About the Exhibition

Dive into the past and discover the extraordinary story of the island at the crossroads of the Mediterranean through spectacular finds rescued from the sea by underwater archaeologists.

For 2500 years, Sicily was the place where the great powers of the ancient and medieval eras met and fought. Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans battled for control, with many of their ships sinking off the island’s rocky shores. Sicily’s azure waters have since become a focus for underwater exploration and dozens of shipwrecks have been recovered.

Immerse yourself in the world of the underwater archaeologist and explore the multicultural history of Sicily revealed through stunning and unusual artefacts brought up from the depths of the sea.

This major summer exhibition explores the roots of this multicultural heritage with over 200 spectacular and unusual objects rescued from the bottom of the sea. From bronze battering rams once mounted on the prows of Roman warships to the marble pieces of a Byzantine ‘flat-pack’ church; from intrepid prehistoric traders to the enlightened rule of the Norman kings, the exhibition illuminates the movement of peoples, goods and ideas.

The treasures on show in Storms, War and Shipwrecks have been uncovered over the last 60 years since the advent of SCUBA diving equipment which made possible sustained underwater exploration. While some of the objects are chance finds pulled up by local fishermen, most are from shipwrecks excavated by archaeological divers.

Pioneer of Underwater Archaeology, Honor Frost

One of the earliest pioneers of underwater archaeology, whose legacy is explored in the exhibition, was the remarkable British woman, Honor Frost (1917–2010). Frost trained as an artist in London and at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford and she spent the first part of her career working as a designer in ballet. But her enduring passion was for diving. In her book Under the Mediterranean (1963), she describes how she started out as a young woman by submerging herself in a well at a home in Wimbledon using a garden hose. Her mentor was the French archaeologist, Frédéric Dumas, who took Frost on her first dive to the wreck of a Roman ship at Anthéor on the south coast of France.

Dr Elena Flavia Castagnino Berlinghieri, marine archaeologist, gave a talk at the Ashmolean in September 2016 about Honor Frost. Follow this link to download or watch the lecture.

A Momentous Naval Battle

Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean and lying at the heart of historic maritime routes, is a leading centre for underwater archaeology. Eleven Roman and Carthaginian warship rams have been recovered near Levanzo, in the Egadi Islands off the northwestern coast, and these are one of the most important discoveries to date. These powerful weapons, mounted on the fronts of ships, were designed to plough into enemy vessels with great force.

Together with helmets and other debris, the rams are proof of the exact location of the Battle of the Egadi Islands fought between the Romans and the Carthaginians on 10 March 241 BC. In the exhibition we display several rams, with a digital reconstruction of the battle, bringing to life the victory of Rome over Carthage, an event that changed history and ensured Rome’s ultimate domination of the Mediterranean.

'Flat-Pack' Church

Another spectacular discovery on display is an example of a Byzantine ‘flat-pack’ church. The Emperor Justinian (c. 482-565), in his efforts to fortify and regulate Christianity across his empire, was a prolific builder of churches. Under his rule, based at Constantinople, large stone-carrying ships, laden with prefabricated marble church interiors were sent out from quarries around the Sea of Marmara (the ‘marble sea’) to sites in Italy and north Africa. Some of these ships never made it to their intended destination. Heavy and slow, they became unbalanced and sank during stormy weather.

Using a selection of pieces, we will reconstruct the church interior allowing visitors to experience the building which spent more than a thousand years on the sea-bed.

Exhibition Curators

Storms, War and Shipwrecks has been curated by Dr Paul Roberts, Keeper of the Department of Antiquities, and Dr Alexandra Sofroniew, Exhibition Curator at the Ashmolean Museum.

Exhibition Supporters

The exhibition has been organised by the COBBRA Museum Consortium in collaboration with the Soprintendenza per I Beni culturali e ambientali del Mare, Palermo

We are hugely grateful to The William Delafield Charitable Trust, the Honor Frost Foundation, the Patrons of the Ashmolean, the Luscinus Trust and the Italian Cultural Institute in London for their support of this exhibition. We are also grateful to The Creative Assembly UK, the makers of the Total War video games who have brought to life the Battle of the Egadi Islands with new footage created specially for the exhibition.