There seems to be a shared fascination with lighthouses the world over. These austere pillars of hope and guidance, most often planted on precarious...
Can anyone possibly imagine an ancient Roman ship floundering in heavy seas off the coast of what is now South America?
There are some who theorize that such a ship still exists, after having been blown off course and wandering over five thousand miles from home, well inside the western hemisphere. It is quite possible that the ship, after having struck a rock, sank to its resting place at the bottom of Guanabara Bay of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
In the middle of Guanabara Bay, there is, depending upon the tide, a large submerged rock hidden approximately three feet below the surface of the water, but just high enough to crush the bottom of any ship straying too close. It is called Xareu Rock, named after the local fish which congregate there.
According to the evidence available, it would seem that the ship in question, upon striking the rock, split into two pieces and sank 75 feet to the ocean floor near the base of the rock. The question is, how was it discovered?
It seems that in the late 1970’s, some fishermen, while fishing in the area of Xareu Rock, snagged a number of large ceramic jars in their nets which interfered with their fishing. To avoid future snags, they smashed the jars to pieces with hammers each time a jar was caught in their nets. The fishermen were obviously unaware of what they were destroying, since they mistakenly believed them to be “macumba jars” used in local voodoo ceremonies to appease the sea gods. However, macumba jars are smaller and differently shaped from the ones being caught in the fishermen’s nets.
The second incident of discovery is believed to have occurred several years later when a scuba diver, spear fishing around Xareu Rock, found eight similar jars which he recovered and took to his home. He kept two of the jars and sold the remaining six to tourists before the Brazilian police arrested him for illegally selling ancient artifacts. At that time, archaeologists immediately identified them as Roman “amphora,” jars dating back to before the birth of Christ.
An amphora or amphorae (plural) is a large ceramic jar, tapered at the bottom with twin handles on each side. It is the kind of jar which was used by ancient people of the Mediterranean to store and transport water, wine, olive oil, olives, salted fish, meat, fish sauce, grain and other foods necessary to feed the ship’s crew and to feed soldiers at Roman outposts.
The third incident was the discovery by another deep-sea diver named Jose Roberto Teixeira who, while searching for lobsters, came across what appeared to be broken pieces of ceramic material strewn over a large area of the bay. The discovery of the ceramic pieces prompted him to widen his search, eventually leading to the discovery of two complete amphorae.
This discovery piqued Teixeira’s interest and prompted him to seek answers as to their provenance. He eventually made contact with Robert Marx, known for his expertise of underwater archeological discoveries. Together, they searched for additional objects and discovered what appeared to be an ancient ship. They then formed a partnership to excavate the site and, if granted permission to do so, offer to donate all finds to the Brazilian Government.
However, the divers were faced with an immediate problem. The water in which they were to search was so polluted that it allowed no more than just a few feet of visibility. Consequently, mapping the site would be difficult, requiring the use of sonar and other sophisticated underwater equipment.
To Robert Marx, this was the discovery of a lifetime. He had hoped to recover weapons, tools and relics which would help verify the origin and identity of the vessel. He theorized that the ship and its contents might very well be preserved in the mud in which it was encased, waiting patiently for someone to uncover it and study its history.
In 1982, before leaving Brazil, to procure the necessary equipment, Robert Marx had obtained permission from the Brazilian government to explore the site. He returned in 1983 to begin the salvage operation only to learn that the Brazilian government had had a change of heart. As he explained it, “The Navy people I worked with told me the Navy had covered up the site to keep it from being plundered. They said this thing is causing too much controversy, it is better if you leave.”
Regardless of what the Navy said, Marx dove to the site of the wreckage and found it to be covered with a large mounds of new sand. When he inquired about it, government officials told him, “Brazilians don’t care about the past. And they don’t want to replace Cabral as the discoverer.” In other words, proof of Roman presence in Brazil would require Brazil to rewrite its recorded history which emphasizes Portuguese navigator Pedro Alvares Cabral as the person who discovered the country in the year 1500 and, as far as the Brazilian government was concerned, that’s the way it would stay.
Robert Marx was disappointed, to say the least. He wondered what could have happened to cause the Brazilian government to put a halt to all further excavation of a site of such historic value. Well, it seems that while he was away procuring the necessary equipment, a political controversy had developed.
It so happens that Brazil is home to a large Italian faction. Upon hearing the news that the amphorae discovered at the bottom of the bay were believed to be of Roman origin, the Italians began to celebrate.
Such excitement in the Italian community of Brazil may have given the Brazilian government second thoughts regarding the underwater exploration. According to some sources, the Italian ambassador to Brazil added to the Brazilian government’s concerns by suggesting that since Brazil was discovered by Romans, all Italian immigrants should be granted immediate citizenship. Suffice it to say that the Italian ambassador’s suggestion to the Brazilian government was not exactly met with overwhelming enthusiasm and, apparently, for good reason.
In Brazil, the citizenship application procedure for Italian immigrants to become naturalized Brazilian citizens is costly, complex and time-consuming. Yet that same procedure does not apply to Portuguese immigrants. Regardless of this possible discovery, Brazil had no intention of changing its policy regarding its naturalization process. Consequently, the Italians staged a number of protest demonstrations. Before long, the situation got out of hand, and in order to defuse the civil unrest, the Brazilian government ordered a halt to the underwater exploration and censored all news concerning it.
Then so-called Brazilian experts began to differ in their opinion regarding the age of the jars which have been turned over to the Navy and stored in a warehouse for “safe keeping.” Adding to the mix of controversy was a wealthy Brazilian businessman who claimed that the amphorae were his property. He claimed that he had taken such a liking to ancient Sicilian amphorae that he ordered a potter in Portugal to make exact replicas and to “age” them. He then had them brought to Brazil and dropped in Guanabara Bay.
However, experts at the Institute of Archeology at the University of London, as well as the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, after having examined ceramic pieces from the site, have determined that the amphorae tested had been manufactured between the first century B.C. and the third century A.D. at Kouass, a town near Morocco, which had long been a Roman colony and a center for amphora-making.
So, if the Brazilian businessman is to be believed, how was the Portuguese potter able to age his amphorae material two thousand years? And why would the Brazilian businessman have had the jars made, then shipped to Brazil only to have them dropped in the bay? If the two jars found by Jose Roberto Teixeira were Portuguese and not Roman, why would the Brazilian Navy bother to store them for safe keeping?
It seems that the Brazilian government refuses to be inundated with facts, preferring instead to be trapped within their own concept of what its history should be. Much information can be gathered by observing the behavior of a government.
The fact that Brazil has halted and prohibited further excavation of the underwater site, seems to suggest that what it emphatically denies is, in actuality, what it believes to be true. Brazilian officials have the power to excavate the site and prove, once and for all, that the wreckage is not of Roman origin. The world waits to hear from them, but they’re not talking.