Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Ancient Amphorae at the Bottom of the Sea

Hello My Friend and Welcome.

As a youngster did you learn the rhyme, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue?” Despite what the rhyme taught us, we now know that Columbus was most likely not the first to set foot on the American continents. Believers in pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact propose interaction between indigenous peoples of the Americas who settled the Americas before 10,000 BC, and peoples of other continents (Africa, Asia, Europe, or Oceania), which occurred centuries before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492.

Many such contacts have been proposed, based on historical accounts, archaeological finds, and cultural comparisons. However, claims of such contacts are controversial and much debated, due in part to the ambiguous or circumstantial evidence cited by proponents.
The scientific responses to most claims range from serious consideration in peer-reviewed publications to a quick dismissal. Despite the barrage of negativity, believers continue to press their claims. One of the most famous, Thor Heyerdahl, sailed 3,770 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean on his self-built raft, the Kon-Tiki, from South America to the Tuamotu Islands in 1947. The expedition was designed to demonstrate that ancient people could have made long sea voyages, creating contacts between apparently separate cultures.

Even though journeys to North America are supported by literary, historical and archaeological evidence, only one instance of pre-Columbian European contact – the Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada c. 1000 AD – is accepted by scholars as demonstrated.
In 1961, archaeologists Helge and Anne Ingstad uncovered the remains of a Norse settlement at the L'Anse aux Meadows archaeological site on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, Canada. A connection is frequently drawn between L'Anse aux Meadows and the Vinland sagas. These are written versions of older oral histories that recount the temporary settlement of an area to the west of Greenland, called Vinland, led by a Norse explorer, Leif Erikson. It is possible that Vinland may have been Newfoundland. Finds on Baffin Island suggest a Norse presence there after L'Anse aux Meadows was abandoned.  

But there is other tempting evidence. People claim that carvings in Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland depict Indian corn, or maize. Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney and feudal baron of Roslin (1345 –1400) was a Scottish nobleman. He is remembered because of the legend that he took part in explorations of Greenland and North America almost 100 years before Christopher Columbus. William Sinclair, Henry’s grandson and 1st Earl of Caithness, built the Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh, Scotland in the mid 15th Century. Maize was unknown in Europe at the time and not cultivated there until hundreds of years later. This would seem to prove that Henry Sinclair, travelled to the Americas and returned with ears of corn. Like everything in this field, this conclusion is not without controversy. Others interpret the carvings as stylized depictions of wheat, strawberries or lilies.

 According to British legend, Madoc, a prince from Wales, explored the Americas as early as 1170. While most scholars consider this legend to be untrue, it was used as justification for British claims to the Americas, based on the notion of a Briton arriving before other European nationalities. Local legend holds that Devil's Backbone, a rock formation near Louisville, Kentucky, was used as a citadel by Madoc and his companions. A memorial tablet erected at Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay, Alabama reads: "In memory of Prince Madog, a Welsh explorer, who landed on the shores of Mobile Bay in 1170 and left behind, with the Indians, the Welsh language." The Mandan tribe of North Dakota were said to be Welsh-speaking.

Yes, you read that correctly. Perhaps it’s not as preposterous as it sounds at first glance. We know that the Romans traveled to most of modern Europe. They also sailed from North Africa to India and conducted trade with China on what came to be called The Silk Road.

Let’s start with a recent find and work backwards. The photo illustrates what is known as the Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca head. Made of terracotta, it was probably part of a larger figurine. It was discovered in 1933 in the Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca zone in the Toluca Valley, about 40 miles southwest of Mexico City. Because the head appears to be similar in style to artifacts of Roman origin, some believe that it is evidence of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact between Rome and America.

An assessment of the case in 2001 by Romeo H. Hristov of the University of New Mexico and Santiago Genovés T. of the National Autonomous University of Mexico made the hypothesis of Roman origin –among other possibilities– applicable. The identification of the head as Roman work from the II-III century A.D. has been further confirmed by Bernard Andreae, a director emeritus of the German Institute of Archaeology in Rome, Italy. According to Andreae, “the head is without doubt Roman, and the lab analysis has confirmed that it is ancient. A stylistic examination tells us more precisely that it is a Roman work from around the II century A.D., and the hairstyle and the shape of the beard presents the typical traits of the Severian Emperor’s period [193-235 A.D.], in the fashion of that epoch.”

Ancient Roman Ship

Such an event has been made more believable by the discovery of evidences of travels by the Romans, Phoenicians and Berbers as early as the 6th or 5th Century BC to Tenerife and Lanzarote in the Canaries, and of a 1st Century BC Roman settlement on Lanzarote Island. Lanzarote was probably the first Canary Island to be settled and the Phoenicians may have settled there around 1100 BC, though no material evidence survives. The Greek writers and philosophers Herodotus, Plato, and Plutarch described the garden of the Hesperides, a mythic orchard at the far west of the world, which many identify as the Canaries.

