Some 1,700 years ago, on a squally day or a stormy night, a boat carrying hundreds of amphorae of wine, olives, oil and garum – the fermented fish sauce that so delighted the ancient palace – collapsed during a stopover in Majorca.

The merchant ship, likely at anchor in the Bay of Palma while en route from southwestern Spain to Italy, was quickly swallowed by the waves and buried in the sands of the shallow seabed .

Until last month, its miraculously preserved treasures had remained untouched, despite lying just 2 meters below the bellies of the countless tourists who swim on one of the busiest beaches in the Balearics.

Today, however, the boat – known as the wreck of Ses Fontanelles – reveals its archaeological, historical and gastronomic secrets. A recovery operation overseen by the island’s governing body, the Consell de Mallorca, and involving experts from three Spanish universities in the Balearic Islands, Barcelona and Cádiz, recovered around 300 amphoras along with other objects that offer an invaluable insight into the Mediterranean of the fourth century AD and the daily life of the crew.

In addition to the clay jars – which still bear their painted inscriptions or tituli pictiarchaeologists have found a leather shoe, a rope shoe, a cooking pot, an oil lamp, and only the fourth Roman carpenter’s drill recovered from the area.

Divers at the Ses Fontanelles wreck site, 50 meters from one of Mallorca’s busiest beaches. Photography: Jose A Moya/Arqueomallornauta – Consell de Mallorca, Universitat de Barcelona, ​​Universidad de Cádiz, Universitat de les Illes Balears

The boat, which is 12 meters long and between 5 and 6 meters wide, emerged three years ago after a summer storm churned the waters of the bay. Its appearance confirmed anecdotal reports from divers dating back to the 1950s and prompted the Consell de Mallorca to act.

After carrying out an emergency response, the consell assembled a team of archaeologists and marine experts to undertake the three-year Arqueomallornauta project.

“The goal is to preserve everything there and all the information in it, and that couldn’t be done in one emergency response,” says Jaume Cardell, the consell’s head of archeology.

“This is where the Arqueomallornauta project comes in: it is about recovering and preserving both the wreck and its historic cargo. It’s not just Mallorca; in the whole western Mediterranean there are very few wrecks with such a singular cargo.

Although the team is now working out how best to salvage the hull from the wreck, which lies just 50 meters from the beach, those who brought the cargo up in an operation that ran from November 2021 to mid -February are still a little breathless. what they found.

None of the team expected that the sands of the bay would have done such a spectacular job of isolating the wreck from oxygen and preserving its organic matter.

“The things were so perfectly preserved that we found pieces of textiles, a leather shoe and an espadrille,” explains Dr. Miguel Ángel Cau, an archaeologist at the University of Barcelona.

The diver inspects the finds
Archaeologists say the merchant ship’s cargo was miraculously preserved. Photography: Jose A Moya/Arqueomallornauta – Consell de Mallorca, Universitat de Barcelona, ​​Universidad de Cádiz, Universitat de les Illes Balears

“The most surprising thing about the boat is how well preserved it is – even the wood in the hull… It’s wood you can knock – like it was from yesterday.”

The team, which established that the boat left Spain’s Cartagena region by analyzing minerals in the clay of the amphoras, said it was hard to overstate the significance of the find.

“It is important in terms of naval architecture because there are very few ancient boats as well preserved as this one,” explains Dr Darío Bernal-Casasola, an archaeologist at the University of Cádiz. “There are no complete Roman ships in Spain.”

Moreover, he adds, the amphoras represent an unlikely underwater archaeological triplet: “It is incredibly difficult – almost impossible – to find whole amphorae that bear inscriptions, and which still have the remains of their contents. The state of preservation here is simply amazing. And you have it all in just 2 meters of water where millions of people have swum.

For Enrique García Riaza, a historian at the University of the Balearic Islands, the wreck highlights the commercial and strategic importance of the Balearic archipelago during the Roman Empire.

“The islands were not isolated, on the contrary, they were a fundamental stage on the routes of the Iberian Peninsula and the Italian Peninsula,” he says. “In Roman times, the cities of the Balearic archipelago had political elites who were also very well connected to the main Roman cities of the Mediterranean coast, such as Cartagena and Tarragona.”

The team found no trace of the boat’s crew other than their personal belongings, suggesting they may have reached shore or been swept away by the waves. What they left behind, however, is intriguing.

the pavement
The 12-meter-long boat was discovered three years ago after a summer storm disturbed the seabed. Photography: Arqueomallornauta – Consell de Mallorca, Universitat de Barcelona, ​​Universidad de Cádiz, Universitat de les Illes Balears

Cau points to the oil lamp, which bears an obviously pagan symbol of the moon goddess Diana, and the Christian signs which appear on the seals of some of the amphoras.

“The crew were probably pagans, but some of the goods they carried bear Christian symbols,” he says. “You have to be careful how you interpret that – this cargo could have come from an ecclesiastical authority – but you have this coexistence between the pagan and the Christian.

“That perhaps tells us a bit about the daily life of the crew. They could have said, ‘Look, I’m a sailor and I believe what I believe, but if you want me to carry Christian cargo, I’m fine with that if the money is good.’ »

With the recovery phase complete and cataloging underway, thoughts now turn to exposing the entire find.

“The idea is to recover the hull, and we are in contact with national and international experts to ensure that it is correctly recovered,” explains Cardell.

“The boat needs to be on display and people need to see it. Ultimately, we do archeology for everyone, not just scientists.

Weeks after the shipwreck’s cargo was touched by human hands for the first time in nearly two millennia, archaeologists remain vibrant.

“It’s one of those finds when you laugh all the time because you can’t believe it,” Cau says. “It’s the kind of thing that happens to you once in a college life. We will never find anything like it again and that’s what makes it so special.