Romans in France

An ancient wreck tells the tale of Romans in France.

This story appears in the April 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The Romans had a serious trash problem, though by our standards it was good-looking trash. Their problem was amphorae. They needed millions of the curvy clay jars to ship wine, olive oil, and fish sauce around the empire, and often they didn’t recycle their empties. Sometimes they didn’t even bother to pop the cork—it was quicker to saber the neck or the pointy base, drain the thing, then chuck it. In Rome there’s a five-acre, 160-foot-high hill, Monte Testaccio, that consists entirely of shattered amphorae, mostly 18-gallon olive oil jars from Spain. They were tossed out the back of warehouses along the Tiber River. Spanish archaeologists who’ve been digging into the dump believe its rise probably began in the first century A.D., as the empire itself was rising toward its greatest heights.

Around that time in Arles, on the Rhône River in what is now southern France, the stevedores did things a bit differently: They threw their empties into the river. Arles in the first century was the thriving gateway to Roman Gaul. Freight from all over the Mediterranean was transferred there to riverboats, then hauled up the Rhône by teams of men to supply the northern reaches of the empire, including the legions manning the German frontier. “It was a city at the intersection of all roads, which received products from everywhere,” says David Djaoui, an archaeologist at the local antiquities museum. Julius Caesar himself had conferred Roman citizenship on the people of Arles as a reward for their military support. In the city center today, on the left bank of the Rhône, you can still see the amphitheater that seated 20,000 spectators for gladiator fights. But of the port that financed all this, and that stretched half a mile or more along the right bank, not much remains—only a shadow in the riverbed, in the form of a thick stripe of Roman trash.

Trash to them, not to us. In the summer of 2004 a diver surveying the dump for archaeological riches noticed a mass of wood swelling from the mud at a depth of 13 feet. It turned out to be the aft port side of a 102-foot-long barge. The barge was almost intact; most of it was still buried under the layers of mud and amphorae that had sheltered it for nearly 2,000 years. It had held on to its last cargo and even to a few personal effects left behind by its crew. And through a further series of small miracles, including another intervention by Julius Caesar, it has emerged from the trash to resume its last voyage—safe this time in a brand-new wing of the Musée Départemental Arles Antique.

Last June, as restoration experts were rushing to ready the barge for its public debut, I spent a week in Arles in a small stone house overlooking the Rhône. The summer season was not yet in full swing, and away from the tourist hot spots the narrow streets of the town were lonesome. The mistral blew relentlessly. At night I awoke to rattling shutters and the hollow grind of a plastic bottle rolling down the stone quay.

From the roof terrace I could look across the river to the quay on the right bank, where on an earlier visit photographer Rémi Bénali and I had picked up two large, rusty, hand-forged nails—small spikes might be a better description. Then as now the quay was empty save for a large shipping container. But for seven months in 2011 that container had served as a hive for the divers and archaeologists who buzzed in and out of the river every day, vacuuming away the mud that covered the Roman barge, hand-sawing it into ten sections, and hoisting them one by one out of the water with a crane. The nails had fallen from one of the dripping timbers, which meant they were roughly contemporary with, and probably similar to, the ones that had attached Jesus to the Cross.

Gazing down at the Rhône, which was gray and ill-looking and stirred by shifting, rushing eddies—it’s the most powerful river in France—I tried to imagine wanting to dive into it. I could not. Neither could Luc Long, at first. Long is the archaeologist whose team discovered the barge. He’s been diving in the Rhône for decades, but the first time still haunts him.

Boyish at 61, with a Beatle-ish shock of brown hair, Long works for the DRASSM, a French government department tasked with protecting the nation’s underwater patrimony. Long had worked on wrecks all over the Mediterranean when, in 1986, his friend, diver and wreck hunter Albert Illouze, guilt-tripped him into diving in his home river. The Arlésiens turned away from the Rhône centuries ago, Long explained, even before roads and the railway diminished its commercial import. They came to fear it as a source of floods and disease—and he was raised in that tradition. “I had no desire to dive in the Rhône,” he said.

Long and Illouze entered the river on a Saturday morning in November, just across from where the antiquities museum is today. The water was around 48 degrees Fahrenheit, foamy and odoriferous—there were sewage outfalls nearby. Long could see no more than three feet in front of him, which for the Rhône was a clear day. Its strong current buffeted and scared him. Gooey streams of algae licked his face. At a depth of around 20 feet, he found himself clinging to a hubcap. It was attached to a truck. Slowly, apprehensively, Long felt his way around to the driver’s side of the cabin. He found a Roman amphora in the driver’s seat.

After that, he and Illouze swam over a vast field of amphorae. Long had never seen so many intact ones, and his future opened before him: He’s been mapping the Roman dump ever since. But the Rhône never became pleasant to work in. Long and his divers had to get used to the gloom, the pollutants, and the pathogens. There were rare but unsettling encounters, among the shopping carts and wrecked cars, with giant catfish. As long as eight feet, the beasts would loom from the murk and grab a diver’s swim fin. “When you find yourself being pulled by a flipper,” Long said, “it’s a moment of great solitude. It’s a few seconds that you don’t forget.”

For the first 20 years or so, no one paid much attention to what he was doing. In 2004, when his team discovered the barge he named Arles-Rhône 3—he had found evidence of two other boats previously—he had no notion of there ever being enough money available to raise it. He and a colleague sawed a section out of the exposed part, which the colleague analyzed down to matchsticks. In 2007 three younger archaeologists, Sabrina Marlier, David Djaoui, and Sandra Greck, took over the study of Arles-Rhône 3.

