Outside Xlendi Bay, near the fort, is a spit of land with some salt pans at its tip. The cliff face right outside that promontory descends from just a few metres under sea level to an awesome 60 metres and there, right under the cliff, lies the remains of a Roman vessel that was shipwrecked there around the time of the Punic Wars.
Last Wednesday, an extremely interested audience at Palazzo Santa Sofia in Mdina listened to a graphic account of an expedition conducted on the remains 50 years ago.
The speaker was Professor John Woods. Known internationally due to his expertise in oceanography, for which he has held the professorial chairs in Southampton, Kiel and London, he is the founder of the UK National Oceanographic Centre at Southampton. His research has focused on the physics of the upper ocean and on theoretical plankton ecology. He is emeritus professor of Oceanography and Complex Systems at Imperial College London.
Prof. Woods has had a key role in establishing the contribution that the ocean makes to climate change and has promoted these ideas through membership of international committees such as the World Climate Research Programme, the World Ocean Circulation Experiment (which he co-chaired) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (for which he shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for Climate change).
Fifty years ago, he led the project to survey the Xlendi Roman wreck. He had a blue chip team of advisers, including the world-renowned marine archaeologist Joan du Plat Taylor, director of archaeology at the Malta National Museum at that time, David Trump, and Capt. Olof Frederick Gollcher.
Those were early days for marine archaeology, certainly at those depths, and Prof. Woods’ team experimented with some rudimentary yet effective help from the RAF, as well as from Martini Rossi, which sponsored the dive.
Interestingly, the dive site was (or perhaps is, for the remains are still there) blocked by rock falls from the cliff, maybe due to the 1693 earthquake.
Underneath the boulders, the team found and rescued a number of amphorae which it examined with a view to obtaining some information about the vessel. In those times, amphorae were never mass produced. On the contrary, each one shows the vineyard, or producer, from which it came.
The amphorae on the vessel are all different. This puzzled the team for quite some time, until they surmised that the amphorae were all second-hand and had been filled with victuals. From this, the team came up with the hypothesis that the vessel was a supply ship, manned by around five seamen, sent to replenish the Roman garrison with much-needed supplies.
The 1961 survey was the first to scientifically survey the scene. Prof. Woods appeared to believe that no one had studied the remains that were brought to the surface by his team, but his listeners helped put him right, and Professor Anthony Bonanno informed him that a number of theses have been written on the subject.
The 1961 expedition left no detailed record of the dive, apart from a short report, and some notes on the expedition seem to have been lost over the years. And there were people in Prof. Woods’ audience who disagreed that it was a Roman vessel, because transport around the Mediterranean was normally undertaken by non-Roman vessels.