This Ashmolean exhibition tells the extraordinary story of Sicily, an island at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. For 2500 years, it was where great ancient civilisations met and fought. Its rich culture has been influenced by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Normans.
Curator of the collection Dr Alexandra Sofroniew with an ancient Greek helmet
By James Masterson
Over 200 artefacts, neatly presented across three large rooms, make up the 'Storms, Wars and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas' exhibition at the Ashmolean. Remarkably, all bar one of these was raised from the Sicilian seabed over the last 100 years - initially by fisherman, but now by increasingly specialist marine archaeologists. Sure signs of a wreck as a diver descends to collect a selection of amphorae
This collection of remarkably preserved items is well worth a visit. Everyone will have their favourite item - from the battering rams involved in the history-defining Battle of the Egadi Islands (241BC), to the life-size bronze of an elephant's leg. Perhaps the most poignant is a fragment of a Greek anchor found off the Favignana Islands (themselves just off the Western tip of Sicily). Clearly written across it is the word Ευπλοια (Eyploia) - Ancient Greek for 'Fair Voyage'. This one word attests to the fact that all mariners want fair voyages, but sometimes their luck runs out. From their misfortune come many of our sources of invaluable historic information. Anchors are the equivalent of pottery fragments for the maritime archaeologist: they act as the very life blood of their, often fruitless, searches. Frequently they are the only evidence of human activity on and under the sea bed - everything else has either disintegrated or quite literally sailed away. Warship ram being lifted from the bottom of the Mediterranean
Spanning a period of 2,500 years, the collection charts seven shipwrecks through the ages around the island. These stunning finds are the focus of the exhibition. In the penultimate room we are offered the crescendo: the beautifully grand remains of a 'ready fit' or 'flat pack' church, complemented by suitable religious chant music. However, the overall awe then disappointingly tapers out with the final display of largely underwhelming mediaeval artefacts which, at points, consciously address the 'happy' co-existence of Jews, Muslims and Christians on the island. This, alongside the politically poisonous atmosphere in British politics at present, gives the unfortunate impression that this section has perhaps more to do with adding a contemporary relevance to the timeless story of migration. However, such quibbles should in no way detract from the majesty and mystery of the thoughtfully put together collection.A diver ascending with a Greek Corinthian helmet from around 500BC
Such exhibitions are recognition of how much this burgeoning specialism is increasing in importance and visibility. Technological advances have made the sea around us more accessible, leading to increased discoveries. Maritime archaeology as a discipline is in good health both locally and globally. Garnering sympathetic press coverage on what seems like an almost daily basis: you can regularly read about multiple finds and the (generally well informed) speculation attached to them.A sword in its scabbard from the fifth century AD
Concurrently two flagship English museums are running headline exhibitions focused on underwater finds. The British Museum's first major exhibition on the subject, 'Sunken Cities' is on a grand scale with items mainly from Egypt's north coast. Damian Robinson, Director of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology, was an instrumental member of the crew for both these excavations and the presentation of them. A warship ram from the Battle of the Egadi Islands
The Oxford exhibition itself is an enlarged relocation of the original showing in the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam. Bringing this to the Ashmolean was helped by St John's College lecturer (and former J. Paul Getty Museum staff member) Dr Alexandra Sofroniew, whose intimate knowledge of the island no doubt played a crucial role in setting this in motion. There is however a bigger picture - this is the first of a Europe-wide initiative across museums and research institutions and can only help but further raise the profile of maritime discoveries across the continent and worldwide. Whilst Honor Frost, a former Ruskin School of Art student and one of the earliest avocational underwater archaeologists, is also honoured in passing. Yet despite this burgeoning recognition maritime archaeology as a qualification does not even exist at graduate level in Oxford, being instead a specialist research area within the School of Archaeology. 400 – 300BC Anchor inscribed with the word Ευπλοια
As mentioned earlier all bar one item in the exhibition has been raised from the sea in the last century. The exception is a ceramic boat, which was possibly a child's funerary gift; Images of the sea are not uncommon land finds around the Mediterranean through the ages; both because of the seas economic possibilities and its perceived role in carrying someone on their final journey to the afterlife. This exhibition may have a similar afterlife - inspiring many to experience these sites in situ. But hopefully with increased respect and awareness future explorers will take only photos and leave only bubbles, leaving the retrieval process to the new experts.
Storms, War and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas is at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (01865 278000), until September 25
Images © Oxford University Images, Ashmolean Musuem