As they began diving onto the wreck that year, just north of the highway bridge with its thundering current of long-haul trucks, Long proceeded with his survey of the rest of the dump, around 50 yards upstream. Opposite the center of Arles now, he started finding pieces of the town: monumental blocks of stone, including the capital of a Corinthian column, on which he could make out traces of weathering by the mistral. He also started finding statues—a Venus here, a captive Gaul there. Word began to leak out. The French customs police warned Long that antiquities thieves might be watching his operation. When his divers found a life-size statue of Neptune, god of the sea and sailors, they brought it up at night.

Before that diving season was out, the same diver who had found Arles-Rhône 3, Pierre Giustiniani, discovered the statue that set the boat on its present course: a marble bust that looked like Julius Caesar. Portraits of Caesar are surprisingly rare. This one might be the only one extant that was sculpted while he was alive—perhaps right after he declared Arles a Roman colony, launching it into long centuries of prosperity.

You have to understand, said Claude Sintes, the director of the antiquities museum: Arles is a small town, even a poor town. The locomotive workshop closed in 1984, the rice mill and the paper mill within the past decade. What’s left is mostly tourism. The tourists come in part for Van Gogh, who painted here for a time. But the town sits on minable deposits of the Roman past—you almost can’t sink a shovel into your garden without hitting a Roman stone or tile. The exhibition that Sintes built around the bust of Caesar, after news of it spread around the world, showed that some of that stuff was commercial grade. “The exhibition’s success was astonishing,” Sintes said. “When a modest town like ours got 400,000 visitors, the politicians understood that the economic return was strong.”

By the fall of 2010, as the Caesar exhibition was nearing the end of its run, those officials were looking for more culture to invest in: The European Union had designated Marseille and the whole Provence region a 2013 European Capital of Culture. Arles wanted in on that promotional action. Suddenly nine million euros became available to build a new wing on Sintes’s museum and put a Roman barge into it. There was just one catch. The project would need to be completed by 2013.

That sounds like enough time unless you know about ancient wood and about the Rhône. Mud had protected the wood of Arles-Rhône 3 from microbial decay, but water had dissolved the cellulose and filled the wood’s cells, leaving the whole boat soft and spongy. “The wood was held up only by water,” said Francis Bertrand, director of ARC-Nucléart, a restoration and conservation workshop in Grenoble. “If the water were to evaporate, the whole thing would collapse.” The solution was to bathe the wood for months in polyethylene glycol, then freeze-dry it—gradually infusing it with the polymer before removing the water. But the barge would have to be cut into sections small enough to fit into the freeze-dryers. And the process would take nearly two years.

That left only one field season, 2011, to extract the boat from the Rhône. “The project was doomed to fail,” said Benoît Poinard, a professional diver and the site foreman. The gloomy premonition had come to him even before he got stuck briefly under the boat one day. Normally, Poinard explained, the Rhône is safe for diving only from late June to October; otherwise the current is too strong. Three or four months would not be enough to excavate Arles-Rhône 3.

Then 2011 arrived. It hardly snowed in the Alps that winter; that spring it barely rained. The Rhône’s current was so gentle that Marlier’s team got in the water by early May. The visibility that month reached an almost unheard of five feet. Marlier, who managed her anxiety about diving in the Rhône by never straying from the barge, saw for the first time that she’d been working for four years right next to an abandoned car. Her team worked straight into November, losing only a single week to bad weather—and completed the job. “Two hours after we finished,” Poinard said, “the Rhône became undivable for the whole winter.”

Late in the field season, as restorers from ARC-Nucléart were disassembling the bow of the boat on the quay, they found a silver denarius the size of a dime. The boat’s builder had sealed the coin between two planks; it was meant to bring good luck. And it did—2,000 years later.

When Arles-Rhône 3 sank, it was carrying 33 tons of building stones. They were flat, irregular slabs of limestone, from three to six inches thick. They had come from a quarry at St. Gabriel, less than ten miles north of Arles, and were probably headed toward a construction site on the right bank or in the Camargue, the marshy farmland south of Arles. The boat was pointed upstream, though, rather than downstream, indicating it had been tied up at the quay when it sank. A flash flood had probably swamped it.

As the flood subsided, the cloud of sediment it had kicked up settled out of the water again, draping the barge in a layer of fine clay no more than eight inches thick. In that clay, in contact with the boat, Marlier and her team found the crew’s personal effects. A sickle they’d used to chop fuel for their cooking fire, with a few wood splinters next to the blade. A dolium, or large clay jar, cut in half to serve as a hibachi, with charcoal in the bottom. A plate and a gray pitcher that belonged to the same man—both bore the initials AT. “That’s what’s exceptional about this boat,” said Marlier. “We’re missing the captain at the helm. But otherwise we have everything.” The mast, with its traces of wear from the towropes, is to her the most precious find.

To that snapshot of the boat, the nearly 1,200 cubic yards of mud and Roman trash that eventually buried it add a kind of time-lapse image of the commerce that was Arles. In the museum’s dim basement, Djaoui and I walked down long aisles of amphorae, many with their necks sliced off. “All this will have to be studied,” he said, with a trace of ambivalence. The dump is almost too rich; the archaeologists had already placed 130 tons of ceramic sherds back in the riverbed, in the hole left by the boat. I asked Djaoui about the building stones that had started the whole story. They were too heavy for the restored boat, he said; replicas were being used. Djaoui took me out behind the museum. The stones were there, next to a large trash bin, awaiting their own return to the river.