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Secrets Of An Ancient Warship’s Ram

This ram was involved in important Roman naval battles some 2300 years ago. Credit: Francesco Caruso

Some people think it looks like a beak but this bronze and wooden artifact is actually a weapon formerly located on the front of a warship that sunk some 2300 years ago.

The ram, also called a rostrum, was found back in 2008, sitting in about six meters of water off the coast of Sicily, in the awesomely-named “Bay of the Pirates” (or Acqualadrone).

Shortly thereafter, scientists carbon-dated the weapon and announced that it must have come from a warship that sunk around 260 B.C.E.

This means the boat likely met its destiny during the First Punic War, which Wikipedia tells me was one of three wars fought between the Romans and the Ancient Carthage of North Africa.

You can nerd out on the history at www.historyofwar.org: “Prior to the Punic Wars, Rome was not seen as a major power in the Mediterranean…” But the point is, this boat and its ram went down in a rather significant series of watery altercations.

Now scientists are reporting that they’ve figured out that the wooden base of the ram is pine and that it was waterproofed with pine tar. The team also found “remarkable quantities of sulfur” in the wood, which means two things:

First, that many sulfur-eating bacteria have colonized the wood over the past two thousand years and have left their sulfury waste behind.

(One of the most common ions floating around in sea water is sulfate, which marine bacteria harvest to use in their metabolism, Stanford’s Patrick Frank, one of the paper’s authors, told Artful Science.

Then the bacteria rudely leave their sulfur waste (called hydrogen sulfide) behind on the wood. As an aside, other famous sunken ships, such as the Vasa and the Mary Rose, also have copious amounts of sulfur compounds in their wood courtesy of marine microbes, Frank says.)

Second, this ram is in danger of rapid degradation. The leftover hydrogen sulfide can be pretty easily transformed in to corrosive sulfuric acid by iron and copper that has also percolated into the wood.

Frank says a solution to this problem could be to remove ozone from the air surrounding the artifact, in order to slow down the problematic production of sulfuric acid.


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  • Jun 7th 201223:06
    by Pat Frank


    As one of the authors, I’d like to thank Sarah for highlighting our work, and add that it would not have been possible without the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), or its like.

    High resolution x-ray spectra are possible only at the high-intensity and tunable x-ray sources of synchrotron beam lines. X-ray absorption spectroscopy is the only method that can query the presence and functionality of sulfur in the wood of marine archaeological artifacts. Without the information that provides, it would be difficult to obtain an understanding of the oxidation processes and intermediates leading to sulfuric acid.

    Here is an example of the high functional group discrimination provided by sulfur x-ray spectroscopy at SSRL’s beam line 4-3. Not only can different sulfur functional groups be readily identified, but so can identical functional groups in different structural environments.

    All manner of materials — natural or synthetic, crystalline or amorphous, solid or solution — can be examined and assayed in this way.

    Thanks again, Sarah. :-)

    • Jun 8th 201208:06
      by Sarah Everts


      Sounds like the SSRL is one-stop shopping for all one’s marine archeological identification needs–or conservation-related synchrotron needs for that matter. Thanks for the info!

  • Jun 8th 201216:06
    by Pat Frank


    SSRL is worth a visit if you’re ever Stanford way, Sarah. I’ll volunteer the nickel tour, and you’d probably get to meet and interview Uwe Bergmann, who’s used the x-rays provided by SSRL to find hidden writings in the Archimedes Palimpsest and to image residual biological elements in the Archeopteryx fossil. It’s very wonderful work and Uwe gives a beautiful seminar.

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