelisk-shaped building. The difference being that the obelisks the Egyptians made were carved from a single piece of stone, whereas anyone who’s ever visited Washington, DC knows you can go up inside the Washington Monument.   

But, we’re getting off track. This post was prompted by a story about the recovery of a 1st Century BC Roman Stone Carrier discovered in waters off southeastern Turkey. The glorious monuments of Egypt, Greece and Rome are clearly architectural masterpieces, but they are also great feats of engineering and logistics.  

The particular ship they found was carrying a column when it sank. It cargo consisted of eight marble column drums, each about five feet across, and a capital. Stacked one atop the other, the drums would have formed a 30-foot-high Doric column.

Ruins of the Temple of Apollo...Note Column Drums
The ship foundered off Kızılburun (Crimson Cape), 40 miles from the Temple of Apollo at Claros, famous for an oracle similar to the one at Delphi. Based on detailed measurements and stylistic analysis, experts are certain the column was intended for Claros. Interestingly, the eight drums in the cargo, which weighed a total of about 50 tons, aren't enough for a single column at Claros. Those were composed of 11 or 12 drums. A ship like the one they found would have had to make 20 trips to supply enough marble for the 14 known columns at Claros. The drums were recovered using balloons to lift them from the sea floor. Marble headstones and basins were also found in the ship’s hull. They too, were probably bound for Claros.  

But the ship found off Turkey would have been dwarfed by the barge used to transport an obelisk from Egypt to Rome around 38 AD. The huge stone-carrier Caligula had built to transport the obelisk from Alexandria to Ostia was eventually sunk. Pliny the Elder described the sinking of this massive 800 ton ship. It formed the foundation for the lighthouse at the new and larger artificial harbor, Portus Cladius. Constructed north of Ostia between 42 and 62 AD, it was designed to handle the larger cargo ships that could not dock at Ostia, Rome’s original port.
Remains of the barge, 340 feet long and 66 feet wide, were discovered during the construction of Rome's Leonardo da Vinci International Airport in Fiumicino, Italy. At one time Fiumicino was a Roman port north of Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber River. 

Quarries in the Aswan region furnished the stone for most Egyptian monument, obelisks included. One source says the obelisk was quarried at Aswan during the reign of Amenemhet II in the 19th Century BC and erected at the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis. Others think Octavian, known to us as the Emperor Augustus in Luke’s gospel, installed the obelisk in the Julian Forum in Alexandria. The obelisk is unusual because it lacks hieroglyphics. No one can say why. Perhaps an Egyptian Pharaoh suddenly died before it was completed, or it has none because a Roman Emperor ordered its construction.  

Either way, Caligula transported it to Rome and erected it in the new Caligula Circus. He didn’t live long enough to see the projection completed.  It was completed under Nero’s Reign and called Nero’s Circus. It was the sight of Peter’s crucifixion. Later renamed the Vatican Circus, it became the site of St. Peter's Cathedral erected by Constantine the Great over the great saint’s grave.

The Obelisk at the Center of St. Peter's Square
Pope Sixtus V had the obelisk moved to the center of the colonnaded square in 1586 during the construction of the new, or current, St. Peter’s Basilica. It remains there today. All of the obelisks in Rome were toppled in the Middle Ages except for this one. Innumerable Christians, including St. Peter, died in the Vatican Circus. Consequently, it was left standing as the last mute witness to the martyrdom of St. Peter.

Plans Run Amok - The Cracked Obelisk
One final point before we leave obelisks. The photo above shows the Aswan Obelisk. This unfinished piece was carved from the rock, but never completely detached because it cracked. This is always a risk when quarrying. As layers are removed, the pressures on the freshly exposed rock change, causing different parts to expand at different rates. Sometimes the rock cracks, rendering it useless.  

On close examination, one can still see pits made by the hammer stones used to shape it. Wet sand and sandstone would eventually have been used to burnish the surface. This obelisk, if it had been successfully detached would have weighed more than a thousand tons, three to six times as much as they typically did. Perhaps that is why it cracked. What it was intended for is not known. 

Next time we’ll have our monthly contribution to the Christian Writer’s Blog Chain. The following Tuesday, we visit the real King Solomon’s Mines. 

Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings. 

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