The first known record comes from Pliny the Elder where he describes in his encyclopedia Naturalis Historia, an expedition to the Canary Islands. The names of five islands (then called Insulae Fortunatae, the Fortunate Isles) were recorded as Canaria (Gran Canary), Ninguaria (Tenerife), Junonia Major (La Palma), Plivalia (El Hierro) and Capraria (La Gomera). Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, the two easternmost Canary Islands, were only mentioned as the archipelago of the purple islands. The Egyptian astronomer and geographer Ptolemy calculated their precise locations. Following the fall of the Roman Empire, the Canary Islands were ignored for the next 500 years.

There is a large submerged rock in Guanabara Bay near Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Lying just three feet beneath the water’s surface, it is called Xareu Rock after the fish that congregate there. In the late 1970’s, a local fisherman using nets around Xareu Rock kept catching some large —3’ tall— heavy earthen jars. He mistakenly assumed they were macumba jars, which are used in voodoo ceremonies and then thrown into the sea. So, as the jars were hauled up, he smashed them with a hammer and tossed the pieces back into the water to prevent them from snagging his nets.

Eventually a scuba diver spear fishing around Xareu Rock found eight of the jars. He took them home and began selling them to tourists. He only had two left by the time Brazilian police stopped him and confiscated the jars. Archaeologists immediately identified them as Roman amphorae from the 1st Century BC.  

Ex-marine, underwater explorer and treasure-hunter Robert Marx claims to have discovered a long-forgotten Roman shipwreck in the Bay of Guanabara. It appears to have hit the rock at a high speed, spilt apart and sank in 75 feet of water. While diving to examine the wreckage, Marx removed parts of the ancient amphorae. They eventually ended up in the hands of Dr. Elizabeth Lyding Will, an expert on Roman amphorae. She says they’re similar in shape to jars produced in kilns at Kouass, on the west coast of Morocco.

The Institute of Archaeology of the University of London performed thermo-luminescence testing, which is a more accurate dating process than Carbon 14 dating, and set the jar’s manufacture date around 19 B.C. Many more amphorae and some marble objects were recovered, as well as a Roman bronze fibula, a clasp device used to fasten a coat or shirt.

From the Salt Mines to Rio de Janeiro

This is where the story gets really interesting, and it all starts with salt. Salt was one of the most valuable commodities around the beginning of the 1st Century. It represented the only reliable way to preserve fresh meat and fish. In fact, salt was so valuable that at times it was used in place of money. The word salary derives from the practice of paying laborers in salt. And from that, came the familiar term he’s not worth his salt.
The Romans had a large salt production facility on Ilha do Sal, Salt Island, in the Cape Verde Islands, which are 350 miles off the coast of West Africa. The map illustrates the general path a ship would take to go from there to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil… a trip of about 2900 nautical miles. If that seems prohibitive, consider that Roman ships regularly sailed from Antioch of Syria to Londinium in Britannia, a distance of about 1,600 nautical miles. Trade vessels also left Egypt headed for India and returned laden with spices. This represents a round trip of 4,600 nautical miles. Remember also, Heyerdahl sailed 3,770 nautical miles on a raft!

Rotation of the North Atlantic and South Atlantic Currents

Salt Island is located directly in the path of the hot, dry winds of the Sahara Desert, which can easily blow 60 knots from the east. It is believed that this Roman merchant vessel was heading for Salt Island to pick up a load of salt and to provision the local army garrison when it was caught in a fierce Sahara storm. Roman ships were clumsy by modem standards and would have no choice but to lower their sails and to run with the winds to avoid capsizing. The Sahara winds can blow continuously for many days. The ship would have been driven south into the Guinea Currents that could have moved it into the circular flow of the North Atlantic current. In the equatorial regions this southern flow intersects with the rising South Atlantic current. Passing from one to the other, the Roman sailors would have found themselves being pushed south and west toward Brazil. They would, of course, have no way of navigating since the southern constellations would have been unfamiliar to them.

Was this a one-time event that ended in tragedy? Or, did these early sailors use it as an opportunity to make contacts, in which case the sunken ship was not the first Roman ship to make the voyage. For all we know, they might have been on the first stages of a regular trade run. And, when they didn’t return, this new venture was abandoned.

What about the men aboard? Were there survivors? Did they make their way ashore, make contact with the natives, and live happily ever after? As tantalizing as it may be to speculate on the possibilities, the answers to these and other questions have been lost to history.

 Until next time, we wish you Peace and Blessings.

 If you reached this post via a link, click the HOME tab above to see other recent posts and visit our archives.

No comments: