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Wreck of Roman cargo barge preserved in Rhine clay

Only ‘intact’one north of the Alps

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

UTRECHT, the Netherlands - Archeologists have started the painstakingly slow and lengthy preservation efforts of a Roman barge which sank some 1,900 years ago in what once was the course of the Rhine river. The wreck was discovered six years ago during preliminary work for the huge Utrecht subdivision dubbed the ‘Leidsche Rijn’ (Leyden Rhine).

The 21-metres long and 3.5-metres wide ship most likely sank during a storm on the Rhine, which in those days ran through Utrecht to reach the North Sea near the towns Katwijk and Leiden. In the early stages of the recovery, a tool chest (with lock and key), a shoe and various other objects were found. The full archeological dig not only is expected to unearth more artifacts, it is also aimed at preserving the ship in its entirety.

Although it was earlier decided to cover the find and allow future generations to ‘find’ it once more, using improved tools for research and preservation, the ship now needs to be raised. Work at the subdivision has drawn fresh ground water in and near the archeological site, which could mean that the wood will rot, a process until now prevented by the clay.

Immersed in resin

The site will be encased in steel walls driven into the ground to ward off the penetration of water and allow archeologists and specialists in the fields of wood dating, botanicals and pottery, among others, to finish the dig. The ship then will be prepared for a move to the famed wharf in Lelystad where the Dutch Institute for Maritime Archeology is located. There, the entire ship will be immersed in resin, in this case a mix of water and polyethylene glycol. The chemical process which allows for the resin to penetrate and replace the water in the wood cells, and make the wood sturdy and hard again, will take at least eighteen months.

Believed to be a building materials supply ship, the Roman barge arguably is the only one found ‘intact’ north of the Alps. The Romans who had invaded the Lowlands in the first century A.D., considered the south banks of the Rhine a natural border for their expansive empire. They erected fortifications (castella) of which remnants have been found near Katwijk, in Woerden, in Utrecht and other places in what now are the provinces of South Holland and Utrecht. Ship parts have been dug up all over, often where they were used to build dikes or fortify quays, but never in their entirety. What kind of cargo the flat-bottomed boat was carrying still needs to be determined.