Built for river commerce in the first century A.D., a 102-foot-long Roman barge was lifted in 2011 from the Rhône River in Arles, France. Virtually intact after two millennia in the mud, the boat went on display last fall in the local antiquities museum. A marble Neptune, also found in the river, watches over it.<br>
Built for river commerce in the first century A.D., a 102-foot-long Roman barge was lifted in 2011 from the Rhône River in Arles, France. Virtually intact after two millennia in the mud, the boat went on display last fall in the local antiquities museum. A marble Neptune, also found in the river, watches over it.
Composite image; Musée Départemental Arles Antique

Romans in France

An ancient wreck tells the tale of Romans in France.

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.

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