New Study Sheds Light on Weapon of Ancient Ship

Scientists have revealed new details on a 2,300-year-old beak-like weapon that an ancient warship used to ram enemy vessels in the First Punic War, the conflict between ancient Rome and Carthage.

The rostrum of an ancient warship discovered near Sicily (Jeffrey G. Royal / RPM Nautical Foundation)

A new study, reported in the journal Analytical Chemistry, also identifies a major threat that conservators must address in preserving this archaeological treasure for future generations.

“The ram, called a rostrum, was found in 2008 under 22 feet of water, 150 feet offshore from Acqualadrone (which means Bay of the Pirates) in northeastern Sicily,” said Dr Patrick Frank of Stanford University, a lead author of the study.

“The Acqualadrone rostrum is bronze, with a wooden core that was preserved because of burial beneath the seafloor.”

Carbon-14 dating suggests that the warship sank around 260 BC after being damaged in the battle of Mylae during the opening stages of the First Punic War, which may have been among the largest wars of its time. Earlier research localized the metals in the bronze to mines in Spain or Cyprus.

In the new research, the authors tried to learn more about the origin and condition of the rostrum wood.

Their analysis of the acids and other substances in the wood suggests that the strutwork of the Acqualadrone rostrum was pine, waterproofed with pine tar. Other woods, like juniper and oak, and other ancient marine sealants, like beeswax, were ruled out.

Importantly, the research found copious sulfur in the wood that could turn into sulfuric acid, an extremely corrosive substance. Sulfuric acid is known to appear in recovered wooden marine archaeological treasures and can threaten their existence. The authors argue that iron and copper permeating the wood may catalyze that transformation, but they suggest that removing ozone from museum air could slow the conversion.

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Bibliographic information: Frank P., Caruso F., Caponetti E. 2012. Ancient Wood of the Acqualadrone Rostrum: Materials History through Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry and Sulfur X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy. Anal. Chem. 84 (10), pp. 4419–4428; doi: 10.1021/ac3001258