Roman Seafaring on the Portuguese Coast
Paul Cochran and Filipe Castro
Romans in the Iberian Peninsula
Romans arrived in the Iberian Peninsula during the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE) and extended their power during the following centuries, until the total conquest and annexation of the Peninsula in the last decades of the 1st century BCE.
The coast of Portugal had been visited by other Mediterranean peoples, long before the Roman invasion, and the archaeological testimonies of these activities have been thoroughly studied on land, but have received next to no attention underwater.
A number of harbors on the Portuguese coast are referred in historical documents, but the archaeological remains are scarce, as the coast has changed substantially in the last two millennia, and most harbor structures may have been covered or eroded away.
Scholars often refer A. J. Parker’s book Ancient shipwrecks of the Mediterranean and the Roman provinces (1992) and the fact that his maps end on the Spanish border with Portugal to illustrate the lack of research in this particular field of studies. In fact, to this day no Roman shipwreck has been found and excavated by archaeologists on the coast of Portugal.
There are perhaps six shipwreck sites published or registered, but none has been fully excavated yet. A collection of lead anchor stocks has not been completely inventoried and published. This page intends to present a summary of the information available so far.
Harbors and Anchorages
Baesuris (Castro Marim)
Balsa (Luz de Tavira)
Portus Hannibalis (Portimão?)
Ilha do Pessegeiro
Salacia (Alcácer do Sal)
Portus Cale (Porto)
Lead Anchor Stocks
A number of anchor stocks has been found by sport divers on some of the most popular diving sites along the Portuguese coast. We are developing an inventory at the ShipLAB and trying to make sense of the entire collection, in terms of their location in the context of the Roman occupation of the territory that forms Portugal today.
This shipwreck is said to have been fairly well preserved in the 1970s, when Robert Marx and a French associate salvaged the amphorae, dried them in a roof top near Portimão, and sold them to tourists and locals (pers. comm. Robert Marx). Based on oral information from local residents and divers, it is possible that this was the same site that was later destroyed by dredging works and photographed by Francisco Alves in the 1980s.
Praia dos Três Irmãos
Looted in the 1970s, this shipwreck site was completely destroyed. Pictures that circulated through Portimão show amphorae and elephant tusks. A later survey by a team under the direction of Francisco Alves did not locate the site.
Cabo Sardão 1
Lying in deep water, this possible shipwreck has not been located yet. The recovery of elephant tusks and amphorae by trawlers in a particular area suggests the existence of a shipwreck dating to …
This site has not been verified by archaeologists. An information from sport divers relating the find of a shipwreck with amphorae and elephant tusks is on file.
This is a possible shipwreck site in shallow water, surveyed by Jean-Yves Blot and his team. The site is a cluster of pottery shards forming a coherent collection of Roman ceramics dating to the
This site consists of a large shallow area, parallel to the coast, around 500 m long, where a large quantity of amphora shards was found in February 2005, during a low tide. The site was exposed again in March and surveyed by archaeologists. During this survey and subsequent visits to the site, several timbers were observed on the silt bottom, together with Haltern 70 amphorae shards, dolia fragments, small urceus amphorae, shale slates, and net weights. All ceramic materials were consistent with a Beatican origin, during the reign of emperor Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE).
Nine standing tree stumps were observed nearby and dated to around 3,500 BCE. Another context found to the north of this area showed six shallow rectangular depressions cut on the shale bottom, possibly used for salt production. A Spanish olive jar and a small mill stone were also found in the area.
The site formation of this complex has not yet been completely understood (Granja 2013). The standing tree stubs (Alnus glutinosa) may correspond to an existing forest in the middle of the 4th millennium BCE, bordering a water course and protected by a dune system located to the West. From the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE to around the 3rd century BCE the sea level may have been lower. Around the 7th century BCE it is possible that the phreatic level in this area rose, creating a shallow lagoon. At the time of the shipwreck it is possible that the dune system located to the west of this area was eroded and moved East, over the lagoon. If so, this ship was lost in shallow water, possibly during a storm (Granja 2013).
The reservoirs excavated into the shale to the north of this area are possibly medieval, and correspond to a different climatic change, as the sea level rose until the 4th century CE and lowered from that century to the 10th or 11th (Granja 2013).
As mentioned above, the analysis of the ceramic materials allowed the identification of dolia, Haltern 70 amphorae, and smaller urceus containers. The Haltern 70 amphorae were produced in different areas of Baetica, namely in known producing centers along the Guadalquivir River and on the coast of Cadiz. The urceus and dolia come from the same region, but from different production centers in the area (Neves et a. 2013).
Some timbers were observed in the area that deserve mention here. One looks like a frame, although the picture is taken at an angle that makes it difficult to interpret. And another timber was recovered by a local resident, looking like a ship timber as well.
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